Here's a recipe for identifying a sensitive cook top. Take a dollar bill and put a dollop of butter on it. Now melt the butter, leaving the dollar bill a bit oily, but otherwise unscathed.

That's the kind of test only a chef could come up with; someone who knows his way around a kitchen and, presumably, how to set up a kitchen to make it cook. With the increasing integration of the kitchen into a home's living area, would builders be wise to let a chef have a hand in picking design ingredients?

Pulte Homes' Las Vegas division is trying to find out the answer. In the spring, it opened its first community since partnering with Gustav Mauler, a chef, designer, and celebrity in Sin City. The results are inconclusive, but Pulte-Las Vegas is hoping that Mauler's star appeal and expertise will lead to a better kitchen -- one for which home buyers will be willing to pay an extra $20,000 in upgrades.

Pulte-Las Vegas (exclusive of Del Webb) builds 900 units a year and since the autumn of 2002 has opened 18 communities with a median home price of $300,000. That's $100,000 above the city's median home price, says Randy Bury, the division's president.

"We're always looking for ways to distinguish ourselves, to fit the needs of our specialized buyers and mirror the prices we charge," he says.

An exclusive partnership with Mauler fits the bill. Born in Austria, Mauler is a certified master chef and president and CEO of Gustav International, a restaurant, hospitality, management, and consulting company. In his early years in Las Vegas, he created and oversaw restaurants for Mirage Resorts. Today, he operates four upscale Las Vegas eateries. He writes a regular column in glossy Las Vegas magazine. And for those who don't eat out or read magazines, he makes regular TV appearances on the local Fox channel's morning news show.

Mauler is the kind of warm, bear of a guy you would love to find in your kitchen, mixing up some sauces. "The kitchen has become the focal point of the home. People hang around there," he says. "So the question is, how do you make the kitchen more exciting?"

A $20,000 Upgrade

At the heart of Mauler's partnership with Pulte is his endorsement of an appliance upgrade package. It includes a stainless-steel wall-mounted hood, professional cook top with gas burner and grill, steel built-in microwave with speed cook technology that makes the oven cook and brown food more like a convection oven, stainless steel double convection oven, a warming drawer, a solid built-in stainless steel refrigerator with dispenser, a fully integrated stainless steel dishwasher, and a wine chiller. Along with the GE Monogram Series appliances, home buyers receive the "Gustav Mauler, CMC, Seal of Approval."

Mauler calls the equipment "exceptional" and "fabulous." It is part of a $20,000 upgrade that also includes cabinetry. The appliance portion is about half the cost of the upgrade, Pulte says.

Paradiso in the Summerlin master planned community, the first development with the Mauler option, opened in March. A 98-lot gated community, Paradiso offers two single-story models measuring 3,000 and 3,064 square feet, respectively; and two, two-story models, measuring 3,380 and 3,448 square feet.

The models are priced from $425,990 to $481,990 and offer 10-foot ceilings, jetted Jacuzzi tubs in the master bedroom, stamped concrete, French doors, exterior fireplaces, and upgraded closets.

A month after the opening, the Southern Nevada New Homes Guide called the "Seal of Approval" kitchens Pulte's most popular upgrade. And Pulte reports that one-quarter of its buyers are selecting the upgrade.

"Even if people are not buying, they're calling us or stopping by the model," Randy Bury says. "We're interested in driving the most traffic to the site, and we're achieving that."

Where to Put the Groceries

The upgrade led to a few design changes -- running the 70,000 BTU cooking appliances on an outside wall to make venting the heat simpler, and wiring extra 220-volt outlets, for example. "What we did is make the upgrades easy," Mauler says. "Now the homeowner doesn't have to have another electrician in. For the builder, one or two electrical outlets aren't expensive."

Any designer with ambitions to plan a kitchen should be able to "put out a meal for eight people -- without using a microwave." -- Don Silvers, chef and designer Compoa Mauler also had another, more subtle, influence on the kitchen. As a consultant to the design team, he offered a cook's-eye-view during the kitchen's planning and framing stages, according to Todd Hahn, Pulte's sales director. "There's security in knowing that someone who uses a kitchen is in on the process," he says.

