In May, about 30 eighth graders gathered around the large island in an Indianapolis kitchen to belt out “The sun’ll come out tomorrow” to celebrate a successful school production of “Annie.” About 60 parents cheered them on, spilling out onto the patio.
For Jayme Moss, the host who opened her home to the guests, the moment marked another milestone: Not a single dirty plate, tray or bowl tarnished the photos or videos. The sizable mess that comes from serving pasta and cake to a crowd of 90 was hidden in her back kitchen, a smaller room tucked behind the main one.
“Normally you take that picture or video and there would be stuff all over the kitchen,” Moss said. Instead, “everything was in the back.”
Last year she and her husband, Bradley Moss, finished renovating their 1929 French chateau-style home. Adjacent to their main kitchen — an open-concept space with fumed oak cabinets, a Viking stove and Calacatta countertops — they built a smaller one with a set of cabinets, a sink, an induction stove, an oven, an ice-maker and a convection microwave.
The back kitchen, in essence a pantry on overdrive, has become increasingly popular in recent years, according to architects, designers and homebuilders. It’s particularly desirable in new construction where floor plans are as flexible as wish lists. But gut an existing home to the studs, or add an addition, like the Moss family did, and room for a second cooking space emerges.
Back kitchens come with as many names as they do appliances: the dirty kitchen, the messy kitchen, the prep kitchen, the working kitchen and the scullery kitchen, to name a few. These auxiliary spaces reinvent the humble pantry as the hardworking engine of the house. With the dirty work happening offstage, the main kitchen can shine, an immaculate centerpiece to be marveled, not sullied by spaghetti sauce and sheet pans.
“I like a place that, quite frankly, looks like it’s not lived in,” said Jayme Moss, a co-founder and board member of Versapay, a financial technology company. Bradley Moss is the president and CEO of a medical testing lab in Indianapolis.
Their back kitchen is visible from their main one, with art deco brass and gold tiles peeking through an archway. In hindsight, Jayme Moss would like to see even less of it. “If I had to do it all over again, I’d like it to be where I couldn’t see it at all,” she said.
The ultrarich have long had their “Downton Abbey”-style chef kitchens, fully equipped industrial spaces, out of sight and the domain of caterers and personal cooks. But the back kitchen is not meant to replace the main kitchen. Nor is it the spare kitchen sometimes found in the basements of modest homes, used to roast Thanksgiving turkeys, make Sunday gravy or prepare Passover meals. It is instead an extension of the main kitchen, cropping up in new homes that cost from around $1 million to $5 million to build and in kitchen renovations with five- to six-figure budgets, according to builders and designers.
Emily Clark, who with her husband owns Clark & Co., a custom homebuilder in Idaho, has witnessed the evolution of the pantry over the past decade. As the open-concept kitchen evolved into an extension of the living room — with open shelves and windows replacing upper cabinets, and kitchen islands looking increasingly like dining furniture rather than working countertops — the pantry has been given an increasingly bigger role, too, re-imagined as a well-appointed and highly stylized room for prepping, cooking and cleaning.
“Once you start expanding and adding the dishwasher, then it’s like, ‘Well, what if I put a baking center back there?’” Clark said.
Cloistered away in a private workspace, “I can prep my cookies and put them in the oven with all of the measuring cups and mixing bowls. And then I can bring my beautiful warm cookies out of the oven into my serving kitchen,” she said.
The supersize comeback
Amanda Lantz, an interior designer in Indiana, said that every one of her new construction projects included a back kitchen, a marked change from 2019, when none had one. She sees the coronavirus pandemic as a catalyst.
“People were stocking up more. You were cooking more, you were using your kitchen more,” she said, referring to the height of the pandemic. “So then, when they’ve gone to build the next house, they’ve felt that they don’t have enough space.”
Homeowners want the pantry to look pretty, too. After all, home organizing has become a competitive sport — cue Khloe Kardashian’s backlit beige pantry, a shrine to packaged goods. The expectations are now high for a room that once housed brooms and large packages from Costco.
“People want to walk in and shop their pantry,” Clark, the homebuilder, said.
While some people may have duplicate sets of cookware for both spaces, most tend to use the pantry for dedicated tasks, doubling up on only a few items, like spatulas. Maybe the induction stovetop in the back is the children’s domain, while the Viking gas one is for the parents, as is the case in the Moss household. Or perhaps the second refrigerator stores drinks and frozen goods while the one in the front is for fresh produce.
Butler’s pantries have a long history in kitchen design, popular in late 19th-century and early 20th-century homes, when the upper class used them as staging areas for staffers and storage for fine china. But they faded from fashion in the postwar era. Now, as they make a supersize comeback, Tiffany Skilling, who designed the Moss family home and specializes in historic renovations, sees the moment as a nod to the stately homes of the past.
This generation of homeowners may be coming around to the idea that separate rooms are not such a bad idea.
“I always tell everyone, break it up into different tasks,” she said.
