If there’s one thing that almost all parties in homes have in common, it’s that people tend to congregate around food and drink in the kitchen. Almost invariably, that’s where the action is.
As more and more homeowners are taking their indoor lifestyles outdoors into their backyards and landscapes, the “action” is moving outside as well, with al fresco kitchens becoming the new hub at social gatherings. This is why outdoor kitchens have grown so much in popularity in recent years, moving past being simple counters adjacent to charcoal barbecues to become, according to the American Institute of Architects, the number-one growth category in home improvement.
In plying my trade in a sunny, particularly warm part of southern California, I’ve had a front-row seat in watching this trend develop – and I’ve now been designing and building these amenities for more than a quarter century. It’s reached a point where my company, The Green Scene (Northridge, Calif.), builds at least 25 outdoor kitchens every year across a range of styles and levels of complexity.
Experience has taught us that the more inviting and useful the kitchen is, the more time people spend outside using the entire space and the happier they are with their investment. Getting there, of course, is all about the planning.
PASS THE FUN
Even in the soft economy of the past few years, outdoor kitchens have been riding high locally. In fact, it’s not unusual these days for our firm to design and specify an entire space, then install only the outdoor kitchen as a first phase. The obvious reason for this is that the outdoor kitchen is what many homeowners want most – ahead of the swimming pools, fire pits, landscaping and other hardscape structures we’ve included in their master plans.
Part of the reason is that, by and large, men and women tend to agree when it comes to outdoor kitchens. In working with couples through the years, in fact, it’s one of the few areas in which it’s easy to find common ground when it comes to spending the money: Where a couple might be at odds about every other element in a design, they have a shared sense of the worth of an outdoor kitchen.
|In designing outdoor kitchens for residential spaces, we pursue four key goals: First, we make what we do fit within the style of the home and other amenities on the property; second, we accommodate the clients’ desires when it comes to entertaining either small or large parties; third, we organize counters for efficient cooking – sometimes by multiple chefs – and allow for adjacent seating and dining areas as desired; and, fourth, we provide adequate illumination with either lighting or fire features or both. The best designs, of course, integrate all four of these keys into wonderfully complete packages.
And the cool thing is that, in observing the way our clients actually use their outdoor kitchens, it’s clear that these are spaces in which they are much more likely to work together in the food-preparation process than is the case in the cramped confines of an indoor kitchen.
Furthermore – and again this comes through watching behavior at parties, which is something I do as often as I can – these outdoor kitchens are spaces where the tendency for men and women to divide into separate groups always seems to break down. And the same goes for kids and adults and for people at parties who don’t know each other.
Check it out for yourself: If you want to see the place where everyone at a gathering spends time, you generally don’t have to look beyond the outdoor kitchen. In fact, if you’re at a party and want to have the chance to talk to everyone who’s there, just hang out in this area and they’ll all eventually come to you. It’s where you’ll hear the most laughter, receive the most hugs and by and large have the most fun.
All of this spontaneity and conviviality requires forethought. Indeed, proper planning by the homeowners is by far the most important factor in the relative success or failure of an outdoor kitchen project, which is one of the reasons I never approach these jobs with any preconceptions: No two outdoor kitchens are ever alike, and there are so many options in terms of appliances, layouts, locations and sizes that homeowners simply must get involved and take the time to consider, in detail, what they want most and what they’ll be most likely to use and how.
|The array of high-quality, reliable, fully functional cooking systems and accessories now available is truly outstanding and gives the outdoor-kitchen designer a wide variety of options to discuss with clients. Working with them to come up with the right combinations of grills, cooktops, drawers, beverage coolers and even paper-towel dispensers can take time – but decisions made here will determine whether cooking outdoors will be an occasional chore or a frequent delight.
In my 25 years with these installations, it’s been my observation that some clients come to me already having considered many of the key issues and approach the design process with fairly clear ideas about what they want. Far more often, however, they haven’t stopped to think about the range of options beyond (maybe) a grill and need help walking through their options.
There was enough of this going on that, to aid the process, I finally sat down and wrote a book on the subject.
Last year, I published Scott Cohen’s Outdoor Kitchen Design Workbook, which, as the title implies, is something both designers and homeowners can use to focus their thoughts and efforts along productive lines.
