How To Entertain In A Small Kitchen

Tricks for entertaining in a shoebox space

Like many New Yorkers, I use my oven for storage space. Not for shoes, but for baking sheets, muffin and madeleine tins, roasting pans and cooling racks. There's so much stuff stashed in there that it's a bit of a production to even turn the oven on, which, in the heat of summer, I try to avoid entirely (see below). I suppose that's just part of having a small kitchen: Everything is multipurpose.

My kitchen—actually on the spacious side by Manhattan standards—is around 48 luxurious square feet. When my husband and I first moved in, there was just one postage-stamp-sized counter wedged between the sink and the stove, a miniature sink, a few small cabinets, no pantry and no drawers. It did have a fairly new gas oven and stove and a tiny dishwasher, which motivated me to try and make it work.

Given the kitchen's shortcomings of storage and counter space, it was crucial that we create more of both. Since an actual renovation was out of the question, we bought an old wooden wardrobe that became the pantry (with space to stack pots and pans on top), a metro rack with a butcher block countertop that doubles as storage for appliances and counter space, and an old bookshelf which my husband re-fashioned into a bar (to pair with the two bar stools we found on the street). Suddenly we had more counter space, as well as a place to plate food or serve drinks when we have dinner parties.

Space and storage issues aside, cooking in a small kitchen does have a few advantages: You move less, and everything's within easy reach. You'd be amazed at how many top restaurants have miniscule kitchens. Here are a few things to keep in mind when cooking for a dinner party in a tiny kitchen.

Bowls are the new black. | Photo: Elise Inman

Be prepared! My philosophy is always to do as much ahead as you can, but even more so in a small kitchen, as you simply don't have the space to cook more than one (maybe two) things at a time. Plan out what you can make ahead of time (a dessert, for example), write out a to-do list and work accordingly.

Bowls are your new best friends. When prepping ingredients, I keep a stack of bowls near my cutting board: smaller ones for chopped vegetable, shallots or garlic, and a larger one for trash (onion peels, egg shells, fruit pits, etc.). Having a place to throw scraps right by the cutting board saves so much time—just dump (or compost) it when full and start over.

Think outside the kitchen. When I'm cooking for a crowd, I have to get creative about where to put everything. In the midst of preparing my first Thanksgiving meal in my apartment, my tiny kitchen quickly turned into a war zone of dirty pots and pans, and I couldn't keep up with both the dishes and the cooking. One of my friends came up with the brilliant idea of stashing the dirty dishes in the bathtub. We pulled the curtain and carried on with the meal. Nobody knew our little secret, and once the party was over, I got to work scrubbing. If you don't have a bathtub, use a closet or spare grocery bag. If you run out of kitchen counter space for prep, use a table or desk—I've been known to plug in my stand mixer on the bathroom counter.

When it's scorching outside, leave the oven off. I recently had a party and thought it would be a great idea to serve a summery menu of Dijon-honey roasted salmon with a quinoa vegetable salad and a peach-blackberry crumble...all of which required the oven. I got started on everything mid-afternoon, and even though I turned the oven off an hour before guests arrived (and turned the AC on full-blast), the apartment felt like a sauna and I was a sweaty mess. Lesson learned: Make the food the day before, or, better yet, assemble a simple, (nearly) no-cook spread like prosciutto-wrapped cantaloupe, the perfect caprese and an asparagus and arugula salad with miso-lemon vinaigrette.

Clean as you go. I cannot over-emphasize the importance of this in a small kitchen. As soon as you complete a recipe, wash everything immediately—both to eliminate counter clutter and because you'll probably need to reuse tools. And make sure there's at least one counter clean for plating or buffet-style serving before guests arrive.