THE KITCHEN originally included a breakfast nook, but the home's previous owners had removed the table and built-in benches. "It was a big open space," Valento says. "When the kids were young, we fit a good-sized table and chairs in there, and we'd all squeeze around it. We used it as a nook, but it wasn't comfortable like a nook." At the Valentos' urging, Keith Johnson rebuilt the original nook, creating a cantilevered table and two comfortable built-in benches, with space underneath the hinged seats for recycling and storage.
"THE VALENTOS really wanted to reproduce many of the features that were originally in the home," Johnson said. "I was happy to do it. The careful detailing of that era appeals perfectly to my design sense."
THE KITCHEN showcases Keith Johnson's painstakingly detailed red birch cabinets. The countertops are granite, and the top-of-the-line stainless-steel appliances are by Viking. Janine Valento figures she has earned such perks. "Finally, I have a dishwasher," she said, sighing. "I have a garbage disposal. I have a state-of-the-art refrigerator and stove. It still feels like a luxury."
Janine and Brian Valento raised four children in their cozy St. Paul bungalow. For 22 years, the family of six cooked meals and often ate in a cramped 1920s-era kitchen with few modern conveniences.
"This is our house's original kitchen," Janine Valento explained. "It's almost 90 years old, and basically nothing significant had ever been done to update it. We didn't have a dishwasher or a garbage disposal for all those years."
But most of the time, it didn't matter.
"When our kids were growing up, they usually ate so much that their plates were cleaned off and there wasn't much of anything left to put down a disposal." Then, the Valentos' children started to leave home.With fewer mouths to feed, the couple became more aware of their kitchen's sorry state.
"With the house emptier, we looked around and saw just how bad our kitchen really was," Janine Valento said. "Eventually, we decided it was time to finally fix it up.We figured we should do it before we croak."
The empty nesters dreamed of modern appliances, gleaming new cabinets and enough space for two cooks to work comfortably side by side.
"We didn't have any countertops in the old kitchen," said Janine Valento. "It really was a one-cook kitchen that all of us somehow managed to squeeze into. Back when our house was built, women stayed home and did all the cooking. They didn't get any help from their husbands, so a small kitchen was all they needed."
Brian Valento dabbles in woodworking, so he decided to try his hand at making a new set of kitchen cabinets. But the project proved more difficult - and much more time-consuming - than expected. Frustrated that progress on her dream kitchen seemed to be at a standstill, Janine Valento contacted her good friend of 35 years, Shari Taylor Wilsey, owner of the St. Paul-based remodeling firm Summit Renovation and Design.
Wilsey made a professional assessment of Brian Valento's work. The news wasn't good.
"Shari took one look at the cabinets I'd made and said, 'I know your ego is going to be on the line here, but I think you really need to call in a professional,' " Brian recalled.
Enter Keith Johnson, owner of the Minneapolis- based cabinetry firm Woodworks Fine Custom Cabinetry. Johnson's company creates furniture-grade inset cabinetry for new and old homes.
"Brian had been given some plans for the cabinets," Johnson recalled. "He was struggling to complete them, and it was taking a little too long for Janine's liking.We met and we talked, and I looked at what he had done already. In the end, we decided to start from ground zero. It was more his decision than anything."
"Keith explained that what I had done was replicate a 1920s kitchen," Brian Valento said, "when what we really needed was a modern kitchen that matched the style of our house but also worked for the way people use a kitchen today."
The Valentos' updated kitchen honors the home's original character but now boasts modern features, including a Viking range, cooktop, refrigerator and - of course - a dishwasher and garbage disposal.
The old linoleum has been replaced by wood floors."When we were getting near the end of the project, we still hadn't decided on what kind of floor to put in," Janine Valento recalled. "We were hemming and hawing, and finally Shari just said, 'That's enough. You're getting wood floors.' So, we did. And we think it looks great."
The new cabinets now extend all the way to the ceiling to create more storage space, and special touches - including an enclosed pantry and long pullout drawers - give the room new sparkle.
"We didn't expand the footprint of the kitchen," Janine Valento explained, "but Keith's eye for design allowed us to have three or four more feet of countertop. It's amazing how much difference that makes."
So what happened to Brian Valento's homemade cabinets?
"I had to eat a little crow," he admitted. "Shari told me, 'You can donate those cabinets to Habitat for Humanity. They will end up in someone's new house, and they'll be so happy to have them.' Let me tell you, it was hard to load those cabinets up in the truck and donate them, but it was the right decision. I couldn't be happier with my new kitchen. Keith is an artist. He did a wonderful job.