You know how it goes — at this time of year, you can’t wait to get outside and start enjoying the nice weather. You daydream about summer barbecues in your freshly manicured yard. Maybe you have a pool, and as friends and kids frolic in and around it, you watch on and tend happily to the grill, reveling in the aroma of perfectly cooked steaks, burgers, chicken and ribs.
Except, you forgot the burger buns, so you need to run back inside. Then, you use all the barbecue sauce, so it’s off to the pantry for more of that. You need a clean plate for the cooked chicken…back to the kitchen. Did you turn the stove on to boil water for the sweet corn? What about the baked beans — are they done? In and out, in and out. By now you’ve missed half of the conversation, and you’re not part of the fun; you feel more like the hired help. You need a sous chef, or at least a personal assistant, to do all this running back into the house.
Actually, the perfect solution is an outdoor kitchen. We’re not talking about a grill with a burner attached here — we mean the works: a grill, additional burners, refrigeration and ice-making capabilities, a sink, storage, counter-top space and a place (either a bar or a table) where you and your family and friends can sit down and eat. If the 1970s saw the popularization of the basement rumpus room, the ’80s of the family room, and the ’90s of the open kitchen, then this decade has birthed the outdoor kitchen, according to the experts we talked to. Perhaps it’s the result of our busy schedules — we work harder and longer and therefore don’t mind splurging on the things that make our leisure time more enjoyable. Whatever the reason, it’s a brilliant invention, and one you can customize to your own needs, space and budget.
Linda Beaulieu and her husband had an outdoor kitchen installed in their Narragansett summer home five years ago. The fact that they only used the house half the year didn’t faze Beaulieu, who does PR and marketing for local chefs and restaurants. “Even if we only had June through September to use it,” she says, “it’s worth that. It totally transforms the house.”
It also transforms the way they entertain. The Beaulieus are a good example of the new outdoor kitchen customer: they aren’t always the super-wealthy. But the Beaulieus have company over often and like to make the most of what they have and enjoy their leisure time to the max. “We had friends over every weekend, and we didn’t always want to be running in and out of the house when we entertained,” explains Beaulieu. “We wanted it to feel like this was a room where we had all the essentials,” she says.
Beaulieu decided the new kitchen would have to go on the back side of the house, in the yard. “The front of the house has a view of the ocean,” she says, “and the back yard looks like everyone else’s. We wanted to elevate the whole experience. And once we got over our obsession about not being able to see the ocean, we realized it gave us total privacy and was perfect.”
Beaulieu called in Frank Martin of Martin Grill and Ovenworks, in Pawtucket, to remake her back yard. Martin had designed the kitchens in the private homes of Boston celebrity chefs Todd English and Lydia Shire, and immediately, she and Martin saw eye-to-eye. Her first priority was a wood-burning grill, followed closely by refrigeration and storage — the key components in any outdoor cooking space.
Designing the space
First off, let’s dispel the notion that an outdoor kitchen is impractical in a four-season climate.
Actually, that’s just not true. We all know people, after all, who grill on their back patio straight through winter. The addition of an outdoor kitchen will expand the amount of time you can enjoy the outdoors. Ann Grasso, of A. E. Grasso Spatial Design Consultants, in Providence, agrees that an outdoor set-up can be useful year-round, and can be enjoyed all but about three months out of the year. Install a fire pit or add a chiminea (a portable outdoor fireplace, often made of steel or fired clay), for example, and a cozy outdoor celebration in late October seems ideal. According to Martin, designing your outdoor kitchen on a small scale will make it cozy, keep the grill’s heat in and shelter you from chilling wind. Now that’s reason to go small!
That said, the design of your outdoor kitchen will, of course, depend on two things: the amount of money you have to spend and the amount of space you have to work with. Outdoor kitchens cost from about $3,000 for one with a good-quality grill, a six-foot-long counter and a patio, to $15,000 and up for higher-end versions with an assortment of appliances.
The design of the kitchen may take on a different flow depending on the family member taking the lead on planning the space. The regular home kitchen “has not been a men’s zone,” says Grasso, and she points out that the grill has traditionally been more of a man’s domain. The space, therefore, may take on more masculine qualities — larger appliances, more generous prep spaces, deeper storage space, darker colors.
