Kitchens Without Borders
When Sharon and Alan Ottomeyer's two grandsons came to stay a few weeks ago in Indian Wells, Calif., the kids ate most of their meals by the pool. Well, actually, they were in the pool, perched on barstools at the water's edge, at the granite counter of the Ottomeyers' outdoor kitchen. Sharon whipped up pancakes and hot dogs, but with a 48-inch rotisserie grill, plus side burners for griddle and wok cooking, a refrigerator, garbage disposal, and warming drawers, she could have handled anything, from a stir fry to cheese fondue.
Outdoor kitchens are red hot, says Donna Myers, spokesperson for the Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association. Bruce Spangrud, president and CEO of Outdoor Kitchen Concepts in Las Vegas, has already sold more than 5,000 in the past three years. Prices range from several thousand dollars to $50,000 and up.
Although kitchen may be something of an understatement. A high-end outdoor model is chockablock with fancy cooking appliances. But installations can come with retractable flat-screen TV s, stereo systems, mood lighting, and stand-alone fireplaces or firepits for nippy weather. And a kitchen supplier will be glad to recommend a specialty vendor who'll sell you a weatherized wine rack or, for a few hundred dollars, an aluminum version of a painting or photo that won't fade or rust or be defaced by bird droppings.
Patio potato. Part of the fun is putting together an outdoor kitchen that suits your style. David Christal's Las Vegas unit has a 38-foot bar on two levels with a dozen chairs and a flat-screen TV, along with a four-burner barbecue, pizza oven, ice maker, sink, and refrigerator. "With the TV behind the bar, I can sit there and eat and never need to go indoors," he says.
There are lots of options. Retailers offer mix-and-match modular pieces or prefab "islands" into which appliances can be dropped. Both can be customized to varying degrees for appliances and accessories as well as countertop and other structural materials--stucco or tile for the island, for example. For a totally customized kitchen, some people hire a contractor to build from scratch. In all cases, you may need permits to bring electricity, gas, or water to your backyard kitchen.
Remember to ask about installation: A crane may be necessary to hoist a large unit into the backyard, says Rob Santos, special projects manager for Cal Spas in Pomona, Calif. Delivering a kitchen unit along with a hot tub might run $300 to $400.
With all the glitzy add-ons, it's easy to forget that the essence of the outdoor kitchen is still the grill. While a decent gas grill runs just a few hundred dollars, you can spend thousands on a high-end model. A popular feature is an infrared section that burns as hot as 1,700 degrees, used for searing meat. (A typical gas grill reaches only 500 or 600 degrees.) Pizza ovens ($1,200) and smokers ($200 and up) are in demand, too. But fancy grill features may be just smoke and mirrors, cautions Steven Raichlen, author of The Barbecue! Bible and host of PBS's Barbecue University . "It's been my experience that how much you spend on a grill is only tangential to how it performs," he says. Key design elements to look for, according to Raichlen: a built-in thermometer and gas gauge as well as a good grease evacuation system--like a pot with a handle or a removable foil drip pan.
Before they put in an outdoor kitchen last year, Jackie and Bill Fritsch never used their Broomall, Pa., backyard. "We spend all our time there now," says Bill. But some prefer simpler backyard pleasures. Don Vandervort, building expert at hometips.com and editor of Building Barbecues & Outdoor Kitchens , graduated from a charcoal grill to a gas grill with a temperature gauge a few years ago. But that's as high-concept as he wants to get. Moving the entire kitchen to the backyard, he says, you've got to wonder, "Why don't we just use the indoor kitchen?" Besides, how can you enjoy the great outdoors if all those steel appliances shine brighter than the stars?
Cal Spas ( calspas.com ) The works: flat-screen TVs, stereo, waterfalls.
Vintage Outdoor Gourmet Kitchens ( vintage-grills.com ). Grills galore.
Outdoor Kitchen Concepts ( outdoorkitchenconcepts.com ). Many modules.
Palm Tree Islands ( thepalmtreeislands.com ). Lightweight, on wheels.
This story appears in the June 27, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.