Ultimate Outdoor Kitchens: Cook, Dine, Entertain Al Fresco

There is no doubt about it: food tastes better when it is cooked outside. But the days of struggling with charcoal briquets on a tired old grill in a remote corner of the yard are over. Today more and more homeowners are upgrading their backyard grills to full-on, all-out outdoor kitchens.

Outdoor units can be as simple as a small built-in grill fired by charcoal or a propane tank to an entire kitchen complete with a dishwasher, sink, multiple refrigeration units, and more. Entire meals from soup to dessert can be prepared, served and cleaned up in these self-contained outdoor kitchens.

What attracts a homeowner to an outdoor kitchen? There is the allure of being able to invite friends and family to your home and enjoy an outdoor meal. “Plus, people want to take advantage of their time at home,” says Chris Templeton of CLC Incorporated, a design-and-build landscape firm that assists homeowners in outdoor kitchen projects.

Homeowners here are following current customs nationwide. “Our area is catching up with the trends elsewhere,” says Jimmy Henderson of A-Plus Lawn Care. When people visit friends, they see what is in vogue and bring ideas back to our area. Though having a deck is quite common here in our area, outdoor kitchens are just as commonplace in other parts of the country, according to Henderson, and our area is catching on.

Henderson points out that when the housing boom slowed down, the interest rates dropped, and many people refinanced their homes. Today homeowners are spending money in their own homes to upgrade their living space. One added incentive: the installation of an outdoor kitchen also helps the resale value of a home.

“Outdoor kitchens are the rage right now,” said Lindsey Johnson of Ferguson Bath, Kitchen and Lighting Gallery, which has showrooms in Lynchburg and retail stores in all 50 states. Johnson says that destination vacations have been replaced with making the destination home. Instead of spending money to travel to a luxury spot, spending time at home and in the backyard becomes the vacation.

The Lynchburg Ferguson store recently added a complete outdoor kitchen to their showroom, allowing visitors to see up close the wonders of a fully equipped outdoor unit. It includes ample cooking space as well as a sink, refrigeration units and a dishwasher. Johnson points out that having all these components “keeps everyone in one space.” During a typical picnic hosted by a couple, you will likely find the man outside working the grill, and the woman inside preparing the rest of the food. The outdoor kitchen brings everyone together.

According to Johnson, the first step when considering an outdoor kitchen space is to locate a landscape designer. A qualified designer knows what is important in the planning and layout phase as well as understanding the local building requirements. Permits must be filed, and the work is subject to inspections, just like any other home building project.

Chris Templeton points out that homeowners run into problems if they do not think ahead. Be sure to plan for future expansion. For example, when initially installing an outdoor kitchen, a swimming pool may not be part of the plan. But at this phase, keep options open so there is room later on to expand. “We have had to fix things because people did not think ahead,” says Templeton. By tapping in to the experience of a landscape design firm, homeowners can design an area that is functional today and can easily be expanded upon later.

Norman Tharpe of Water Garden Designs by Tharpe Landscaping Company has installed outdoor kitchens all along the East Coast. He explains that location is a major factor in the equation of outdoor kitchens. His advice is to be sure it is accessible to the main house. The further from the house and household appliances, the more you’ll need additional appliances in the outdoor kitchen. The project “should not be an afterthought,” says Tharpe. “It should be useable, convenient and aesthetically pleasing.” The design of the outdoor kitchen unit should also match or complement the exterior of the home.

When A-Plus Lawn Care is approached by homeowners regarding the installation of an outdoor kitchen, Henderson’s first step is to study the outdoor space and ask the homeowners exactly how they want to use their outdoor space. Do they just want a cooking space or would they prefer to have an eating area as well? It is also important to know how much entertaining they plan to do. Henderson suggests planning furniture layout at this stage too, to make sure dining pieces will fit to your liking.

Choosing Appliances, Options
Consider your lifestyle when planning your outdoor kitchen. Think of it this way: Are you the kind of family who wants to rough it a bit when you are camping, or would you prefer a motor home with all the comforts of home? Templeton prefers a simpler approach to outdoor kitchen design. “If you add too much, you lose the fun of an outdoor kitchen,” he believes. However, some people want all the amenities of indoor space outside, and for them, there is the freezer, icemaker, television, music and even misters for insect control.

Outdoor appliances, according to Lindsey Johnson, must be outdoor certified. Tharpe recommends using the best quality craftsmanship and appliances possible. “They must be able to withstand whatever the weather brings,” says Tharpe. Use heavy-duty and commercial-grade appliances. For cabinets, reinforced stainless steel holds up, as do certain types of marine-grade polymer materials. For flooring and countertops, use natural stone and masonry. Make sure they are as low maintenance
as possible.

When it comes to appliances, the choices are limitless. Whatever is available for an indoor kitchen is also available as an outdoor appliance with an outdoor rating. Cold drink dispensers can hold and refrigerate a small keg of beer to be served directly on tap. Some grills will sear or blacken meat and fish and even turn meat over when it is ready. There are warming drawers and refrigerator drawers to keep everything at your fingertips. Fire pits provide ambiance plus a place to roast some marshmallows. Outdoor chimneys offer a spot to stay warm, and a pizza oven provides perfect baking conditions for that homemade pizza. Misting machines that run on timers spray a fine, cooling mist of water mixed with organic oil of St. John’s wort to deter insects.

Some sort of shade or cover for protection from the elements is essential. A solid roof or an awning can be effective solutions. Overhead fans help keep the air moving, and outdoor-certified light fixtures provide lighting and ambiance. Speakers with docking stations for iPods and even televisions are added features that make the area particularly ideal for entertaining.

Local Couple Enjoys Outdoor Kitchen
Cyndi and Jeff Riley of Lynchburg already had patios, a pool house, a swimming pool and a water feature. To complete their outdoor space, they installed an outdoor kitchen in one corner of their patio. They asked Mark Maslow of Southern Landscape Group to help them with the project. “The Rileys had an idea and we developed the plan that included all of its elements,” says Maslow.

According to Jeff Riley, “We like to be outdoors.” Cyndi adds, “Jeff is the grill master and we wanted a nice area where we could grill.” Family and friends can gather around while the meal is prepared.

The couple looked at many plans before they came up with their design. Comparable to an indoor party where everyone congregates in the kitchen, the outdoor kitchen is designed so it is not only functional for the cooks but accessible to the guests. A long stone countertop easily seats eight and looks directly into the cooking area. The countertop forms a frame around the kitchen, and a roof provides shade and protection from the elements. A ceiling fan keeps smoke from settling and provides an even air flow.

Inside the kitchen, the couple decided to keep things simple. A small built-in refrigerator, a sink, a grill, and storage cabinets provide all the necessary elements for a functional kitchen. The couple plans to add a warming drawer to keep side dishes hot while the rest of the meal cooks.

With the counter space and additional poolside tables, the area easily seats 24 guests. Cyndi points out that they have a large extended family, and the outdoor kitchen is perfect for entertaining. In fact, it was ideal for hosting a prom party this past spring for their daughter.

According to Mark Maslow, outdoor kitchens are not a do-it-yourself project. “Designers think about certain things that homeowners don’t,” he says. Sun exposure, drainage and space requirements are just some of the concerns that can easily be neglected in the planning stage. This type of project calls for a licensed professional to complete a quality job.

Easy, convenient and functional: This is what homeowners look for in their outdoor kitchen designs. And Maslow points out, “If you properly plan and design a project from the beginning, the outcome will be on time, on budget and with the quality that the customer expects.”

 

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