When Elena Terminiello walks through the grocery store, she often uses her phone to check the contents of her refrigerator, where cameras inside reveal whether her family is running low on yogurt or milk or Parmesan cheese. The clinical social worker and mother of two also uses the phone to preheat her oven before leaving work at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to head to her Bethesda home—and to turn off the heat or lower the temperature if she has left something baking and is running late.
Her microwave can be programmed with an app and doubles as an air fryer. “We do pizzas in there,” says her husband, Maurizio Grimaldi, 57, a scientist at the National Institutes of Health. A self-proclaimed techie, he researched all of his family’s new kitchen appliances online, made several trips to local stores to see as many of the options as he could, and decided on the final selections himself.
If not for his wife’s insistence on getting a professional-grade BlueStar cooktop when they expanded their Cape Cod-style house two years ago, Grimaldi would have picked one that could “talk” to the other appliances—all “smart” products made by Samsung. Then the fan in the hood would have automatically adjusted its speed based on how much heat was being generated. “We each had a splurge item,” says Terminiello, and hers was the high-end—but low-tech—cooktop. With its stainless steel surface and metallic knobs, it blends aesthetically with the rest of the appliances, but all it does is heat food when she turns a dial. “It’s the opposite of everything he chose,” she says.
Still, her husband’s tech-savvy choices for the other appliances are slowly drawing her in. “You do start drinking the Kool-Aid a little bit if I’m going to be honest,” she says. Now, she loves how the built-in computer screen on the front panel of her refrigerator also serves as a television and music hub. The couple’s teenage daughter logs into her Spotify account on the fridge and plays songs for her mom while they’re cooking. The screen also displays when someone is at the front door, and it keeps the family’s calendar updated.
“The refrigerator is always a talking point,” says Terminiello, 50. It connects through Bluetooth to all their other devices, so when she pulls up a recipe on the screen, the ingredients she needs to make the dish are automatically stored on a shopping list on her phone. And when she’s at work and her kids leave the refrigerator door open, her phone sends an alert so she can text them to close it. The fridge also keeps track of the other appliances. “When we’re on vacation,” she says, “we can double-check that everything is off without going back.”
Daren Smith, president of Silver Spring-based Smiley Renovations, worked with the couple on their kitchen remodel and says the family’s choices were new territory for him, too. “We don’t get a lot of requests for the technology—certainly not like the screens on the refrigerators—that often,” he says. But when Grimaldi came to him with his research and his selections, “I thought it was kind of cool, and I was kind of excited to have him do that,” Smith says.
Grimaldi thinks many homeowners have been slow to embrace tech-forward kitchen products because few designers have encouraged them. “It’s easier to sell an appliance that you turn [on] and you’re done,” he says. Otherwise, when something goes wrong, “who are you going to call?”
The only problem he and his wife have experienced in their new kitchen was an electrical malfunction that caused the light in the hood above their cooktop to stop working. A technician came three times before it was resolved, but everything else has functioned just fine. “It’s laughable,” Grimaldi says, that people rely so much on the technology in their vehicles—there are more than 200 computer chips in most cars today, he points out—but people are hesitant to buy “smart” appliances for their kitchens.
Homeowners in Montgomery County fall into two general camps when choosing kitchen gear, according to local retailers and contractors. Many still follow the traditional route, focusing less on tech gadgetry and more on products known for being high-end and easy to operate. A small but growing number are buying appliances that interface with each other and can be controlled from anywhere. Grimaldi says he and his wife could use an app on their phones to instruct their refrigerator to turn on the dishwasher even when they are upstairs watching a movie.
Greg Childress, manager of Bray & Scarff in Chevy Chase, says about 10% of customers who come into the appliance store ask about “smart” kitchen products, and those who do are generally younger. “The older generation is saying, you know, ‘Hey, I don’t want to be more invasive with the technology than it already is,’ ” he says.
