Cooking on the Wild Side

Sizzling summery secrets to turn an outdoor kitchen into a special space for all
By Tanja Kern

The temptation of sizzling steaks and flash-fired vegetables, especially during the summer months, entices many honest home cooks to cheat on their indoor cooktop in favor of the open flame.

There's something wonderfully primal about the smoky smells wafting from the grill that transform home cooks-who would otherwise pussyfoot around the kitchen with Julia Child recipes in hand-into tong-wielding iron chefs on the wild side.

Since California dwellers enjoy the good fortune of having a pleasant climate almost year-round, it never seems quite right to chop and prep all the ingredients indoors only to walk outside to grill them. A proper outdoor kitchen lets homeowners do all the cooking-from prep and sear to serve and clean-in the great outdoors.

"For a while we've discussed how we should bring the outdoors in, but now almost everyone we run into wants to create some sort of living and cooking space outside," says Jim Groen, an architect with Jackson Design and Remodeling in San Diego.

Peter Ford, a Sunnyvale Eichler owner who's also a cooking enthusiast, discovered the benefits of cooking outside while he was remodeling his home's kitchen. He and his wife Tera decided to invest in an outdoor cooking space so that they could prepare meals at home during the remodel, right under the sun and stars.

"We cook a lot, so we spend a lot of time in the summer having people over to the pool and barbecuing," says Ford. "My wife and I love being outside with the kids. It's an extension of our living space."

The couple opted to build their outdoor kitchen in the 12-by-15 courtyard area at the front of their Eichler. Ford called on Unlimited Outdoor Kitchens in San Jose to help him figure out how to lay out the space.

"We didn't want to break the bank, so we opted to do one long ten-foot area that would offer counter space, storage, and refrigeration," Ford says. "We left a two-foot space at the end for the Big Green Egg [charcoal cooker]." The Fords tore down an old latticework fence before installing new fencing, and used Trex composite decking for the flooring. Low-maintenance ceramic tile covers the countertop, and the cabinet fronts are stainless steel. All told, the Fords spent around $7,000 on the outdoor cooking space, allowing them to whip up alfresco meals in any season.

Kitchens are taking to the outdoors in ever-increasing numbers. In fact, 70 percent of Americans say that when it comes to saving money, they prefer cooking out to eating out, according to a national poll by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. They also indicate that a cookout at home is more fun and relaxing than dining out, especially because it requires no travel, special dress, or dealing with crowds.

"Outdoor cooking is a very popular pastime that unites friends and family with great-tasting food that's easy and affordable," says Leslie Wheeler, director of communications for the association. "Whether it's a weekday family meal on the grill or a weekend barbecue, outdoor cooking can make preparing the meal just as easy and relaxing as enjoying the delicious food with others."

The outdoor flavors, the experience of enjoying food hot off the grill, and the fresh air all create a unique experience. And while a simple barbeque grill may once have sufficed, today's outdoor cooking areas now include cooktops, beverage centers, wood-fired ovens, and warming drawers.


Outdoor kitchens come in many forms. They may be as simple as pairing a gas grill with a prep table, or a more complex built-in arrangement.

The location and layout of your outdoor kitchen should be customized to your particular home's attributes," Groen says. "You can make the most of a view, like a pool or canyon, fill in a dead corner, or maximize a big empty space."

While sculpting the space, analyze how the outdoor kitchen will work with other areas in the backyard. It's not enough to just stick an outdoor kitchen on the back of the house. Try to combine the cooking space with the dining and lounging areas. Create opportunities for interaction and conversation within the outdoor kitchen, and between the outdoor kitchen and other areas. Think of them as outdoor rooms, and consider the traffic flow between them as part of the design.

Dawn Whyte, principal designer and owner of Designs by Dawn in Petosky, Michigan, says you'll want to ask yourself how self-sufficient the outdoor kitchen needs to be.

You want easy access to the indoors for dishes and utensils, and for monitoring food that's being prepped indoors," she says. "This is particularly important if you are planning a limited kitchen without water. If you are planning a fully operational outdoor kitchen, you need to consider the availability of gas, water lines, and sewer."

Plan the outdoor kitchen footprint like you would your indoor kitchen. Put a sketch on paper so that you can maximize every square foot. Create wet and dry areas for food prep and cleanup, surfaces to set food as it goes on and off the grill, and areas for heating and cooling appliances, serving, waste disposal, and adequate storage.