Building two kitchens is not cheap. Costs vary depending on the quality of the finishes and appliances, generally ranging from $25,000 to $50,000, according to designers. The Mosses spent around $300,000 on their main kitchen and about $60,000 on the back one.
In 2020, Holly and Craig VonDemfange built a $1.4 million house, designed by Clark & Co., near Boise, Idaho. Holly VonDemfange estimates that the open-concept kitchen and pantry were the most expensive parts of the project. Their main kitchen, with white cabinets and a 12-foot-wide oven hood, is in the center of their 4,000-square-foot house. But the pantry, hidden behind a pocket door, is where a lot of the action happens.
“The kids pull out the air fryer and put a couple of tacos in there,” said Holly VonDemfange, a business lead at Meta. “It is as used, if not more,” as the big kitchen, she said. Craig VonDemfange, is the founder and CEO of a virtual accounting and bookkeeping service.
Drawback or ‘fabulous’?
Stuff enough gadgets and appliances into a second kitchen and at some point it cannibalizes the main one. Cathy Purple Cherry, the principal of Purple Cherry Architects, with offices in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, has seen this happen in the new homes she designs. If the induction stove is in the back and it’s easier to use than the gas one out front, at some point, you may start doing all the cooking back there. Cherry witnessed this when she had dinner at a client’s new house in Annapolis, Maryland. The host spent much of the evening out of sight in the back kitchen, cooking steaks, while Cherry waited for her to emerge.
“When you bring that stove element to the back, you have to watch out, because it can actually draw you away from the socialization that happens around the kitchen,” she said. To avoid that risk, Cherry discourages her clients from adding a cooktop to the back kitchen. But homeowners don’t always listen.
When Kelly Ladwig and Suzie Stolarz were designing their 4,300-square-foot house in Nashville, Tennessee, their architect was initially skeptical of the concept of a back kitchen.
“He didn’t quite understand what we wanted to do,” Ladwig said. “His reaction was: ‘Well, it’s your house. Are you sure you don’t want to use this for something else?’ But then as we started designing it, he was like, ‘This is fabulous.’” They call the space the dirty kitchen, and it houses a second oven, a second refrigerator and freezer, a microwave, a sink and a dishwasher.
In the year since the couple moved into the new house, the dirty kitchen has become a central fixture in their daily lives. In the mornings, Ladwig, a real estate agent, makes coffee and feeds the two dogs in the back kitchen. The three cats eat their meals in the main kitchen. In the evenings, when Stolarz, a dentist, comes home from work, she dumps her purse and the groceries in the back kitchen.
“It’s a kitchen for the kitchen,” said Ladwig, who estimates that together, the two kitchens accounted for about $400,000 of their $1.45 million building costs.
‘A kitchenette on steroids’
The popularity of back kitchens is difficult to track, with terms like “butler’s pantry” and “second kitchen” turning up in only about 1% of listings on Zillow. Most municipalities have rules prohibiting two kitchens in separate parts of the same single-family home because of the risk that homeowners might illegally rent out part of the house as an apartment. But a back kitchen can skirt such restrictions if it is defined as part of a single, large kitchen.
“The second kitchen is always referred to as a kitchenette,” said Douglas C. Wright, a New York City architect. “It’s a kitchenette on steroids.”
Michelle and Greg Barry have become so accustomed to the back kitchen in their Rumson, New Jersey, home that they’re having a hard time accepting that they might have to forgo one in Miami, where they moved last spring.
“We’re stuck looking for a house with two kitchens in Miami because we’re so spoiled here,” said Michelle Barry, who is currently renting a house in Miami with a tight galley kitchen. So far, they have not had any luck finding their dream double kitchen in a Florida market that Barry described as “insane.” In 2017 the Barrys, who own a luxury vacation rental company, spent $2 million renovating their 5,000-square-foot home on the Jersey Shore, removing a second staircase to make room for the back kitchen, which they call the “messy kitchen.” They call the front kitchen, which opens to the dining area and overlooks the water, the “pretty kitchen.” The pretty kitchen has an island with a waterfall countertop, sleek cabinets and a gas range. The messy one has a second refrigerator, a second dishwasher, an electric range, a microwave and all the countertop appliances. The property is listed for $5.5 million.
The two kitchens never felt like separate spaces to the Barrys, but instead like workstations that flowed together. Last spring, the couple had friends over for a Mediterranean night with chicken, lamb and beef kebabs.
“Some people were cutting peppers and zucchini, others were making salads,” Greg Barry said. “Everyone was just kind of working as a team but was able to spread out.”
When the couple’s children were still living at home, the family of five would often find themselves cooking in tandem, moving between rooms from the air fryer to the griddle to the stove, and pulling food from the refrigerators in both spaces.
“If you cook and you enjoy cooking and you hate clutter, it’s kind of the perfect thing,” Michelle Barry said, adding, “For us, as a family that cooks together, it’s a really important part of our life.”