The book’s 170 pages go into tremendous detail – far beyond what I can cover here – and highlights the fact that the most important aspect of the planning process is to break things down into key areas of inquiry that will enable designers to determine and work with homeowners’ needs, desires and personalities.
[ ] Style Preferences: As with all aspect of watershape, landscape and architectural design, outdoor kitchens have a style. I always ask clients if they have a theme in mind for the space (tropical, classic, contemporary, nautical) or if they’ve seen something that has particularly caught their attention.
I also ask them to describe the style of their house, which, although it might be obvious, is often something of which they are unaware or simply don’t perceive. If they can’t get specific, I cast an even wider net and get them talking about any memorable experiences, hobbies or locales they think they’d like to incorporate into the design.
[ ] Entertaining Needs: I ask them whether their goal in the project is to have a place for entertaining family and friends – a question that begins the process of determining the amount of space needed for the kitchen and dining areas as well as the size and selection of the appliances.
How often do they anticipate cooking outside? How many people do they anticipate entertaining? Will parties include bartenders or caterers? Will they have a dining table? How much space will be devoted to furniture? My goal here is to get them to start visualizing the space and how people and furnishings will fill it.
When it comes to planning outdoor kitchens, I’ve encountered a handful of basic measurements I always keep in mind:[ ] Food-preparation counters should be 36 inches high – or 38 inches to accommodate a under-counter refrigerator or a tall cook. (In general, the counter should never be higher than the usual cook’s bent elbow!) [ ] The standard height for tabletops is 30 inches. [ ] Bar counters are generally 42 to 46 inches high, while most barstools are 28 inches high (but can vary). In some cases, if the clients are intent on a particular style or model of barstool, we’ll acquire them first and set the bar height accordingly. [ ] Allow 24 inches of width for each seat at the bar. [ ] Bar counters should be a minimum of 18 inches deep, thus leaving room for countertop dining with typical plates, which range from nine to 11 inches.
Of course, there’s also a social component to this resource issue, so we also ask: How many people do they want to accommodate right at the counter? (For some basic measurement guidelines, see the sidebar at right.)
[ ] Lighting and Fire: It’s important to know when clients anticipate using their outdoor kitchens: On weeknights or weekend evenings, or mainly for daytime gatherings on weekends? Most people want the flexibility of using the kitchen day or night, so typically we need to consider illuminating the areas that need to be lit, beginning obviously with the kitchen counters. And if it’s clear that they intend to use the space year ’round, fire or other heating elements generally become part of the conversation.
In each of these areas, there’s room for excruciatingly detailed discussion – and each element should indeed be pursued fully and carefully. But there are two additional areas I want to mention, both of which are more crucial than any of the points just above in determining the overall success of the design: location and appliance selection.
One might argue that the most important of all decisions when planning an outdoor kitchen is where to put it. This can have a major influence on a space’s functionality, aesthetics and effect on the rest of the property as well as on whether the space will be used constantly – or hardly at all.
As mentioned above, an outdoor kitchen is a place where people gather, so it should be put in a desirable location – perhaps where there are generous views of the rest of the yard or the surrounding area or it is nestled in beautiful landscaping. As with any other exterior room, you should also consider how the outdoor kitchen is seen from various points inside the house.
|When spatially integrated with pools and spas, outdoor kitchens can become readily accessible hubs all sorts of fun outdoor activity, recreation and entertaining – and definitely bring new life to the concept of swim-up bars.
Many are situated near swimming pools or fire pits, and as a rule they’re set up so they can be covered by some sort of shade structure. And while an al fresco kitchen can be set amid a lush landscape, it’s rarely a good idea to put a cooking or food-preparation area under overhanging greenery: Having plant material fall into the kitchen space creates maintenance, cleanliness and even fire-safety issues.
Traffic patterns are another key consideration. This is going to be an area where people will pick up food and drinks, so it should be easy to move in and out with some sort of reasonable flow – meaning most of the time you’re not going to want to tuck the kitchen into a corner or a spot where bottlenecks will become an annoying fact of life.
In lots of cases, clients want their kitchen to be located near the home – or even made into an extension of the home’s structure. To be sure, keeping things close can make a great deal of sense in a smaller yard, where you want to maximize the rest of the useful space. And it’s certainly never a bad idea to have the outdoor kitchen within a reasonable distance of the indoor kitchen simply because there’s generally a lot of back and forth between the two spaces.
