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Cooking up a status symbol

'Foodies' boost sales of high-end kitchens

In years past, when Jay Garner of Richmond, Va., prepared one of his family's signature meals -- the sailor sandwich, a grilled combination of pastrami, knockwurst and Swiss cheese on mustard-laden rye bread -- he could, at best, cook two in a frying pan.

But after an extensive kitchen renovation that included a new $2,500 gas range with a built-in griddle, Garner boasts he can now make six at a time, and with better results. The 43-year-old technology consultant and food enthusiast says it was worth spending $33,000 to outfit his kitchen with restaurant-style equipment and marble countertops.

''My wife loves it," he said. ''She likes it when people come over and say, 'Wow!' "

Garner is not alone. His preference for high-quality and expensive equipment, such as a Wolf range, All-Clad pans, and J.A. Henckels knives, is emblematic of the growing seriousness with which many Americans approach cooking.

The so-called foodie subculture has moved gradually from the fringes to the mainstream -- from Julia Child and Jacques Pepin teaching cooking on public television to the proliferation of farmers' markets to the creation of a 24-hour cable food channel -- and industry insiders predict it will only pick up steam.

''The fact that we're giving food this kind of attention means that it just gets bigger from here," said Ruth Reichl, editor in chief of Gourmet magazine.

Foodies are no longer satisfied merely mimicking cookbook techniques, buying organic mushrooms, or getting adventurous about where they go out to eat. Increasingly, they want the tools of the trade, too, and they want them on display.

But though more Americans are spending big bucks on kitchens, stoves and ovens are getting less of a workout each year, said Harry Balzer, a Chicago-based vice president at NPD Group, a market research firm. Fewer than 50 percent of at-home dinners were cooked on a stove in 2004, down from 67 percent in 1985, according to an NPD survey. Ovens were used 28 percent of the time, down from 31 percent over the same period.

''The movement is really toward recreational cooking," Balzer said.

Manufacturers and retailers say the rising interest in high-end stoves, refrigerators, and cookware has intensified competition to the point that profit margins are not as sweet as they once were, but business remains very good.

''Instead of talking about their BMWs, they're talking about the quality of their ranges." said Mark Erickson of the Culinary Institute of America.

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