¡Sí Se Puede!

How I survived a kitchen remodel over the holidays (and my husband lived to tell the tale)

Before: Cooking with Mom, Christmas Eve 2006. Notice awful cabinets and cool chef’s hat (she’s going to kill me for this).
Before: Cooking with Mom, Christmas Eve 2006. Notice awful cabinets and cool chef’s hat (she’s going to kill me for this). (Photo by Will Larson)

In December 2000, Will and I bought a 1949 fixer-upper in South Austin. We looked past the termite damage, drab paint job, and dated cabinetry to envision a cute, slightly Mexicanized cottage surrounded by gardens. Like many first-time homeowners, we had high hopes for the future but very little money. We were able to do little things here and there, such as painting walls, restoring a couple of old windows, adding insulation, fixing roof leaks, and planting a small kitchen garden. But the abysmal state of the kitchen, with the washer and dryer on the tiny back porch, covered by a tin roof lean-to, was a source of frustration and embarrassment for this picky cook.

After: I can’t believe we did this. Is this my house?
After: I can’t believe we did this. Is this my house? (Photo by John Anderson)

The kitchen cabinets were made using what looked like scrap plywood, put together with rusty nails and glue (1949 must have been a tough economic year). The cheap cabinets were easily accessible to vermin. The walls were never insulated, so in the winter, we had to warm our dinnerware in the microwave, and in the summer, we had to rinse it with cold water. The first washer imploded after being outside during a hard freeze, and washer No. 2 was beginning to make unnatural sounds. Finding a baby possum in the cabinet under the sink almost made me crazy. A mouse eating the handmade Oaxacan chocolate I had in the pantry finally sealed the deal – we had to do something about the kitchen!

Will and I had been daydreaming on paper about what to do to the house for a long time. With his training in fine arts and drafting, Will would ease my suffering with amazing renditions of my dream kitchen. "The dishwasher will be here, next to the sink. The island can be here, and you can make that your prep station. I'll convert the pantry into a laundry closet." Dishwasher? Island? Laundry closet? Believe me, there's no better aphrodisiac for a cook than a husband who murmurs these words as he points to a lovingly drawn sketch of your kitchen. However, all talk and no action eventually made Claudia a very unhappy cook. I couldn't help but remember the trip to Disneyland my mother promised my brother and me every year that never happened. I declared never to cook again until I had a decent kitchen.

Will on bathtub dish duty, hating it
Will on bathtub dish duty, hating it (Photo by Claudia Alarcón)

I didn't exactly stick to my declaration, but last summer I finally talked Will into remodeling the kitchen. We enlisted our friend Keith McNabb, a builder and contractor, to help us calculate the cost of the remodel. With a bid in hand, we were able to apply for a loan, refinancing our mortgage through another friend, Robert Malina with PrimeLending. His expert advice and efficient staff made it possible for us to get a hassle-free loan relatively quickly at a rate we could actually afford. With the first check in hand, we returned to McNabb for a step-by-step building plan and construction schedule. At last, my dream kitchen was going from drawings to reality.

The tiny back porch would be demolished and the space enclosed into the kitchen; the foundation would be reinforced and new piers and beams installed for the addition. Ancient plumbing and wiring had to be replaced. We'd get new appliances, cabinets, countertops, windows, Sheetrock, insulation, lighting, tile, and paint. The living and dining rooms would get wall insulation, fresh paint, and refinished flooring. To save money, Will and I would do as much of the work as possible ourselves. We rented a nearby storage unit for our furniture and the infinite boxes of kitchen stuff we couldn't cram into the guest room, saving only the bare necessities to survive through the winter.

Destruction in progress
Destruction in progress (Photo by Claudia Alarcón)

Demolishing those ugly-ass cabinets was cathartic. I swung the sledgehammer happily, thinking of all the roaches, mice, and baby possums that would now have to stick to the back yard. We awoke at 6:30 the next morning to the sounds of whirring saws and banging hammers. The framing crew was taking down walls and building the addition. I left the house around 10am. By the time I returned in the afternoon, the framing was complete, the inside walls were gone, and men were working on the roof.

