Jet-setting designer, business powerhouse, mother, fashion icon and CNZM honours recipient, Karen Walker can also add passionate cook to her extensive list of achievements. The kitchen in her Ponsonby house is the heart of the home, and Karen is the principal cook.
Designed by Auckland-based architect David Ponting, the kitchen remains as it was when Karen and her partner in life and work Mikhail Gherman bought the house nearly nine years ago and moved in along with their daughter Valentina – Laika the dog, an Australian labradoodle, came later. “We didn’t change a thing,” she says. “In terms of form and function, the kitchen really does its job and everything works for me.”
The light-filled kitchen is the focal point of a large, open-plan room that includes a living/family area to the right – which opens to the swimming pool outside – and a separate dining area to the left with space for the eight-seater table. A second set of doors leads outside to a much-used dining table.
“The layout means you can engage with people without them being under your feet. I can keep an eye on my daughter when she’s in the pool and there’s an easy flow to the outside dining table,” Karen says.
The long marble-topped kitchen island – which holds the sink – faces the room, with the oven and pantry cupboards, crockery and pot drawers on the wall behind. Three bar stools, designed by Jamie McLellan, line this front bench and it is here that the majority of family eating and entertaining happens.
Cooking, she says, was something she had to learn as opposed to being taught as a child. “I grew to love it very quickly – the joy of crafting something, putting love into it and seeing people enjoy it – the creative aspect.” Surprisingly, she is a recipe follower, not a deviator: “Someone else has already done the hard yards. Just follow it and it will work. That’s my philosophy on cooking.”
Karen’s entertaining style is “intimate and infrequent” involving a “couple of friends over for risotto and gone by 10pm.” She is not a starched-white-tablecloth entertainer and will host a dinner party around the eight-seater dininig table “maybe once a year,” – she doesn’t do mixed dinner parties with people who don’t know each other either.
With a hectic work schedule that regularly includes travel, Karen understandably relishes mealtimes at home with just the family. “The dream is a quiet dinner, in bed by 8.30pm,” she says.
On the weekends she likes to experiment and will happily try something new but on weeknights, “I keep it simple… I really only cook seasonally.”
Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbooks are her current favourite – “he can be tricky, but he rewards you” – with Dish contributor Sarah Tuck’s Coming Unstuck another regular. “I’ve made loads of things out of this cookbook and they’re all really good.”
Her tipple of choice is Storm & India’s Vintage Earl Grey Tea. “I drink it by the bucket load – I buy it by the kilo.” This love affair led to a collaboration between the designer and the brand, which produced the Storm & India x Karen Walker Runaway Tea (dubbed a Romantic Earl Grey) and the blush pink tin it is sold in.
Similar collaborations have included The Caker x Karen Walker cookie kits created in conjunction with Jordan Rondel, founder and owner of Auckland-based bakery, The Caker. On the day Dish visits, a fresh batch of said cookies are stacked in a glass and gold Filigree Cake Stand from the Karen Walker Homeware range.
Following in her mother’s footsteps Valentina, at age 10, has started baking independently and is particularly fond of Bill Granger’s chocolate pecan cookies, which she has mastered.
When asked, “is there anything people would be surprised to know about you?”, Karen replies: “Despite being an almost lifelong vegetarian, I roast a really good chicken. I use Bill Granger’s three-hour slow-roast recipe and I’m told they’re astonishingly good.”
What five things are always in your fridge?
1. Fizzy water, thanks to the much-used KitchenAid Sparkling Beverage Maker.
2. Whittaker’s chocolate, in dark, milk, pear and salted caramel.
3. Cheese, which she regularly buys from The Dairy just around the corner in Ponsonby Central.
4. Quince paste, homemade by a friend and paired with the cheese.
5. Champagne, “in case someone pops round unexpectedly.”
What are your favourite appliances?
1. Le Creuset casserole. “This is one of the most used items in the kitchen.”
2. Miele dishwasher. “We replaced it this year with the same model as it’s used so much. It’s completely silent whereas others can be so noisy that they dominate the space.”
3. Vitamix blender. Karen uses this for smoothies, sauces and baking recipes. “I’ll say, ‘this conversation has to stop while it’s going,’ but I can see why they are legendary.”
4. KitchenAid Sparkling Beverage Maker. Used to make fizzy water, this is the only appliance on show in Karen’s kitchen as it is used constantly.