Designers say the most common design mistake in outdoor kitchens is a shortage of counter space. All those platters, sauces, and cooking tools require several feet of counter space. Both the grill and the sink need counter space to the left and the right of them to set things down while cooking.

A professional kitchen designer or experienced contractor can help get the layout and measurements right, but the National Kitchen and Bath Association recommends the following tips as guidelines for efficient design:

  • Place 36 inches of workspace on either side of the grill and burners.
  • Plan for 18 to 24 inches of open space on either side of the sink.
  • When including an eating counter, allow 24 inches of width per stool and 15 inches of legroom.
  • Allow 36 to 42 inches between the edge of the dining table and whatever is around it, so people can walk behind the chairs. Place the table well away from any stairs.

Adding electric, gas, and water to an outdoor kitchen can add significant costs to the project, but these utilities also make your kitchen fully functional. You can cut the expense by opting for a portable gas or charcoal grill instead of a built-in model, and by not adding a sink. If you want running water, it can be less expensive to run just cold-water plumbing to an outdoor sink. If you really want hot water for washing up, compare the costs of an on-demand water heater versus running hot water lines.

Wastewater poses another challenge. The simplest solution is to drain wastewater from an outdoor sink into a bucket under the sink, which you then have to carry into the house for disposal, says Russ Faulk, vice president of marketing and product development at Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, who teaches classes on outdoor kitchen design.

Outdoor kitchens often drain sink water into a French drain or a dry well, which is an underground structure that captures runoff. These drain options will limit what you can dispose of down the sink because waste disposed down these systems can lead to rot and smell. "If you tie the sink into the home's wastewater system, you should be free to use a garbage disposal in the sink, and use the sink much as you would an indoor kitchen sink," Faulk says.

Since residential drainage requirements can vary from one municipality to the next, Faulk recommends investigating local code requirements before launching an outdoor kitchen project.

You'll also want to run electricity to your outdoor kitchen so that you can provide adequate task lighting for cooking after dark. Talk to an electrician about the various wiring options.


The most significant difference between indoor and outdoor kitchen design is the exposure to the elements. Sun, rain, heat, and cold can play a number on anything outdoors, so opt for materials like stainless steel, stone, and concrete. Designers recommend high-quality stainless steel because it provides a sanitary surface that can be easily cleaned, and is corrosion-resistant in harsh environments. Stainless steel is also highly resistant to flames and grease.

Natural stone works well for vertical surfaces, but stone countertops will require sealing on a regular basis. Outdoor-rated porcelains are recommended because they can stand up to high heat and freeze-thaw and come in slip-resistant finishes.

No matter what surfaces you choose, consider how hot those materials may get under constant sunlight. Some materials stay naturally cooler than others. The best way to test is to leave a material sample in the sun. It'll help ensure that you don't burn your hands while prepping foods or scorch your feet while walking.

Designing outdoor kitchens for the modern aesthetic takes careful pairing of equipment and materials. Stainless-steel appliances are a natural fit for outdoors, but they can skew traditional or modern depending on what you pair with them. Cabinetry will have a huge influence, so choose door styles with sleek, flat fronts without ornamentation.

"One of the biggest statements you can make for a modern outdoor kitchen is the countertop," says Faulk. "Custom concrete countertops are a very popular choice for a modern look, as is glazed lava stone. It's really expensive stuff, but it's beautiful."


Just like your indoor kitchen, the outdoor kitchen demands plenty of storage. Choose a kitchen design that incorporates cabinetry that will keep your tools, spices, and serving pieces stay clean and dry no matter what the weather. That way you won't need to stock your kitchen every time you go outside to use it.

You can build an outdoor kitchen from scratch by using concrete blocks, metal studs, welded steel, or a combination of the three. Wrap a metal base with fireproof cement board before finishing it with stucco, stone, or porcelain tile.

The easier route is to use a premade cabinetry kit. Werever Outdoor Products offers modular outdoor kitchen cabinet kits made of 100-percent-waterproof marine-grade polymer. The cabinets can be arranged in any order to accommodate your space. They also are furnished with holes partially pre-drilled on the inside, and are connected with stainless-steel fasteners. The company can also produce custom designs for your space.

