Dreaming of an outdoor kitchen? It’s within reach of most any budget. But before you start planning, consider these scraps of wisdom from award-winning professionals.
Looking for a way to marry the big game with the great outdoors? Then you need an outdoor kitchen. Don’t balk. Don’t turn the page thinking you cannot afford one or that you don’t have enough space. Truthfully, the size of your backyard does not matter much, nor does even having a backyard.
It’s a common misconception, says Russ Faulk, head of product and design at Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, “that outdoor kitchens are found only in lavish, sprawling estates, when in reality you can achieve your dream kitchen in any number of settings.” He lists urban rooftops, traditional suburban backyards and spacious, rural landscapes as examples.
As for price, according to Lowe’s, you can DIY an outdoor kitchen with a sink, all-weather countertop, bar seating and storage for glasses for less than $1,000. Of course, that’s assuming you already have the grill. Because what’s an outdoor kitchen without a grill? Not much. So start with a grill and integrate the other essentials as they suit your budget, style and footprint.
If you do, you’ll confirm what the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) is already saying. When surveyed by Brown Jordan Kitchens’ 2020 State of the Industry Report, 64% of ASID members said interest in outdoor living spaces is increasing, comparably in both four-season and warm weather climates.
“Indoors and out,” says Mitch Slater, president and founder of award-winning Brown Jordan Outdoor Kitchens and Danver Stainless Outdoor Kitchens, “kitchens often serve as primary entertaining spaces and should be designed to allow hosts to truly enjoy their role. Outdoor kitchens should operate independently from the indoor kitchen to help homeowners avoid missing plays and spend more time with fellow fans, rather than make frequent trips to an indoor kitchen.” Exactly. So here’s what you need for your outdoor kitchen.
To stand alone on a patio doesn’t do a grill justice, particularly when it can become the heart of an outdoor kitchen. At a minimum, explains Faulk, an outdoor cooking space should include a grill and one or two storage cabinets.
The grill’s placement depends on the user’s preference, points out Heather Sweeney, senior designer at Mom’s Design Build, a Minnesota-based outdoor living space architecture, gardening and construction company and winner of a 2019 HGTV Ultimate Outdoor Award. Does the cook want to be in the center of the action or off to the side, thus allowing another favorite appliance to shine? (More on those sparkling competitors later.)
As for which grill to purchase, an entire article could be devoted to the options. The choices seem nearly endless. Nevertheless, Faulk provides one bit of advice. “When selecting your grill, base your choice on the cook you aspire to be, not the kind you are now.”
At the recent Kitchen & Bath Industry Show in Las Vegas, outdoor kitchens captured a lot of attention, particularly at the NatureKast booth, where, using real-life scenarios, the company flanked smokers and grills with its weatherproof cabinetry. The results impressed attendees, who commented on the wood-inspired finishes and variety of style choices, including Shaker, Louver and the new Euro.
When asked why outside storage was necessary, designers cited homeowners who prefer separate pots, pans and utensils from those used indoors, along with easy access to grilling implements, sprayers, pellet storage and cleaners.
Additionally, cabinetry elevates the look of outdoor kitchens. “We’ve seen a trend towards more sophisticated, tailored designs as homeowners seek outdoor kitchens that mirror or expand the functionality and continue the design aesthetic of their indoor kitchen,” shares Slater, whose Danver specializes in stainless steel outdoor cabinets. “They want cabinetry that looks, feels and functions like what they have inside, while offering durability to withstand the elements with minimal maintenance.”
Brown Jordan’s industry report found that neutral colors and stainless steel remain popular finishes, but natural colors, such as blues and greens, are garnering interest as well. That finding is echoed by Faulk. “We’re seeing more incorporation of color into outdoor kitchens,” he says, “which is perfect for the sports fanatic who wants to reflect the colors of their favorite team.”
As one designer stated, “You need a place to prep the food. You need a place to serve the food.” Thus ample counter space is a necessity. Concrete and granite have been the go-tos, but the options have evolved to include UV-stable quartz. None of the options is painless or maintenance free, however.
“Granite is readily available at a nice price point,” says Sweeney. But, she cautions, expert advice should be solicited since “dark colors will be hot to the touch and some of the white colors will yellow in full sun.