Before the contractors installed electric outlets and plumbing, I had to decide on the final layout of the kitchen. Contractors know a lot about construction, but these guys knew nothing about how I want to cook. I wanted a functional kitchen, not a stock model from a cookie-cutter home, so I called on another friend for advice. Ann Clark is not only an accomplished cooking teacher and cookbook author; she also has more than 20 years of experience as Austin's kitchen designer extraordinaire. Due to budget constraints, my consultation with her was brief but invaluable. She counseled me on things I had not even considered, such as the ideal spacing for toe kicks under the cabinets to avoid back pain and the distance between island, stove, fridge, and sink, to make the kitchen more efficient. You might think you know what you're doing, but believe me: When embarking on a project like this, I strongly recommend getting help from someone who really knows her stuff. Thank you forever, Ann.

Cooking in the old kitchen for the last time. Only half the cabinets remained. The sink was gone.
Cooking in the old kitchen for the last time. Only half the cabinets remained. The sink was gone. (Photo by Will Larson)

During the remodel, we moved the flat-screen TV to base camp (our bedroom) and covered the doors and entryways with thick plastic sheeting to protect us from the Sheetrock dust that covered everything. The vents were shut off in order not to disperse said dust, so we tried to spend as little time as possible in the disaster area during cold periods. Our movable, makeshift kitchen consisted of a small shelving unit with a microwave, a couple of kitchen towels, two sets of plates, coffee cups, wine glasses, water glasses, and silverware. We left the kitchen table as the eating/prep surface, with the butcher block and a kitchen knife on top and two chairs on the side. The buffet held the water filter and toaster oven, the coffeemaker, a roll of paper towels, kosher salt, the pepper grinder, and a jar of dehydrated garlic flakes. The fridge sat in the dining room. As we worked, we would move the "kitchen" (including the fridge) from the addition to the living or dining area and back, as needed. "It will be like camping out," Will said, romantically.

Sure enough, the adventure was fun at first. After a long day of remodeling, we would order dinner from Saigon Kitchen – my fave Vietnamese restaurant in South Austin – and eat with chopsticks on the bed. A warm bowl of clear noodles with shrimp and roast pork in a savory broth or the addictive beef chunk steak with lettuce and tomato served with steamed rice was always welcome. Bistro Le Marseillais delivered weekly, so on Tuesday nights I'd bring a bottle of wine, and we would enjoy an actual gourmet dinner. Alternatively, we indulged in a secret guilty pleasure: chicken flautas dipped in queso from Taco Cabana. Charcoal-grilled chickens from El Pollo Regio came in handy more than once, as did Central Market's prepared "dinners for two." During busy workdays, the Delaware Sub Shop around the corner was a lifesaver. When we cooked, the staples were canned soups, sandwiches, and the occasional beef stew in the Crock-Pot.

Prepping Xmas Eve dinner, 2007
Prepping Xmas Eve dinner, 2007 (Photo by Will Larson)

After the first wave of excitement wore off, however, the reality of not having a kitchen, living room, or dining room through the whole winter set in. Will's dish-washing chores moved to the bathtub, and dishes had to be rinsed daily to rid them of Sheetrock dust. Laundry was piling up, so I started showing up at our friends' houses on Sundays to watch Steelers games bearing micheladas and two loads of laundry (multitasking is of the essence while remodeling). I tried to stay positive – after all, it was poor Will who crawled under the house, slithering in cold mud to replace the ancient plumbing, not me. But as the holidays approached, I became anxious. I am quite the Christmas dork who really enjoys decorating the house with lights and garland and putting up a tree. This year there would be none of that. I would not be able to make Christmas presents from my kitchen. Baking cookies and drying orange slices was out of the question in this mess.

Christmas Eve in Mexico City is a big deal, and being far away from home at that special time is hard enough for me. When our invitation to spend the holidays with friends fell through, depression set in faster than you can say fruitcake. Aware of my fragile state of mind, Will came through to save Christmas. He hung the outdoor lights, moved one of his steel sculptures to the front lawn and draped it with lights, and dug the Christmas CDs out from under the bed. With renewed holiday spirit, I bought a poinsettia from a friend whose daughter was raising funds for her cheerleading squad and found the big candles among the heaps of stuff in the guest room. At that point, nothing was going to stop me from cooking a traditional Mexico City Christmas Eve dinner, so I dug out the portable butane stove and got to work.

