Moveable Feast: Outdoor Kitchens are Hot

Balcony with kitchen facilities, chairs, and a table suitable for a barbecue party with a spectacular landscape view.

An outdoor modular kitchen allows outdoor cooking enthusiasts to mix and match appliances, fixtures and furniture. (Photo courtesy of Viteo Outdoors.)

Outdoor kitchens have been around for about a million years — literally — ever since humanoids first learned how to use fire to cook food.

Moving fire indoors was the real revolution, and a luxury most families couldn’t enjoy for much of history. It’s no wonder the kitchen is finally returning to its natural place in the order of things, the backyard.

The past 10 years have seen an explosion of outdoor kitchens and products that transform the backyard into a party pad, family gathering place or romantic enclave. What brings the party? Food and libations, and that’s the whole point of moving your kitchen outdoors.

Portable kitchens are the tried-and-true originals. The wood fire evolved into a lightweight charcoal grill that your uncle flipped burgers on when you were 10. There are still great grills on the market, many that are standalone versions. At the high end, there is the FireMagic Steel Echelon Diamond stand-alone natural gas grill, which offers a fine-tuned cooking environment for serious home chefs. It comes complete with storage space and food-prep surfaces and guess what else? It rolls around on wheels, so you don’t have to commit to its location. This works for those who want the option to rearrange and redecorate their patios whenever the mood strikes.

All an outdoor kitchen really needs is a place for cooking, but today’s modular kitchens have evolved considerably and are available to those in all budget ranges. Whether you have the space and budget for a small outdoor dining area or a large patio, you can enjoy outdoor cooking without too much of an expense.

North Carolina architect and author of Designing Your Perfect House William Hirsch sees “a strong move away from built-in outdoor kitchens and grills to the modular units.” This is in part due to the new level of sophistication you can find in modular pieces.

For some inspiration, Viteo makes one of the most beautiful and innovative lines around. And with their stainless steel, Corian and teak interchangeable elements, you can choose the pieces that suit your cooking style. Gas hot plates, an electric grill, a sink, a wok and other options are all mix and match.

And then there are grills with so many features that they resemble outdoor kitchens rolled into one unit. Memphis Wood Fire Grills use natural wood pellets as fuel instead of the traditional propane or charcoal and, as such, provide even heat so you can bake a pie on the grill like you would in an oven. Seared steak, baked bread, roasted turkey, smoked meats: these are all possible with the grill’s oven-style functionality.

Price is another factor pushing us toward modular outdoor kitchens. As Hirsch points out, “Building a brick or stone outdoor kitchen with a granite or slate top is quite expensive. With the modular units, you get more for your money. You can use more of your budget for the equipment and not have to spend so much for the structure.”

Blogger and DIY enthusiast Nikki Wills of Phoenix, Ariz., built her own outdoor kitchen while she was pregnant with her second child. “I used a combination of built-in and modular pieces that I did masonry around, so they would look built-in at a fraction of the price,” she says. “The grill, burners, griddle, sink, and fridge are modular units.” Her outdoor kitchen made the perfect backdrop for her parents’ 40th anniversary party, celebrated this spring.

Says Hirsch, “Modular kitchens have come a long, long way in recent years. There is virtually nothing you can have in a built-in outdoor kitchen that you cannot have in a modular outdoor kitchen.

“Well, maybe a brick pizza oven would be one exception,” he says. “But it used to be that the limitations of the modular units compelled people who wanted a more elaborate arrangement to go with a built-in outdoor kitchen to get what they wanted. Now, the sky’s the limit.”

Speaking of pizza ovens, the one built-in feature of Wills’ kitchen is a glorious pizza oven and adjacent prep area, which become the heart of a backyard party by default, because what can compete with homemade fire-roasted pizza?

Often, homeowners have one built-in piece that’s an enduring fixture representing their passion for cooking and entertaining. “I knew from the instant I found the free pizza oven plans on that I wanted to build this myself,” says Wills. “I got a quote to see how much it would cost to have a mason build the pizza oven for me — $17,000 — and that was just for the structure of the pizza oven. Not the enclosure, not the stone veneer work, not the prep counter, not the grill, not the pavers. Meanwhile, I spent a little over $5,000 on this entire outdoor kitchen project.”

But even with her one built-in feature, Wills’ outdoor kitchen can still be redesigned relatively easily should she decide she needs a change. According to Hirsch, this is central to the trend in modular kitchens. “The permanence of the built-in outdoor kitchens feels like inflexibility,” he says. “A built-in unit is anchored where you build it forever. A modular unit can be relocated fairly easily if you change your mind about the arrangement or make alterations to your outdoor spaces.”

People like flexibility. When built-in appliances break or outlive their usefulness, changing them out is a major project. It is rare that the size of a new appliance matches the old, which means you’ll have to tear down and rebuild your masonry.

On the other hand, modular kitchens are just the opposite. Their practical nature means we can swap out a piece, add a piece, move a piece or start over completely without the expense of rebuilding.

Beyond the practical, there’s the intangible freedom of know you can make a change, whether or not you actually will. “We like to have the option to change our minds, even if we never really change anything,” says Hirsch.

Here’s a checklist of features you might want when considering an outdoor modular kitchen:

  • Grill
  • Prep surface
  • Smoker
  • Food storage
  • Refrigerator
  • Pizza oven
  • Bar
  • Fire pit
  • Lighting
  • Pavilion or trellis
  • Ceiling fan
  • Television
  • Seating
  • Tables
  • Planter
Sarah Kinbar is a freelance writer and editor for leading print and online publications. Formerly editor in chief of Garden Design, she has also written and edited for Cottage Living, Modern magazine and Orlando Arts. You can find her on Google+.

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