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Home cooking: From Victorian tech to Kenwood Chef

Published: 8 June 2020

The kitchen has long been at the forefront of technological innovation and is the room in our homes most likely to be full of gadgets. 

In this story, we delve back into the long history of kitchen technology, discover how a Victorian kitchen redesign sparked our passion for culinary tech and explore how an iconic food mixer came to dominate 20th-century home cooking. 

Gadgets in the Victorian kitchen

We might associate culinary gadgetry with sleek, modern 20th-century kitchens, but the more well-to-do Victorian and Edwardian kitchens were already full of cleverly engineered appliances and utensils. Mass-produced kitchenware was increasingly available in the 19th century, as were a new range of gas-powered appliances such as ovens.

Two humanoid figures composed from kitchen utensils Science Museum Group Collection
Hand-coloured etching by Williams ‘dedicated to the house maids and cooks of the United Kingdom’, 1811

One person especially keen to adopt new technologies was celebrity chef Alexis Soyer. The Reform Club Kitchen, redesigned by Soyer and Charles Barry (better known for his work on the Houses of Parliament) in the 1830s and early 1840s, was probably the most technologically innovative kitchen in the world at the time.

Their revamp included cutting-edge gas cookers, water-cooled refrigerators and ovens with adjustable temperatures among many other features. Soyer even conducted tours to show off all that tech.

Alexis Soyer, with his distinctive cap, seen in the Reform Club Kitchen, 1840s
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Alexis Soyer, with his distinctive cap, seen in the Reform Club Kitchen, 1840s

Around the same time, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1859–61) described the kitchen as 'the great laboratory of every household'. As such, it needed fitting out with the right kit. 

Beeton's tome lists some of the necessary equipment for a 'family in the middle class of life', including kitchen scales, spice boxes, cannisters, tea kettle, toasting fork, bread grater, bottle jack, skewers, meat chopper, saucepans, colanders, fish slice, egg slice and the relatively new mincer—a particular favourite of Beeton's—from which 'the meat is forced out in a perfect cascade of shreds'.

This made for a veritable arsenal of tools and gadgets, alongside the usual pots, pans, crockery and cutlery—and the list only got longer in later editions of the book. Soyer, Beeton and the increasing availability of new household gadgets transformed the landscape of housework at the end of the Victorian age.

Arrival of the Kenwood Chef

The popularity of kitchen technology continued into the 20th century, in particular among middle-class households with more disposable income.

Today, many kitchen gadgets end up gathering dust. But others have become perennial favourites—perhaps none more so than the Kenwood Chef. What brought about the Chef’s long-lasting appeal when so many others have come and gone?

Food mixers certainly weren’t new. Hand-operated mechanical models had been around since the late 19th century, and the early decades of the 20th century saw the arrival of electric mixers, as domestic electricity supply became more common. 

Early kitchen gadgets

19th and early-20th century food mixers from our collection:

The first Kenwood electric mixer (the A200, precursor to the Chef) came onto the market in the late 1940s, the brainchild of a fruitful collaboration between wartime colleagues Roger Laurence and Kenneth Wood. Their company Woodlau Industries operated out of a small workshop in Woking. 

The machine's clever multi-functionality promised to eliminate the need for that long list of kitchen utensils.

1940s food mixer with whisks and other attachments Science Museum Group Collection
Kenwood model A200 electric food mixer, c.1940s

But the Chef wasn't quite there yet. After a thorough rethink and redesign to market the machine differently from others available at the time, the high-tech new A700 Chef was launched onto the market at the 1950 Ideal Home Show. Its sleek, design made it something you would want to leave visible in the kitchen, rather than a purely utilitarian tool. 

White 1950s food mixer Science Museum Group Collection
The Kenwood Chef A700 model

The new Chef was associated with figures such as home economist Marguerite Patten, who worked for the Ministry of Food and appeared on the BBC radio programme The Kitchen Front during the Second World War.

She added her expert endorsement to the expensive device when she demonstrated it at Harrods in 1950. She had been called into the electrical department in some haste to meet Ken Wood, who had brought in the machine to show them. 'We were so impressed with it we took the whole first batch' she said. The Harrods batch sold out within a week.

What made the Kenwood Chef so successful?

What the Chef in particular did (and still does) exceptionally well was to effectively replace many of the single-purpose gadgets cluttering up Mrs Beeton’s Victorian kitchen. 

The Chef was designed for multi-functionality and simplicity of use. Its planetary action (which ensured the beater or whisk reached the outer parts of the mixing bowl) and various motor outlets for attachments made it very versatile.

Kenwood’s 1976 attachments for the A701 series Chefs included mincers, slicers, coffee mill, sausage making attachment, shredders, bean slicer and pea huller, can opener, liquidiser, potato peeler, cream maker and juice extractor—quite the list.

All these attachments, alongside the standard dough hook, whisk and 'K' beater promised, as historian Kathryn Ferry writes, to save the user from 'wrist-aching jobs' at the 'flick of a switch'. 

Kenwood gallery

The A700 Chef and some of its attachments:

Unlike many of the items we buy today, the Chef was also designed for longevity. 

Industrial designer Kenneth Grange—responsible for the 1960 redesign which resulted in the instantly recognisable A701 model—commented that it was deliberately 'over-engineered' so that it would last down the generations.

Part of this over-engineering is literally the weight. Its heaviness added to the sense of a quality build, and made the Chef a machine that 1960s buyers would leave on display on the worksurface—partly as a status symbol, partly just because it was so heavy to move around. The Chef also had an aspirational element. It wasn't (and still isn't) cheap, and the design plays a big part in its appeal.

Find out more about kenneth Grange's designs:

No surprise then that the Chef still has a large and loyal fan base, from people still using original 1950s and 60s family heirloom machines to those revamping machines bought today in a flourishing second-hand market for vintage appliances.

This refurbishment also encourages learning how the machines work, and how to fix them. There are many videos available online showing the disassembly, maintenance and running of old Kenwood mixers by their enthusiastic owners.

The impact of technology in the kitchen

What does the future hold for all this kitchen gadgetry? Trend forecasters are predicting more fluid styles of kitchen design, with free-standing units rather than the fitted kitchen which has dominated since the 1950s. 
But the past trends in kitchen appliances we've explored—the Victorian love of manual gadgets and the long-lasting, multi-tasking Chef—are both still very much of the moment. 

While we look to the future with an increasing number of smart kitchen appliances, there's also a growing appreciation for the analogue technology of times past. Apple peelers, bean slicers and grain mills now have fashionable, almost 'cult' status. Pragmatically, they rely on mechanical rather than electrical energy, giving them eco-friendly appeal too.

Time will tell if huge slab gadgets such as the Chef still find surface space in a pared-down future kitchen. But at a time when we're reconsidering the throwaway nature of much of our society, the longevity and ultimate repairability of the original Chef is still refreshing.

Find out more