Close to dinnertime, Xmas Eve 2007
Close to dinnertime, Xmas Eve 2007 (Photo by Will Larson)

We played Christmas music on Will's jam box and spent the day prepping, cooking, and snacking on wonderful pâtés and spreads from Le Marseillais while sipping glasses of wine. I made all my beloved traditional Christmas Eve dishes: piquant shrimp consommé with diced carrots and potatoes; Vizcaine-style salt cod stewed with tomatoes, onions, garlic, capers, olives, and almond slivers; and shredded chicken in Oaxacan mole (I always keep some mole paste in the fridge for times like these) served with crusty bolillos from El Fenix. Cooking this feast was challenging due to space constraints and lack of proper utensils and a sink, but dinner turned out fine. I had to use shortcuts – frozen and canned veggies, shrimp bouillon cubes – but the results were quite all right. We dined by candlelight in the cold dining room and opened presents at base camp. It was lovely.

By January, however, I was losing it again. The electrician disappeared for days on end without finishing the job, leaving us without electricity in the kitchen for nearly two weeks. Will went from doing the dishes in the bathtub to showering with the dishes. (He claimed there was "something Zen about it"; I say he was losing his mind.) I started tiling the floor, a skill I learned from my ex-husband, John (we made our living as tile setters for about a year and a half). Although I had not tiled in years, one call to J.D. gave me the info and confidence I needed. Will was my assistant, cutting tiles, changing the water in the bucket, and rinsing my tools. But soon enough I realized tiling floors at 43 is not the same as tiling floors at 33. My entire body ached; my knees were scraped raw, my wrists swollen to the size of boxing gloves. By the time I finished laying the floor in semidarkness, I was in tears.

Tiling the kitchen floor. I’m not crying yet.
Tiling the kitchen floor. I’m not crying yet. (Photo by Will Larson)

Once the floor was done, it was time for cabinets. We had considered IKEA, but in the end, it was just a few dollars more to have them delivered, assembled, and installed. We did buy the countertops from IKEA and installed them ourselves. The same lengths of solid-oak butcher block were less expensive than the cheap laminate particleboard counters from Home Depot and Lowe's. I couldn't go another day without appliances, so after much comparison-shopping, we settled on Giant Discount Appliances on North Lamar – they sell slightly dented and refurbished name-brand appliances at great prices. We got a Frigidaire stainless-steel stove, fridge, and dishwasher, plus an Energy Star-approved stackable washer and dryer for less than $1,000, delivered. We also got city of Austin rebates for the fridge, washer, and dryer. (Always be sure to check out this program when replacing appliances.) We painted the walls bright Mexican cobalt blue (poor Will) and added wood trim in chocolate brown. Finally, we unpacked the kitchen and ran our first loads of laundry and dishes. We hooted and hollered and made a toast: ¡Sí se puede!

Now, we cook together almost every night. I work on the stove side of the island, Will on the fridge side. He keeps the wine glasses full and provides appetizers while I prep and cook.

When taking on a project of this magnitude, thorough research and use of every available resource is the key to success. We are grateful that we had friends in the right places. Without them, it would have been twice as hard. Now, when people come over, they are amazed at the difference in our house. No longer embarrassed by the kitchen, I am proud to say I created it myself. We entertain now, and the kitchen is our gathering space, the heart and soul of the home, as it should be.


Loan: Robert Malina, PrimeLending Austin, 2705 Bee Caves Rd. #130, 381-4657. www.primeaustin.com.

Design: Ann Clark Kitchen Design, 327-4092. aclarkkd@mac.com.

Appliances: Giant Discount Appliances, 7521 N. Lamar, 454-7979. www.giantappliances.com.

Tile: Dollar Tile, 10812 S. I-35, 708-8453.

City Rebate Program: www.austinenergy.com, 974-7827.

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kitchen remodel, holidays, PrimeLending, Giant Discount Appliances, Ann Clark, IKEA, Saigon Kitchen, Bistro Le Marseillais, Christmas Eve, Austin Energy

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