That Porta-Potty in Your Yard Could Land your Kitchen on the Tour

Thursday, September 12, 2013

"She smiles when she talks about kitchens."

That's what my 18-year-old granddaughter said after she sat in on my interview with Natalie Mehta, chair of the Rockridge Community Planning Council's (RCPC) 10th Rockridge Kitchen Tour.

This year's event, to be held between 12:30 and 5:30 p.m. Sunday, September 29, is Mehta's third go-round as either chair or co-chair of the biennial event. Other years, she's been a docent, welcoming tour-goers and offering details about the kitchens they are viewing.

"I probably look at two dozen kitchens (ahead of each tour) and we accept nine," said Mehta, who is also active on the Chabot Elementary School PTA board and the RCPC Land Use Committee. "Whenever I see a Porta-Potty outside a house I write down the address."

Ironically, one of the portable restrooms was outside Mehta's house on the day of our interview. You guessed it: She and her husband, Manish, are re-doing their 1939-era kitchen.

"I've been mentally planning this since we moved into this house in February 2002," she says. Since then, they made its narrow, Pullman-style layout work even as their family grew to include Anand, 11, Maya, 9, and Aidan, 7.

"The ceiling looked like the inside of an old Chevy Impala," she describes. "The sizing that covered the lath and plaster had split and was sagging down the center. The rest of the kitchen had yellow tile with burgundy tile accent liners, a yellow tile backsplash and a dark brown heavily worn and stained vinyl floor."

Further, she says, "Someone had tiled over the counter surface of the two existing built-ins with small mosaic tile in the shape and color of cat kibble - with thick dark brown grout to add to the ambience. A blue border featured white ducks with yellow feet. Oh yes, it was a real beauty!"

Beyond that, there was no dishwasher or garbage disposal. "I haven't had a dishwasher since I left for college at 17," Mehta says, somewhat proudly, although that is about to change.

But although she is modernizing, the effect won't be modern. It will reflect what she holds true: "What I love about old kitchens is they are super-efficient."

Yes, she's culled ideas through the years from the kitchens she's visited.

"The biggest thing is adjusting the layout to your needs," she says. You are often encouraged to, for example, keep the sink where it is. It might cost a little more, but she has seen that "kitchens often work so much better if we change the layout."

Mehta has also relied on the Internet as well as what catches her eye, such as the display shelves she spied at Berkeley's Tail of the Yak that she had duplicated to hold her array of old canning jars.

"It's probably rooted with my grandmother," mused Mehta, who was born in Australia but grew up in the South Bay. "I never really thought about that. She always stored everything in jars.

"I also wanted vintage lighting in the kitchen," Natalie said. "No cans." She was struck by fixtures designed with old x-ray shades that she saw in a San Francisco restaurant and was able to track down Vanessa Bell of Berkeley's Omega Lighting Design, who created a vintage fixture for her kitchen.

During construction, the Mehtas have set up a make-shift kitchen in their basement where they already had an under-counter refrigerator and sink. Their old stove, microwave and toaster ovens are in one room, the refrigerators and sink in another. "I'm using two pans, two pots and a colander," Mehta says. "And we've been totally fine."

So two years from now, can we expect to see their completed kitchen on the Rockridge Kitchen tour? "We will never be on the tour," she says with a laugh. "That would be a marriage-ender."

Typically, the event draws upwards of 500 people (the record was around 800) who pay $35 in advance or $40 the day of the tour. "It's mostly women, but there are a number of men," Mehta says. "Most of the people are from Rockridge or Piedmont and are contemplating re-doing their kitchens. But there are people who come year after year."

Mehta took over from Susan Montauk, who founded the kitchen tour in 1995 and led it through 2009. "I always loved it, but it was time," Montauk says. "Natalie had worked with us. I thought she was terrific. She does more of the work herself than I did. She's amazing."

It's the RCPC's principal source of funds, raising, on average, $20,000 for community projects. They include the restroom facilities at Frog Park, benches along College Avenue and the re-designed Rockridge BART Plaza.

"I love people's stories about their kitchens," Mehta says, stories that are recapped in the tour brochure along with the photographs she selects from those taken by professional photographer Kelly Patrick Dugan. Both are shared with the tour committee which tries to select a variety of styles while keeping the tour fairly walkable.

"This year two houses are right next to each other," Mehta says.

"I think the best thing about the tour is while there's variety, there's also similarity" because so many of the houses are from the same era, she says. That makes it easier to envision a kitchen you like in your own house.

Probably her most frustrating experience was two years ago when a kitchen she featured on the advertising poster was withdrawn because the homeowner was suddenly transferred. "The posters had already been printed and distributed," she says.

"Homeowners change their minds, docents bail," says Nancy Sale, who has been in charge of gathering the more than 40 docents from the tour's inception.

"Natalie is very well organized and very patient," Sale reports. "She inherited a blueprint (from founder Montauk), but she's made some improvements. She's a real smart person."

For further Tour details, see adjoining articles.

If you have comments on this column or want to suggest a topic or person you think would make interesting reading, please email