Samsung and LG, companies better known for their televisions than their ovens, have become market leaders in smart kitchen technology, but Bray & Scarff and most of the other local appliance retailers don’t stock either label. Consumers buy those brands directly through the manufacturers’ websites or at big-box stores like Lowe’s, Home Depot and Best Buy. Still, according to Childress, many of the mid- to high-priced lines sold by his store have started to add smart features to their latest models. “A lot of the products of today will tell you how to cook it, when to cook it, how long to cook it, and what pan to cook it in,” he says. “Smart is here to stay.”
High-end brands Bosch, Thermador and Gaggenau—all owned by the same German company—now come with “Home Connect,” integrative technology that lets customers run diagnostic checks through their phones to know when their appliances need servicing, and to preheat their ovens and monitor temperature settings remotely via an app. Dacor, acquired by Samsung in 2016, recently began offering refrigerators with cameras inside. And many of the newest Sub-Zero and Wolf products have a small quartz screen inside the appliance that displays a code when something malfunctions so homeowners know what’s wrong. That’s supposed to help cut down on diagnostic-trip charges because a technician often can bring the needed part on the first visit. “Manufacturers are constantly trying to push the envelope and take it to a new level,” Childress says.
His biggest challenge these days is with availability. “The manufacturers’ production is down but the demand for the product is up really high…so in some cases you are seeing lead times that are now going into 2022,” he says.
Yuval David and his husband, Mark McDermott, picked a sleek Wi-Fi-enabled Bosch refrigerator as part of their kitchen remodel. The couple had relocated from Manhattan to Montgomery County early in the COVID-19 pandemic after having what David calls “suburban fantasies” and realizing that they both can work from anywhere. David says he didn’t pick the fridge because of its connectivity, but it turns out he likes the technology. “When you have guests over or kids over and if somebody forgets to close the refrigerator it will notify you…there’s an app for that,” says David, an actor, director and social-change advocate who says he learned a lot about cooking and entertaining while serving as a host and judge at food shows and festivals in the U.S. and abroad.
When he and McDermott bought their house, David wanted to create the same type of kitchen that they had in their New York apartment—sleek, modern and designed around entertaining dozens of friends on a whim. “I’m the type of person who can whip up a meal for 50 people in an hour or maybe two,” he says.
Shortly after moving in, David discovered Home Depot’s new design center on Rockville Pike. “Walking through there—through the design center—gave me even more ideas that truly fit my aesthetic,” he says. He went there so many times that he became friends with the staff. Now he has what he calls a “tech-forward kitchen” with two steam ovens, including a dual-function model with a gas cooktop; a dishwasher with an energy-efficient air-dry setting; and more.
Nearly every appliance he chose plays a “little jingle” that lets him know when something is turning on or off, or needs checking. Friends who’ve come to visit have commented on how helpful that is—and how cool the tunes are. And his Miele ovens are smart enough to know that he uses the convection steam setting most often, so that’s the option that appears first when he turns them on, saving him the trouble of scrolling through the array of choices. “There are high-end appliances that have all these extra bells and whistles that are truly unnecessary…for my needs,” David says. “But there are other high-end appliances that make it a much easier process of cooking and working efficiently in the kitchen.”
Caroline Fawcett and her husband, Thomas O’Donnell, weren’t looking for the latest technology when they remodeled their Chevy Chase kitchen last year. “I work out of my house,” says Fawcett, a labor economist. “I’m not the busy mom at the soccer games [who wants to] turn [her] oven on and all that other stuff.” But the couple ended up choosing an induction cooktop—one of the kitchen trade’s newest advances. It heats by transferring currents from an electromagnetic field located below the cooktop’s surface directly onto the cookware. Traditional electric and gas stoves operate using a thermal current that heats the entire surface of the burner.
Induction cooking has become increasingly popular because it heats up as quickly as gas, and the heat disperses more evenly; it’s also considered safer because there is no flame—the pot gets hot, but not the cooktop’s surface. Fawcett’s kitchen designer, Nadia Subaran of Aidan Design in Silver Spring, introduced the idea to the couple; she had installed an induction cooktop in her own house. “She encouraged me to talk to people who had one,” Fawcett says. Everyone, including the couple’s daughter, a professionally trained chef living in New York City, seems to love it, she says.
