Although cooking outdoors was once the best way to keep your house from burning down, many cultures maintain traditions of cooking and eating out of doors as the best way to celebrate good weather, good company and great food all at the same time. It doesn’t need to be fancy—wonderful family stories center around breakfast cooked over a campfire. Fancy or plain, outdoor meals turn ordinary days into special occasions.
A great way to boost your family’s special-occasion inventory is by building an outdoor kitchen and dining area. Guests are likely to agree that the most appealing ingredient in outdoor entertaining is a feeling of relaxation. Creating a space that puts refreshments and equipment within easy reach extends that relaxation to the host and hostess as well.
What does today’s outdoor kitchen offer to families who want to entertain at home? Everything an indoor kitchen offers—and more! And, as is the case indoors, the key to a great outdoor kitchen is thoughtful planning.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
The three Ls of successful business are critical to creating an outdoor kitchen you will use with enjoyment. Perhaps your location seems a foregone conclusion; the corner of the existing patio is perfect. Perhaps, like a theater director, you must build invisible walls around an island of open space. The calculations are similar in either instance: in addition to foot-traffic, storage and work-space you need to take into account patterns of light and air that affect your setting. Decisions take time and observation. Wheeling a small grill to another part of the yard when the breeze carries smoke over the picnic table is easy. Siting a permanently-installed grill, serving counters and seating takes more sustained planning. Glare, the heat of sun on surfaces, the most frequent paths of bad weather, and the impacts of natural and artificial shade all come into play.
Thoughtful observation prepares you to get the most out of working with an experienced designer or contractor. For example: How much sun will your desired location get? Take some photographs throughout a sunny day. Is the whole area soaked in sun? Is there a lot of glare? Hang a thermometer away from the direct sun and chart how hot your kitchen area can get on warm days. Will your countertops by the grill be too hot to touch? Will your serving counter be cool enough to set out salads, drinks or dessert?
Do you have some existing shade? Do you need more? Again, photos help. Some trees provide wonderful shade. Others just increase your work. The mulberry, crabapple or black walnut tree that means frequent hosing off the patio can leave permanent stains on counters and work surfaces. The cleanup factor alone can help you decide on adding a shade structure.
Travel costs money. To maximize the use of your outdoor kitchen, you need to minimize the distances between existing sources of gas, water and electricity. “Travel’ can also affect your location in other ways. Easy reentry to the house makes it easy to wash up for dinner or put away leftovers that will be used at an indoor meal. Quick access via the driveway or garage makes it easier to resupply your kitchen with heavy items like cases of beverages.
The popularity of outdoor entertaining has created two trends in outdoor-kitchen equipment. The first relates to quality, and the second to variety. Major appliance manufacturers, like Viking, Sub-Zero and Wolf, have brought high-end design and durability to the growing outdoor market. Leaders in outdoor grilling, like Kalamazoo, Lynx and Blaze have expanded from free-standing grills to a wealth of built-in choices and specialized cabinetry. Luxury-quality grills can be obtained for natural gas or wood-fired grilling. Grills feature insulated storage cabinets, warming drawers, carefully calibrated heat zones and other professional-grade culinary options. Custom vent fans can draw heat efficiently from built-in units, keeping smoke and strong cooking odors away from guests while reducing temperatures around the grill. Stainless steel and tempered glass produce both high performance and durability of service.
Other kitchen functions have attracted the attention of luxury-quality manufacturers, with durability and easy maintenance as high priorities. Sub-Zero, Wolf, and Kalamazoo have all made their marks on this active market, and it is hard to think of a food-preparation, service or storage area need they have left unmet. Refrigeration serves as just one illustration of the creative options open to consumers: in addition to solidly-insulated compact refrigerators, all the appurtenances of well-equipped restaurants are available in models designed for outdoor kitchens. Freezers, wine coolers, beverage cases, kegerators, and ice-makers all expand the capacities of outdoor hospitality.
Manufacturers and equipment importers have also responded to enthusiasm for cuisines beyond standard American favorites. Pizza ovens, available in modern stainless steel and more traditional masonry materials, rank high on family wish-lists. Outdoor grills offer modifications for woks and deep-fryers. Growing interest in the cuisines of Central and South America has stimulated manufacture of gaucho- or Argentine-barbecue-style grilling rigs. Specialized smoker equipment lets cooks experiment with everything from ribs to fish. A custom-installed tandoor oven brings Indian cuisine out of the restaurant and into the back yard. Again, the watchwords are professional-grade and durable.
To make the best use of your time with a professional designer or contractor, think about the design of your kitchen in the ways they will approach the challenges of the job. Look at your planned room from the inside out: what kinds of hospitality are you likely to offer most often? Then look from the outside in: what kinds of protection do you need to make that hospitality work?
Like indoor kitchens, outdoor ones depend on the inclusion of many permanent work-related structures in the basic design. Adequate, well-positioned counter space is critical, to the point that kitchen designers sometimes suggest potential owners walk through routines like getting a family meal or setting up for a party. The rigors of weather and outdoor activities also suggest that in an outdoor kitchen additional counter-space can be more useful than more fragile or portable furniture. In addition to a bar-height counter for adults, for example, you could also install a lower counter to accommodate snack-seeking kids—and adults—during an afternoon in the pool. For more elaborate entertaining or large-group meals, stationary tables accommodate both refreshments and guests. You may also want to create a quiet corner for small-group gatherings and solitary relaxation.
Outdoor cooking can present some unique stresses. Barbecuing introduces intense heat, smoke-stains and a whole menu of acid-based, highly-colored, fat-bonding ingredients in sauces and marinades. The informality of outdoor cooking may mean many cooks in the kitchen, more exposure of fixtures and equipment to both heat- and cold-shock, and heavy pots set down with a bang. Weather is a constant consideration. Surfaces and equipment may be subject to high temperatures, freeze-and-thaw cycles and winds freighted with dust, sand and other corrosive materials. (Anyone who has accidentally left a yard chair out all winter knows how rapidly even relatively mild changes in weather can cause deterioration.) Some choices in durability are already made by experienced manufacturers; you can’t look for outdoor kitchen equipment without seeing a lot of stainless steel. Walls, floors and counters rely on stone and concrete for long-term stability. Canopies, shade-sails and custom-made equipment covers, mostly in weatherproof marine fabrics, protect a wide variety of surfaces from ice, snow, intense sunlight, heat and wind.
In this challenging environment, materials choices matter, and stone is an excellent choice for counters that will tolerate tough conditions while retaining their beauty and low maintenance needs. Your professional designer or experienced contractor can offer excellent guidance on the best-performing stone choices for your climate and site conditions. Natural stones have some advantages over those enhanced by technology. The most durable of those, granite and quartzite, retain their sheen and integrity with periodic surface resealing and prompt clean-up of spills and possible stains. (In some areas, granite and quartzite may be joined by other natural options. Soapstone, for example, is a softer stone, more prone to staining and scratching, from human or weather activity, but the additional wear-and-tear may not discourage consumers who want a strong rustic flavor to their outdoor setting.)
Ask lots of questions if considering engineered quartz for an outdoor kitchen. Surface durability is not a consideration; as is the case indoors, engineered quartz excels in hardness, resiliance and ease of maintenance. The resins and pigments essential to quartz’s durability and beauty, however, can be U/V light-sensitive, resulting in discoloration or fading in outdoor settings. Experienced professionals can help you obtain a more detailed performance history of engineered quartz in your area. Fortunately, natural granite and natural quartzite offer beautiful, durable choices for the new, soon-to-be-favorite, room in your hospitable home.