12 August 2008


Did you watch the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games last Friday night? I was one of the billion or so viewers who tuned in and enjoyed the festivities. My favorite moment, by far, was NBA and Team China basketball star Yao Ming leading the Chinese team in the Parade of Nations with Lin Hao, a nine-year-old Chinese earthquake survivor.

That scene touched me in so many ways. For one thing, it is so rare to see a celebrity today who is willing to share the spotlight with anyone else, much less a scene-stealing child. Another was the delicious contrast between the 7’6” giant and the diminutive boy walking next to him, both cheered mightily by their countrymen and guests alike.

The third was learning of the heroism of this youngster, who went back into the collapsed building to rescue two classmates. When asked later why he did this, after managing his own escape, he responded that he was a class leader risked his own safety because that’s what he was supposed to do as a leader. Wow. Yao Ming is also a leader in this regard. Though he now lives in Houston, Texas, he has established a charitable foundation to rebuild schools in the earthquake-struck region of China to higher construction standards so that no other children have to die.

So what does this all have to do with design, the primary focus of this blog. Being a designer myself and musing at the disparity between the towering basketball player and the tiny boy by his side, I began to wonder, how would I go about designing a kitchen for Yao Ming… That is my Olympic dream!


Clearly, you can’t fill a super-sized athlete’s kitchen with standard-height cabinets – not if he likes to cook at all. (His bride of one year, Ye Li, is a 6’3” member of China’s national women’s basketball team.) I would design their kitchen in a custom line that allows me to change the cabinets’ height, and identify which, if any, cooking tasks he enjoys participating in when he’s not on the road. For some very successful people, cooking is a relaxing hobby. If Yao Ming is among that group, I’d want to be sure his ergonomics were taken into account. Ye Li may want a taller prep section, too, given her stature.

I have read that Yao Ming’s mother, who now lives in the States and owns a restaurant in Houston, loves to cook old-fashioned Chinese food for her son. If Yao and his wife still enjoy having her cook for them in their home on a regular basis, as she did regularly when he was a bachelor, a section of the kitchen could be zoned for Mama Yao. Though she’s a retired basketball player herself and restaurateur, I would plan a table-height space in her section with some roll-under seating. That will let this hard worker get off her feet for a while as she preps her special dishes.


Health is always a big concern for professional athletes. I would plan on construction materials for Yao Ming’s kitchen that would contribute to his well-being. For example, I’d probably specify Breathe Easy cabinetry, which is made from formaldehyde-free plywood with no- and low-VOC finishes. I’d recommend quartz countertops for an easy-maintenance, non-porous countertop. (I've blogged about both of these recently in a healthy kitchen posting.)

I would also suggest a softer floor than the typical stone or wood celebrity kitchen. NBA knees and feet already take a pounding on the court. They don’t need to do so at home. Cork or Marmoleum Click would be my health-based recommendations, as both are anti-allergenic and anti-mold. Rubber is another great option. While none of these really sound like they could meet a celebrity home’s style quotient, I promise you that I can deliver the aesthetic points, too.

A top-notch ventilation system must also be factored into this remodel, so that all the Yao chow, (my foodie husband’s pun, not mine, I swear), cooking gases escape outside. You can’t account for air quality in Houston or Beijing, but at least indoor air quality in this Houstonian home will be top-notch. I hear good breathing is quite helpful in sports.


There are a few appliance categories that could particularly benefit this household. Since Yao and his wife both have professional athletes’ heavy travel schedules, Miele’s new refrigerators with RemoteVision – introduced at this year’s Kitchen/Bath Industry Show – are among those I’d suggest to this couple . The technology communicates any temperature malfunction or open fridge doors, (which could be really helpful if you’re on a long road trip), back to its manufacturer. The manufacturer then alerts a homeowner contact to alert them about trouble at home.

Given the customized height of this kitchen’s cabinets to accommodate the basketball players, a cooktop and wall ovens will work better than a range for the Yaos. I’m partial to induction cooking, as I’ve blogged about before. It’s more energy efficient and safer to use than a standard gas or electric cooktop, (especially for aging eyes and young hands, if the Yaos start a family in this home). Best of all, it offers the same cooking performance as professional gas burners without the need for gas flame or fuel.

A pair of wall ovens, one microwave/convection and one standard-steam could be good options for the Yaos. (Many Chinese dishes are prepared by steaming, so Kuppersbusch’s Combi-Steam oven could be ideal for this couple.) If space allows, I’d mount each in separate cabinets so that both ovens could be set at ideal heights for their users.

If Mama Yao is getting her own cooking section, she might enjoy an induction wok. Kuppersbusch demonstrated one at KBIS and it really sizzled. Many restaurateurs in Europe are switching to induction, I’m told. Mrs. Yao could start that trend among her U.S. colleagues. I’d also suggest a refrigerator of her own, so that she can have her preferred ingredients close at hand in her area. Two options present themselves: One is the standard, under-counter double drawer refrigerator widely available in both stainless and panel-ready versions. A new innovation – also launched at the most recent KBIS – is Fisher & Paykel’s CoolDrawer. This unit serves as either a refrigerator or freezer, depending on the user’s preference at any given time, and can install directly under a cooktop for both super-handy convenience and compact spaces.


I don’t have professional-level training in feng shui, the Chinese system of home and room arrangement, and its principles may be important to the Yaos, both natives of China. (I would have a feng shui consultant review the plans before any final decisions were made, if this were something the Yaos desired.)

In feng shui, the kitchen is extremely important, both in terms of its placement in the home and the placement of elements within it. Quite happily, many feng shui kitchen concepts mesh well with the design principles I already practice. For example, feng shui recommends that kitchens be located at the back of the home. This is ideal for houses with outdoor living areas just beyond the back door, as it creates a great indoor-outdoor entertaining flow.

Feng shui also suggests that the cook be able to see the room’s entry while working at the range or cooktop. This ties in well with participatory cooking/entertaining, which many young professionals enjoy. Given that we’re planning a cooktop for the Yaos, it can certainly be located on an island that faces the main views of the room. (Wouldn’t it be fun to watch someone so wonderfully dexterous play in the kitchen!)


I’m a strong believer that an open plan kitchen should fit well into its home environment, just like a team member fits with his team. One of the major mistakes I steer clients away from making is creating a gorgeous new kitchen that looks completely out of place in its setting. The Yaos already own a large, fairly new home in the Houston suburbs. I haven’t seen it for myself, but feel safe presuming that it has an open floor plan, as most young houses are designed that way. I would ensure that their remodeled kitchen, should they decide to take on such a project, would work for their home, their lives and their careers.

So call me some time, Rocket Man (or Mrs. Rocket Man)! Make my Olympic dream come true.

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