Saucepans and skillets must have magnetic bottoms to work with an induction current, so customers making the switch often have to start over with different pots and pans. That wasn’t a deterrent for Fawcett. Some of her pots, like those by the French company Le Creuset, work fine on her new cooktop. And she didn’t mind getting rid of the others—some had been around since she got married 40 years ago.
Kelly Emerson, who works with Subaran at Aidan Design, says the firm’s designers encourage customers to research as much as they can in advance. That way, clients are comfortable with the products they eventually choose. Still, the designers try to accommodate standard-size appliances so something else will fit the space if a homeowner decides later to make a change. Emerson says she does worry a bit about gadgets that are particularly cutting edge. When Kohler came out with a motion-sensing faucet for home use a couple of years ago, she wanted to make sure that clients who selected it were able to turn it off manually, just in case.
Kohler, a brand known more for its bathroom components than kitchen appliances, now has a faucet that’s voice activated. Through an app called “Kohler Konnect,” it pairs with Amazon Alexa and Apple’s and Google’s cloud-based voice services to dispense water in virtually all measurable increments. “You can tell it to fill up [two] cups of water,” says Jim Grace, vice president of marketing for Reico Kitchen & Bath, which has a showroom in Bethesda. Design consultant Erin Siarey, who works out of the Kohler Signature Store in downtown Bethesda, says the voice-activated faucets, because they are so new, are still yielding more inquiries than actual buyers, but the motion-sensor models have become popular.
Another trend is sparkling water on tap, according to Daren Smith of Smiley Renovations. Since last year, many of his customers have been requesting Zip Water’s HydroTap system, which offers two choices of filtered water—sparkling or still. The faucet works through a built-in compressor under the sink. “Just about every time we let folks know about it, they are all in to have one installed,” Smith says.
“After your early adopters who go all in,” many consumers are just looking for ways technology can make things a little easier, says Grace, who’s based in Reico’s headquarters in Springfield, Virginia. “Most people like to ease into technology to avoid being overwhelmed by it.”
For Dr. Sirisha Durbhakula, it was all about the vegetables. When she and her husband remodeled their Potomac kitchen in 2019, the pediatrician and mother of three was focused on making it easy for her family to eat healthy. Her favorite addition: a Miele steam oven, perfect for cooking Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes and asparagus, the family’s new staples. Durbhakula’s daughter is the family baker, and her specialty had long been cookies and brownies. Since adding the steam oven—which is supposed to retain nutrients better than a microwave and to heat faster than a regular oven—one of the 12-year-old’s favorite dishes to make is gluten-free strawberry cobbler with oats, almond flour and honey.
Just off the kitchen is a Miele coffee maker that’s built into a wall. Durbhakula, 46, preset everyone’s favorite beverages onto its digital screen so they only have to press a button to get their latte, espresso or tea. Just below it is a temperature-controlled wine refrigerator. Some of the kitchen’s cabinets have front panels that open upward at the slightest touch, much like the doors of a 1980s DeLorean automobile. Sometimes called “appliance garages,” these oversize storage centers have been gaining traction in the kitchen design trade. “Because we’ve gone to such an open-concept kitchen…people are looking for ways to clean up the kitchen and not have clutter on countertops,” says Meghan Browne, the designer at Jennifer Gilmer Kitchen & Bath in Chevy Chase who worked with Durbhakula on the sleek and spacious layout.
Browne says her clients are more likely to ask for ways to hide their existing gadgetry than they are to inquire about state-of-the-art appliances. Even Durbhakula admits that she hasn’t explored all the technology that’s offered by her new kitchen products. Even with the steam oven, she only really knows the basics. “I think these things can all do a lot more than I’m using them for,” she says. “We just have not adapted yet to the concept that our life could be even easier.”
Amy Halpern is a journalist who has worked in print and television news. She lives in Potomac.