As partners in business, restaurateur Rebecca Illingworth Penichot and her executive chef know the necessity of an efficient kitchen. But as partners in life, that was sorely lacking in their own home.

"The kitchen is very important to us," said Illingworth Penichot, owner of Tinto Cocina + Cantina, a Latin fusion eatery that is reopening in a new location, 50th and Penn in Minneapolis, next month.

She and her husband, chef Thierry Penichot, had bought their compact two-story house in Minneapolis' Cedar-Isles-Dean neighborhood last year, intending to make some dramatic changes. The location, with its proximity to city lakes and walkable destinations, was ideal. The dwelling itself was not.

What did they want to change? "Everything!" she said.

Built in 1994, the house had some of the dubious style hallmarks of that era, including a two-story entry, popcorn ceilings, a lot of cold white surfaces and honey oak woodwork. "I really hate it," said Illingworth Penichot of the golden-hued trim.

She also wanted a closet big enough for her vast collection of shoes. "I have a bit of a fetish," she admitted.

But most of all, they wanted a functional and updated kitchen, one with a center island. They did have a pantry, but it was tiny, and the refrigerator partially obstructed a doorway.

"We entertain a lot, and we need to be able to move well," she said.

As an extension of the kitchen, the couple also wanted to transform their sun-beaten deck into an appealing spot for family dining and hosting guests.

"It wasn't inviting," she said. "We wanted it to be part of outdoor living."

To reinvent their home, Illingworth Penichot turned to architect Eric J. Hansen, E.J. Hansen, AIA, whom she's known since childhood. "He's so patient and creative, and he's a genius in thinking about the space," she said.

She also knew she could rely on him to help her remodel just enough, without overdoing it and spending money that they couldn't recoup at resale. "I wanted to be smart and make wise choices," she said. "Eric is so conscious of that."

Instead of replacing the unwanted honey oak, for example, he advised spray-painting it to "make it go away."

Reclaiming space

Hansen brought creative ideas about how to make better use of the home's 2,500 square feet. The two-story entry could be closed off to create a true owners suite on the second floor, with the big walk-in closet that Illingworth Penichot craved.

"It was such wasted space," she said. "This is not a grand house."

Hansen also reconfigured the master bath and the upstairs hallway to make better use of the existing space.

"It was cut up," said Hansen of the second floor. "Everything was at a 45-degree angle, with weird doors in corners. Getting rid of the diagonal hallway reclaimed a lot of square footage."

In the kitchen, Hansen also found various ways to reclaim space. A built-in desk was converted into a small bar with storage for wine. (Illingworth Penichot has a passion for wine and formerly owned Bin Wine Bar in St. Paul.)

Another built-in became space for cookbooks and a small TV so that Thierry Penichot, a French-born soccer fan, can watch games while cooking.

To gain more space, Hansen removed a peninsula and large metal flue that passed through the kitchen from the water heater in the basement.

"I talked her into a sealed-combustion water heater," he said. "We got rid of the flue, and it gave her 2 more feet in the bar area of the kitchen."

Finally, Hansen suggested sacrificing a coat closet to expand the pantry and create a "mini kitchen" with a prep area where Illingworth Penichot's 12-year-old son can whip up snacks using the microwave or pizza oven.

"He can make a whole mess in there," she said, and leave the main kitchen countertops clutter-free.

The changes freed up space for a center island with a prep sink and a table for casual dining. The formal dining room was converted into an office for Illingworth Penichot, an advertising consultant who works from home. "Formal dining is obsolete," she said.

Outdoor living

To make the south-facing deck more user-friendly, Hansen added a retractable awning to provide shade on hot days and a bit of privacy.

With Illingworth Penichot serving as her own general contractor, Hansen and project assistant James Kuipers made other design changes throughout the house. "There isn't an inch we didn't touch," she said.

In the living room, the gas fireplace got a face-lift. Before, its C-shaped mantel and raised hearth protruded into the room. "It screamed 1994," Hansen said. And the raised hearth was "an ankle tripper."

Illingworth Penichot wanted a wood-burning fireplace, for sentimental reasons.

"My father had a wood-burning fireplace and a fire every night," she said. "It gave the room personality."

Hansen designed a masonry fireplace, tall and shallow to reflect more heat, with a guillotine door and a new poplar mantel. The original cabinets on either side of the fireplace were repainted, and some of the open shelves, including one sized for a big TV, now have doors so that the TV doesn't have to be visible when it's not in use.

Even the home's lower level, which contains two bedrooms, a family room and an exercise room, was freshened up to create an appealing "hangout spot" for Illingworth Penichot's son. "We opened up the stairway going to the lower level, so it was not so claustrophobic," Hansen said.

The most challenging aspect of the project was the time frame, said Hansen. "She was trying to consolidate multiple households, and her son was starting school. The schedule was squeezed, and we had three floors of stuff going on."

The family lived in an apartment for the beginning of the project, then moved into the basement for three months while the rest of the house was being finished.

"We kept our food in a wine refrigerator. We ate a lot of takeout," said Illingworth Penichot. "It was crude but very well worth it."

Now the kitchen is a showplace with enameled white cabinets, commercial-grade appliances, Carrara marble countertops and a light-reflecting backsplash made of stainless steel and mirrored tile. The cold white tile floor was replaced with wood flooring of fumed (ammonia treated) red and white oak. "It looks like reclaimed wood," said Hansen, "but it's utility grade." The fumed wood flooring extends into the adjacent living room. "It brought a lot of warmth into the house and made it feel bigger."

Best of all, the new spaces are functional and efficient. "Now it all flows," said Illingworth Penichot. "For us, it's perfect."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784