When Fine Cooking contributing editor Maryellen Driscoll and her farmer husband Ken Fruehstorfer bought a dilapidated 160-year-old farmhouse in rural upstate New York 15 years ago, they knew they were in for an adventure. The house was mostly gutted and entirely uninsulated, but they moved in during the dead of winter anyway. The plan was to restore the house themselves using mostly salvaged materials while simultaneously creating an organic vegetable and chicken farm on the 134 acres of fertile land that spilled out behind the house.
“People thought we were crazy,” Maryellen recalls. “But we’ve come a long way: We’re no longer wearing snowsuits inside the house come winter, and there’s an ever-growing demand for local organic food.”
The business part of the plan came to life as Free Bird Farm, and the house renovation progressed during the off season, a room or two every year. By the time Ken got around to the kitchen, Maryellen knew exactly what she wanted: a warm, welcoming space that reflected the historic nature of the house, conformed to their strict budgetary restraints, and met her exacting standards for form and function. It took a few years, one broken shoulder, and more sweat equity than they originally bargained for, but it all paid off in a stunning new kitchen that still feels like an original.
When Maryellen and Ken moved in, the kitchen was in an awkward location that didn’t connect logically to the rest of the house. “Young and idealistic, we decided to move the kitchen to an old post-and-beam add-on, tearing out what was not structurally sound,” Maryellen says. They quickly realized that the only things left with any integrity were the roof and a few posts. Undeterred, Ken jacked up the remaining structure and rebuilt the foundation (fracturing his shoulder along the way when a second-floor beam collapsed under him).
To keep the new room looking as original as possible, Maryellen had a woodworker friend custom-build some cabinets with slide-out shelves for easy access. A massive island with a salvaged 5-inch-thick butcher-block top serves as Maryellen’s main prep area and the centerpiece of the kitchen.
Tour the kitchen
"The island is an old woodworker’s bench," says Maryellen. "It really anchors the space, and like an anchor, it’s never moving again. It took four men just to lift the butcherblock top!"
Maryellen found the island at an old brickyard where vintage appliances and fixtures were stored and rented out for movie sets.
The island has a few dings and dents, but they’re charming and functional. “The divots along the front edge are great for keeping eggs from rolling around,” says Maryellen.
“Some of the beams original to the room were salvageable, and we had more made by our Amish neighbors. We dragged the new beams behind a tractor to scuff them up, and even charred them in a few spots.”
“We put the deep farm-style sink in front of a window for a view of the backyard and the farm beyond.”
“The floorboards were original to the house’s interior walls. We had to plane them, so we held off on varnishing until we could walk on them for a few years to restore their vintage look.”
“My Lacanche stove was a big splurge, but I love it. Almost all of the five burners are different sizes, which is great for accommodating various pots and pans; it has two ovens, one gas and one electric. Ken custom-built the hood, coating it with plaster to create an old world look.”
The kitchen and adjacent eating and sitting areas were built and furnished almost entirely from reclaimed materials. “We found the table in our barn, covered in laminate,” Maryellen says. “The settee was in someone else’s barn, just a tattered frame that we had a friend reupholster. The windows were taken from an old house Ken helped renovate.”
Off the kitchen’s main work area, Ken built a butler’s pantry where the refrigerator is tucked away and Maryellen’s most used pans hang from a wall-mounted steel pot rack designed and hand-forged by local blacksmith Michael McCarthy.