European butlers often slept there as they were responsible for keeping the silverware under lock and key. But, while most Kiwis’ budgets don’t run to employing a butler, the butler’s pantry has become a must in many new houses.
In Victorian times, a butler’s pantry was used primarily to store serving items rather than food and for storing, cleaning and counting the silverware. These days the plethora of gadgets found in the modern kitchen has not just revived the concept of the butler’s pantry, but given it a new lease of life.
These pantries can be anything from 2.5 metres by 3.5m to as small as 2.5m by 1m. Inside are found many of the gadgets that the household cook traditionally complains about rarely using, because they are so difficult to reach in the back of cupboards or on high shelves.
Now they line up on the butler’s pantry bench, permanently plugged in for immediate action – food mixers, bread makers, toasters, even domestic espresso machines. “The concept turns the pantry into a semi-commercial kitchen,” says Warren Smith, of Kitchencraft. “Island benches [in the main kitchen] are like the front of house.”
Keen foodies, he says, like to be able to shut the food preparation areas off from the open plan living areas.
“They are performers in the kitchen and the central island becomes a stage for plating up and serving. The pantry is becoming like a production line, like a hotel kitchen. The wine fridge might be in there. Some have a single dishwash drawer, maybe for glasses.
“A lot of people put in a large sink bowl to wash platter plates. Hors d’oeuvres can be prepared and left in the pantry with the doors closed until they served.”
Open shelving for cooking utensils, crockery and glassware gives the pantry a commercial flavour. And it’s essential to provide fluorescent or LED lighting under the shelves to illuminate the bench space.
Warren has designed a butler’s pantry for a professional chef’s home, including a sizeable bookcase area that stores dozens of cook books so “it can be a little library”.
Menu and notice boards can be hung on the wall, and the use of glass splashbacks on the benches provides a place to draw notes on. “Things you want to hide away, such as pet food bowls, can be stored and kids’ school bags can be hung in there.”
Warren advocates a 3m by 1.2m structure. This provides enough room for four people to be seated around the three edges of one end, while the sink is out of the way at the other end. It’s an alternative to having people sitting in a row on one side facing the washing-up area. “People can eat their dinner there. The island has a dual purpose.”
Another trend is developing to cater for an ageing population, Warren says. “Because people physically can’t get down on their knees or have other mobility problems, more gadgetry is being used”.
Pantries with chrome shelving units, which can be pulled out in one movement, are being installed in older people’s houses. And a crafty invention – the corner drawer – is cut to fit into a bench corner. The drawer front is split into two to butt into each other when opened and fold back flush with each bench side when closed.
The arrangement allows things such as plates to be stored at kitchen bench height, ideal for people with mobility problems.
The butler’s pantry has become the norm for architect-designed houses or during the renovation of large old villas, but Warren says “the average home renovation doesn’t usually have the room for it”.
There are various guises for the butler’s pantry, depending on a person’s sense of hierarchy. The most aristocratic term is a “butler’s pantry”, whether or not a butler is employed.
However the scullery, as a term for a pantry, has also made a comeback. It was traditionally used for washing dishes or laundering clothes, or as an overflow kitchen when the main kitchen was overloaded.
The space is more commonly referred to in North America as a utility or laundry room, and the term remains in modern use as an alternative for a kitchen in some northern regions of Britain.
However, as the butler’s pantry has, the scullery has also become a fashionable term in modern designer kitchens. For those less concerned about protocol, the everyday term “walk-in pantry” suffices.
Over the years, the pantry has gained a certain amount of notoriety. Raiding them was often a common theme in children’s literature. One of the most famous incidents occurred when Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer had to whitewash his Aunt Polly’s fence after sneaking into the jam in her pantry.Aside from its practical utilitarian functions, the domestic pantry is surrounded with considerable nostalgia dating back to the great houses of Britain and America, and now being lovingly embraced by 21st-century households.