Atlantis Outdoor Kitchens also makes weatherproof outdoor cabinetry using solid marine-grade polymer that will not warp, crack, or deteriorate over time. The company also offers free design services.

Iron chefs will appreciate the aesthetics of a stainless-steel kitchen cabinet system. Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet makes stainless steel outdoor cabinets that feature moisture-tight design with seamless rain gutters that surround every door and drawer opening. To install, align and level the units with the standard stainless-steel leveling legs, and clip and bolt them together. Top it with the countertop material of your choice.

Lasertron can design and fabricate an entire stainless-steel outdoor kitchen, grill base, or doors for your outdoor kitchen, which is a good option if you want a brick or stone base for your cabinets. They can also add texture, patterns, or custom artwork to the doors for a contemporary and custom look.

If you want the durability of stainless steel but want a different look, check out Danver's outdoor cabinetry. The company produces high-quality stainless-steel cabinets and drawer systems for outdoor kitchens that can be powder-coated in any color to match any decorating plan. Danver also offers very realistic wood-grain finishes (ten different wood species in all) that are applied over stainless steel. It's a great way to get a wood look without encountering warping or color changes over time.


Iron chefs know that the grill or smoker is the heart of the outdoor kitchen. It's these tools that make cooking outside something special. Think about how and what you like to cook before investing in a cooking appliance.

  • Charcoal grills impart an intense, smoky flavor thanks to the charcoal briquettes or wood that you use. They usually heat for 15 to 30 minutes before cook time.
  • Gas grills, using liquid propane or natural gas, burn cleaner than charcoal and ignite quickly. After ten minutes or so of preheating, you're ready to start grilling. Connect these models to a natural gas hookup to eliminate the chance of running out of fuel and the annoyance of replacing propane tanks.
  • Smokers come in charcoal and electric models and let you cook long and slow.
  • Wood-fired ovens are a popular addition to today's outdoor kitchens. Although most people use them for pizza, they can also cook everything from meats, fish, and vegetables to pasta, breads, and desserts. While cooking with wood fire creates a distinct taste and aroma to foods, it also promotes a more relaxed atmosphere because they can take an hour or more to heat up.

"Wood-fired ovens are helping today's busy families to reclaim the ability to relax around the table and enjoy each other's company," says Anna Carpenter, owner of Los Angeles Ovenworks, which imports wood-burning ovens from Italy. Typically, your food will cook faster in a wood-fired oven than in a standard oven in your interior kitchen. Carpenter says her ovens typically cook 15 minutes faster than indoor ovens.

Appliance manufacturers commonly create full suites of outdoor appliances so that every piece you buy is a size and finish that works well together. Readymade kitchen packages can also help ease the decision-making process. It's a good way to fit in grills, burners, sinks, refrigerators, and storage without having to hire a designer. Each element is built into readymade all-weather cabinetry.

"To create a true outdoor kitchen, it was important to design all the appliances that you would find in a well-equipped indoor kitchen, plus make them tough enough to operate and survive in an all-weather environment," says Dale Seiden, vice president of Alfresco Grills.

For ease of convenience, opt for at least one refrigerator to hold meat, produce, and other ingredients that demand cooling. Choose from standard under-counter models with a door or a set of refrigerated drawers.

Don't assume that an indoor refrigerator will work outdoors. Appliances that are branded as 'outdoor refrigerators' have more power, and are insulated to keep drinks and food cooler, even in sweltering heat. Look for a refrigerator that is 300-series stainless steel, which means it is rust resistant. Also look for the Underwriters Laboratories seal of approval, which means the appliance is safe for outdoor use. If you're building the unit into outdoor cabinetry, opt for a model that is front-vented.

What's a barbecue without an ice-cold beverage? For ultimate entertaining, consider a bartending center. You can order these as a built-in or a cart model that features distinct areas for ice, drinks, and bar tools. Danver's Glastender Home cocktail station includes an ice bin with sliding stainless-steel cover, condiment cups, bottle well for iced bottle storage, sink, cutting board, and other bartending accessories.

The National Association of Home Builders estimates outdoor kitchens can range in price from $3,000 to $100,000 or more, depending on the design, quality, and the type of appliances and materials selected.

Photos: David Toerge, Domiteaux + Baggett Architects; and courtesy the participating manufacturers. Weber photo © 2012 Weber-Stephen Products LLC - used with permission.

Jackson Design and Remodeling