On Grace Salera’s stove, chicken soup is bubbling alongside a pot of boiling potatoes, focaccia dough is rising on the benchtop, and a cake sits on a cooling rack.
Nearby there is an oven, two fridges, freezer, coffee machine and pastry maker, alongside a dining setting, television, couch and wood heater.
The only difference with this kitchen? It’s in the garage.
Butler’s pantries and outdoor kitchens have gained popularity in recent times, but for many southern Europeans, the garage has long hosted more than beat-up bicycles and the stench of engine oil.
It’s the place of the hallowed second kitchen, reserved for the most serious cook-ups.
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Taylors Lakes nonna Salera has always had a kitchen in the garage, from the time she was a girl growing up with Calabrian parents in Melbourne’s north.
Her pristine white inside kitchen barely gets a workout – it’s the garage kitchen that feeds her family of four children and seven grandchildren, using produce grown a few metres away in the backyard.
“We use it all the time: it’s just so convenient in the way we are as an Italian family, cooking with big pots,” Salera says.
“You’re still cleaning, but at least the garage is the garage, and the kids can just go wild.”
When the Saleras moved in eight years ago, they transformed the carport into a garage, building a wall to split the parking and planned cooking space. The kitchen was renovated, and the old one moved into the garage.
“We didn’t expect to make a kitchen so big. It just happened,” Salera laughs.
The fruit and vegetable garden and chicken coop on the half-acre property tended to by husband Mick, means the distance from farm to plate is minimal as meals are made in the garage, based on what the season reaps.
Many garage kitchens across Melbourne’s north have been established by owners who feel proud to keep the house clean and the main kitchen untouchable, according to Helen Sartinas, who documented the phenomenon across Melbourne’s north for her book Kitchens in the Garage.
“It was something like a jewel you only wanted to keep clean, or you would only show good visitors,” she says.
Sartinas grew up with a garage kitchen in Coburg, where her Greek family would dine every night before returning inside. Intrigued by the concept, she began investigating other garage kitchens in the neighbourhood and surrounds.
Typically, migrants who arrived in the 1950s, and probably raised on farms, transformed their garages into ambitious cooking spaces, often from recycled bits of old kitchens, keeping their heritage alive through memory-only recipes using what grew in the backyard.
To observe whether garage kitchens were unique to the Melbourne migrant experience, Sartinas travelled as far as the agricultural hub of Chianti, Italy.
But there, she found farming families sourced products from the local butcher, for example, rather than cook in bulk for themselves at home.
“It was really interesting; the perception of what we think of Italy and what’s remained is closer to home here than what it is over there. It’s really ironic,” she says.
In his 26 years selling real estate in Melbourne’s north, Ray White Reservoir director Arthur Mitsinikos, has seen a “fair portion” of garage kitchens. These are usually in bigger style homes built by Italians and Greeks in the 1970s and ’80s.
While they offer added convenience, demand is “neither here nor there”. “I can’t say I’ve seen it add value,” he says.
“If it’s there, it’s not a negative thing, but in terms of people paying a premium for it or more, I don’t think that’s the case.”
Salera says a visiting real estate agent once commented on her ‘summer kitchen’, a set-up that recently inspired the neighbours to follow suit.
“I’m thinking, ‘summer kitchen’? We use it in winter, too,” she laughs. It’s proved a cos