Most designers we talked to agree that, when it comes to placement, outdoor kitchens should be installed against the wall of your home, both to provide structural support and because doing so will give the kitchen a natural barrier from the elements — its biggest enemy. (If you’re working with a deck, you may need to have it shored up before you can think about installing heavy appliances on it.) Jeanne Larkin, who with her husband built their own outdoor kitchen in their Portsmouth home last summer, says that knowing this helped them narrow down where to place the outdoor kitchen. “Once I was told it should be up against the house, that made it easy. Otherwise, I had too many options where to put it,” she explains. “We had a long wall to the left of our back door. We built an overhang to shield the kitchen from the sun and wind and rain, put in a patio, and built on that.”
The Larkins do a lot of entertaining in the warm-weather months and have an Olympic-sized built-in swimming pool in the center of their yard. They wanted a kitchen that was complete. “Some people don’t have a water source outside or a fridge,” says Jeanne, “but we wanted it all. We didn’t want to have to go inside except to use the bathroom or to sleep.”
Linda Beaulieu felt similarly and designed her kitchen with Martin accordingly. The kitchen, built up against the wall of the house’s main kitchen, measures twenty-six feet wide by twenty-two feet deep. Designing the outdoor space introduced different challenges than a regular kitchen might; for example, Beaulieu had to find out if she could run electricity outside so that she could have refrigeration and lights. Once she learned she could, she had to place the refrigerators in a place where they wouldn’t be in the direct sun for too many hours each day (or they would have to work too hard to keep the contents cold). On top of that, all of the appliances she put outside had to be rust-proof (she chose stainless steel), and tough enough so that they could be locked up and left outside in winter. The rest is built for the elements, too. There’s a brick patio floor and a main island, where guests can sit and watch the cook, with a cement-block base. Cabinets are constructed out of stained driftwood and sport stainless steel knobs.
Larkin was delighted to find that appliance manufacturers have smartened up to the fact that outdoor kitchens are the trend. “I was obsessed with having an ice maker outside,” says Jeanne Larkin. “I mean, what do you need outside in the summer more than ice-cold drinks?” She found one, made for the Architect series by KitchenAid, and then discovered the company made an entire line of appliances and accessories for the outdoor kitchen. The outdoor ice maker she installed is all stainless steel, weather-proof and corrosion resistant. “Best of all, it makes fifty pounds of ice in a day,” says Larkin. Her refrigerator, also by KitchenAid, is stainless steel outside and in, and is built on casters so she can wheel it into the garage in the winter for added protection. Brian Maynard, the KitchenAid brand director, says that the company was responding to an overwhelming demand for outdoor appliances when they created the line. “People are passionate about enjoying the pleasures of outdoor cooking and entertaining,” he says.
How elaborate should your outdoor kit-chen be? That depends on what you and your family need. For example, if you barbecue only once a week or so, a grill and a counter-high storage cabinet covered with tile or stucco should do it. The cabinet will protect supplies from the weather and the countertop will provide work space when you get down to cooking. Like to eat outside as much as possible? Then you’ll want storage space and a counter or table for dining, along with a sink and refrigerator.
Start by looking for the ideal place for the grill, suggests Daniel Wallace, a landscape architect based in Sudbury, Massachusetts, who has designed numerous outdoor kitchens in Rhode Island and throughout southeastern New England. This likely will not be up against the house, simply for safety reasons (it gets super hot). Consider where people might sit, and try to position the grill on the opposite side and up wind, so guests don’t get faces full of smoke. Consider placing the grill on the outside edge of the kitchen (don’t worry — it’s likely to be hardily constructed and will withstand the weather) so smoke and heat aren’t trapped under the roof of the kitchen.
Next, plan to put the countertops, the sink and a refrigerator within easy reach of the cook. Your contractor will have to check to make sure your new kitchen can be constructed according to code. Have a contingency plan on hand in case you need to make changes.
Power requirements: electric, water and natural-gas lines usually are brought to the outdoor kitchen from the service in the house. Besides providing power for the kitchen lights and refrigerator, electric outlets should be included in plans for the cooking and dining areas. (Outdoor outlets require ground-fault circuit interrupters.) Check local codes for regulations on burying electric cable and gas lines. In many areas, the two must be buried in separate trenches though some areas require only that the two be separated. Ask your building inspector to explain what’s needed.