“UV-stable quartz composite is the one product I am the most excited about for 2020,” she adds. “It’s stain-resistant, scratch-resistant and low maintenance. It comes at a higher price point, but it offers something different.”
Designer/builder Michael Gotowala at Outdoor Kitchen Design Store likes Porcelanosa, a Spanish ceramic manufacturer with multiple applications, including countertops. “It’s my material of choice because it requires less maintenance and can have the look of Calcutta marble. The hues, styles, characteristics of durability are inherent in the same slab.”
One consideration for countertops, he adds, is to be sure installers pay attention to the counter’s pitch. “You still want the water to pour off, but not roll into the cabinetry. If you score it properly, the water should splay out and not get into the cabinets.”
Remember the shiny appliances mentioned earlier that compete with the grill for attention? Here they are—refrigerators, kegorators, wine coolers, and beverage centers.
While homegating and entertaining, the location of drinks and glasses becomes like a watering hole in Africa—all the animals come together at once. Therefore, from a design perspective, you want some distance between your grill and kegorator. Maybe even have more than one refrigerator—one for food and one for drinks, or one for adult beverages and another for the under-21 set.
Whatever you choose, advises Gotowala, pay attention to the capabilities of the refrigerator. Is it known for maintaining a safe temperature for food even if the sun hits it? Is it made for outdoor use? Sure, he says, a dorm-style refrigerator might fit your space and cost less, but it will fail you in the long run.
Faulk says Kalamazoo hears a lot of concerns about refrigeration. “A high-quality outdoor refrigerator can be left outdoors year-round,” he says. “A good unit is efficient enough and powerful enough to overcome summer heat.”
In locations with harsh winters, winterization is necessary notes Leslie Anderson of Minnesota’s Eden Prairie Appliance, but it is not a difficult process. The unit can be left in place outside and switched off for the season.
If your intention is to marry sports entertainment with al fresco snacking and dining, you will want easy access to a television. Sure, you could keep running back inside to catch a play, but it’s so much better for conversation, camaraderie and keeping the cook company to have the TV as part of the outdoor kitchen design. Manufacturers make TVs that can withstand the elements. Shop carefully and pay attention to care and maintenance. In Minnesota, for example, Sweeney of Mom’s Design Build recommends covering the TV when not in use and during harsh weather.
“An outdoor television has to be brighter than indoors,” advises Faulk, “because sunlight is so much brighter than the lights in your den. Having a roof over the space will help make a big difference. It will reduce glare on the screen and improve brightness. A roof can also mitigate the need for using an outdoor-rated television or one of those weatherproof TV clamshells.”
Outdoor kitchens can be designed with all the indoor kitchen amenities, including sinks and dishwashers manufactured for outdoor use. As important as clean-up is, however, other options present more fun.
Pizza ovens are increasing in popularity. On game days, having a pizza oven proves invaluable since guests, including kids, can dress their own and then the cook can pop it into a wood-fired oven to bake. “The pizza adds variety. They provide a great option for people who don’t want just meat,” notes Anderson.
Warming drawers provide a touch of luxury, particularly for the cook. Because hosts can prepare food ahead of time and keep it warm until serving, they gain time to mingle with their guests. These drawers are great for grillers, who can cook some ribs, put them in the drawer to stay warm, and then sizzle some burgers. When all the food is ready, it can be served at once, or it can be enjoyed leisurely, between plays, kind of piecemeal.
Power side burners complement grills and can be used to crank up corn, simmer some jambalaya, or boil mega lobsters. For Gotowala, whose book “Outdoor Kitchen Fabulous” is slated to be released this summer, side burners are a must-have, simply because they add versatility to the menus.
You can’t have a party without ice. Instead of hauling it from your indoor freezer, use a specialized ice drawer to keep cubes fresh. Or invest in an outdoor ice machine. In colder climes, it will need to be winterized.
Finally, add some warmth to your overall design with a firepit or a hearth. Says Brown Jordan’s Slater, “firepits extend the use of your outdoor living space beyond the summer months and into the peak of football season.” Like pizza ovens, both firepits and fireplaces are gaining in popularity.
As for outdoor kitchens as a whole, they’re not a mere trend or fad. “They bring life outdoors,” says Gotowala. “An outdoor kitchen represents a lifestyle that’s here to stay.”