For Melissa Coleman, adopting a minimalist approach to the kitchen saved her culinary life.
The kitchen used to be a place of frustration for the Minneapolis-based creator of the Faux Martha, a serious problem for someone who’s made a name -- and these days, a living -- for herself from a food blog.
“There were too many variables. I couldn’t manage all the variables of the home and the work schedule,” she says. “It was all too much, to the point where I said to my husband, ‘I’m going to quit cooking.’ I hated the kitchen that much. It didn’t work.”
Luckily for her 100K-plus fans, Coleman didn’t quit. Instead, she got to work, took a ruthless inventory of what she had, streamlined, and organized. She used her efficiency ethos from her graphic design background and applied it to culinary chaos.
In learning to make do with less, she was able to reinvigorate her love of cooking. And in her new cookbook, The Minimalist Kitchen -- hitting shelves this week -- she'll help you do the same. It's a manifesto on decluttering, reorganizing the pantry, and meal planning, with 100 tempting recipes.
Standing in her kitchen on a chilly morning, it’s clear Coleman’s efforts have paid off. The petite brunette with an infectious smile swings open a pantry door to reveal an array of transparent, refillable containers. She keeps her shelves shallowly stocked so everything can be seen with just a glance. Each member of the family – Coleman, her husband, and their daughter – has their own containers dedicated to their favorite snacks and breakfast foods.
In the kitchen drawers, you’ll find expandable utensil organizers from OXO. In the cupboards, oils and vinegars are neatly labeled in identical glass bottles, as are all of Coleman’s spices in a drawer. Her fridge is kept orderly with Green Saver Produce Keepers, containers that act as individual ecosystems to keep produce fresh. Drawer dividers separate fruits from cheeses.
This minimalist approach might seem like a lot of work, and it is, initially. In the cookbook, Coleman’s list of pantry staples includes more than 100 items and 22 spices, among them items like bee pollen, organic fine-ground cornmeal, and white fish – not exactly things the average cook uses daily. She swears by tools like mason jars, a butter warmer, and a tart pan while forgoing a microwave. But Coleman isn’t suggesting you run your kitchen exactly like hers. The book is just a guide; readers are meant to take what works and leave the rest.
“You have room to break the rules. Whereas when you have no rules, the system just breaks super-duper fast,” she says.
You don’t need five kinds of beans in your cupboard, for example; if you know you like black beans best, just buy those – and buy them in bulk. By consolidating the contents of the cupboards, you create a calm environment more conducive to cooking.
“When you pare down, you know exactly what you have, you know how to use it, and you can make it work exponentially more for you,” Coleman says. “It’s an ongoing journey. It’s a lifestyle.”
Coleman always loved to cook and bake; in high school, she became enamored of Martha Stewart. But it wasn’t until 2008, when her husband Kevin was swamped with graduate school studies in Chicago, that she started the Faux Martha blog, mostly to keep in touch with family in Texas. An early post that included a recipe of pumpkin chocolate chip bread led to more food-focused and instructional missives on how to bake anything and everything. When she ran out of sweet recipes, she turned to savory ones. Soon, she found her niche in modern weeknight dinners and classic weekend baking recipes.
Coleman reluctantly learned to photograph her food when Kevin proved too shaky to do it. “I hated photography. Hated it,” she says. “In college, I swore I’d never pick up a camera. I swore I’d never write again. It’s hilarious what I’m doing all the time now.”
In 2014, Coleman and her family relocated to Minnesota for Kevin’s job; a year later, they moved into a custom-built modern farmhouse in Seward, the design of which became fodder for the blog as well. The Faux Martha was bringing home more bacon than graphic design work, so Coleman stopped doing the latter. Still, a cookbook was never part of her plans. (“It always felt too big of a project for me. All my friends were writing and shooting their own books, and that was just too much for my brain.”)
But write a cookbook she did. Now anyone can replicate the look of Coleman’s kitchen and the flavors on her plate, from her Monte Cristo Breakfast Sandwich to Quinoa Bibimbap Bowls to Toasted Almond Stone Fruit Cake. Her aim is to make cooking more accessible. Weekday meals are designed for efficiency, while weekend menus allow for more leisurely recipes. Whether you need to eliminate the 5 p.m. panic attack when hunger hits and you have no idea what to cook for dinner or you want to wow your friends and family over a home-cooked Sunday brunch, Coleman has strategies and shortcuts for both.
“I’m only going to create something if it has some kind of use,” she says. “When form meets function, that’s when I’m done. I won’t have one without the other.”
The cookbook may be the closing of a chapter for Coleman. Whereas she started The Faux Martha in an era when blogs were a response to over-styled magazines and garnered admiration for their unvarnished look at real people’s lives, today’s blogs create content just to create content. “That’s not the way that I operate, but it’s the world in which I operate,” she says.
Now in her tenth year of blogging, she’s also grown weary of the constant, unsolicited opinions from strangers about her life, from the food she makes to the furniture in her home, all of it catalogued ad nauseam on The Faux Martha blog.
“It hits too close to home every time,” she says of online criticism.
At the end of 2017, Coleman felt so disenchanted with the internet that she wanted to “walk away from it all.” The Dear Diary blog she created almost a decade ago? It’s “just not what it is today.” She wonders whether it’s still fulfilling its purpose.
She’s proud of the cookbook, though, which feels to her like a work of art as much as a utilitarian tool. The act of publishing on paper feels more private, more complete, than a blog post.
“The internet is ongoing,” she muses, “and people can comment on anything they want, from 2008 to today. Nobody would want to be judged on who they were in 2008. But I’m responsible for that content. It’s a weird medium.”
At the same time, she finds her own struggle “ridiculous,” because she’s doing exactly what she longed to do while working at a design job in Chicago in her 20s.
“I would cry every day on my way to work, thinking, ‘How could it be possible to integrate design and food? Could it ever happen?’ and here I am doing it,” she says. “There are super high highs and super low lows and that’s just the reality of it. But I’m doing what I dreamed of doing. I just have to figure out how to do it healthfully.”
Faux Martha book signing
Saturday, April 14 at 1 p.m.
5801 W. 16th St., St. Louis Park