Chef/designers have plenty to say about the average residential kitchen. For Mauler, the question "Where do you put down the groceries?" is emblematic of the considerations most kitchen designers ignore. He diagnoses the problem of kitchen design, including the one in his own home, bluntly: "Kitchens have been designed for 30 years by people who don't cook."

Todd English echoes Mauler's critique. "The biggest mistake home builders and designers tend to make is in not designing their kitchens for functionality," says English, the chef, designer, and businessman behind Olives, the Boston-based Italian eatery, and other restaurants. "Designers are designing for looks first, and functionality second. That's a mistake."

Liam Collins, a chef and residential kitchen designer in Detroit who also reviews the designs of others, tells a story proving how truth is often stranger than fiction. "One designer wanted to sell the clients a 'distressed' looking kitchen featuring 'authentically rusted' steel plates over all the cooking surfaces," Collins says. "Needless to say, I mentioned that unless they enjoy Tetanus shots weekly, it might not be such a great idea."

Compliments to the Chef

Does the participation in design of celebrity chefs like Mauler and English, who also works with supplier Timberlake Cabinets on three kitchen designs, signal a trend? Interviews with builders and chefs suggest it's too early to tell. But involving chefs on small-scale projects is nothing new. Don Silvers has been doing it for years. A Los Angeles-based chef, designer, and author of "Kitchen Design with Cooking in Mind," Silvers doesn't advocate using just any cook to lay out a kitchen.

"Chefs aren't necessarily good designers," he says. But, he adds, any designer with ambitions to plan a kitchen should be able to "put out a meal for eight people -- without using a microwave."

Rocking the gravy boat, Silvers dismisses the nearly sacred kitchen triangle, saying it "does just about everything in the world to make sure your kitchen doesn't work." He lets usage and convenience drive his designs instead.

"Don understands how the kitchen and cooking activities operate," says Chris Vaughn, managing member of Natural Communities LLC. Vaughn is building a 50-townhome development on the Columbia River, in Washington state. Silvers designed the kitchens.

The kitchens feature two sinks -- one for food preparation and another for cleanup -- and "well-placed point of use storage," Vaughn says. A tall, vertical pantry is next to the refrigerator, and other smaller storage spaces are located near the appliances, "so you don't have to walk across the kitchen to get cooking oil."

Silvers used two unconventional design elements to create additional work and storage space. Sinks and major appliances are located in corners, rather than in the center of counters. And countertops are 30-inches deep. "If you have a mixer or food processor on a 24-inch counter, there's almost no room to do prep work," Vaughn says.

While Pulte's kitchen design innovations are much more modest, Randy Bury says he hopes that a continuing partnership with Chef Mauler will lead to the kind of hands-on design work that could turn out a much more functional kitchen. But the next step, he says, is to introduce the Seal-of-Approval upgrade in all of Pulte's Las Vegas product lines.

Mauler's high name recognition in Las Vegas confers to the Pulte kitchen the sizzle of celebrity. But Todd English says that chefs with design experience can bring something more fundamental to a builder's kitchen -- "the knowledge of how things should be organized."

"Chefs are trained in work-flow issues, and we can help educate residential builders and designers in how to make the flow of the kitchen work better," English says. "It's very important."

Everything in Its Place

BIG BUILDER asked Todd English what his ideal kitchen would contain. English is owner and chef of Olives, Figs, KingFish Hall, Tuscany, and Bonfire restaurants -- and cooks occasionally from his home in Boston.

"My ideal kitchen would have multiple sinks for different functions -- residential kitchens never have enough sinks. Plus, I'd have multiple dishwashers -- one just for glassware -- and plenty of countertop and storage space. A well-organized kitchen is essential -- you know, everything in its place.

In addition, my ideal kitchen would have a brick oven designed for the home, and adequate refrigeration. That's important to me. Plus, there would have to be space for proper wine storage.

Optimum lighting also is essential, as well as a great sound system. The kitchen is the place where we hang out today and music helps create the mood."

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Las Vegas, NV.