All that is true, but at the same time, it’s not a great idea to place the indoor and outdoor kitchen areas immediately adjacent to one another. I’ve seen this layout quite a few times and have two observations: First, this approach tends to resegregate men and women, with the men congregating outside and the women gathering inside. Second, the doorway between the adjoining spaces becomes a bottleneck – a problem minimized if there’s a buffer zone between the two spaces.
Sometimes, of course, a buffer zone can be too large – a common problem on larger properties where the outdoor kitchen is placed well away from the house to create a destination in the landscape. This has the positive effect of drawing guests out into the yard to notice and enjoy their surroundings from different perspectives, but it also means the outdoor kitchen must be fairly well self-contained unless the homeowners want to wear themselves out moving back and forth from the grill to the house.
The key here is to think things through and know why you’re placing the kitchen in a remote spot. If there’s a rewarding view or this placement takes advantage of a great garden path or conveys people toward the pool area or gives them access to a special entertainment zone, all that distance might make sense.
In all cases, you also need to consider the elements, especially prevailing winds. This brings the physical orientation of kitchen elements into play, given the obvious fact that it would be undesirable to set things up in such a way that, most days, the smoke from the grill will waft across the kitchen space and into everyone’s eyes and lungs. Having things blow around is not much fun, either.
Finally, consider privacy. Generally, it’s not a great idea to put an outdoor kitchen in the direct line of sight of a neighbor’s house. If this can’t be avoided, we’ll set up privacy screens or patio plantings to create a sense of division (and have noticed that the plants reduce noise as well).
At the same time outdoor kitchens have been growing in popularity, there’s been a parallel surge in interest among suppliers who want to meet the demand – and they’re delivering big time, having come light years with respect to variety, special features and overall sophistication.
Given all of the possibilities, it’s extremely important to cover appliances early on in client discussions: Their informed choices (and believe me, most of them are familiar only with a few of their options) will have a lot to say about the size of counter spaces and the overall functionality of the entire design.
There are numerous materials you can use to create counters for outdoor kitchens.
Granite is extremely popular these days, largely for its durability and range of colors and patterning, as is tile, which is also quite durable and easily works in a range of styles.
Personally, however, I steer away from both of those options: Granite counters can be beautiful, but they require regular treatment to prevent moisture penetration and staining, and they have to be fabricated elsewhere and shipped to the site, which is expensive as well as risky. Certain tiles can be wonderful, too, but the grout is tough to clean and prone to discoloration.
In my projects, concrete is the material of choice – decorative concrete to be precise. This material can be made to look like anything imaginable, from wood or granite to marble or tile. It’s also durable and can easily be fashioned on site. And if you mess up, it’s easy to start over. Part of the fun is coming up with something unique, whether it’s with elaborate, sculpted details or with wonderfully creative inlays or colors.
As with most other things, there’s a learning curve with decorative concrete, but the time I’ve spent mastering its potential has paid off handsomely – both for me and my clients.
To illustrate this point, here’s a quick rundown of some of the currently available appliances and features that can make both large and small differences in how an outdoor kitchen will be designed, used and enjoyed:
[ ] Grills: These have come a very long way in recent times, particularly when you consider approaches such as rotisserie cooking. There was a day when most rotisserie set-ups were awkward because, with their horizontal heat sources placed below the meat, they’d flare up and it was quite difficult to get even cooking.
Now rotisserie grills come equipped with vertical back-side burners – a significant advancement that enables the preparer to cook meat reliably without having to monitor its progress constantly. This enables the cook to spend more time socializing and tending to guests and less time micromanaging the rotisserie.
Also, grills these days can come with smoker drawers, steamers, fry cookers, searing zones (one of my favorite features – wonderful for preparing meats restaurant style), side burners, warming drawers, hot plates, griddle plates and wok burners. Most of these relate directly to the types of dishes clients anticipate preparing, so right from the start you must define some culinary specifics.
[ ] Beverage Centers: I recommend some type of beverage center for all of my projects. These can be as simple as stainless-steel drop-in coolers that work like ice chests or as sophisticated as full-service cocktail stations with separate ice bins, bottle storage areas, cutting boards, drop-in ingredient containers and the like.
These areas are great because they provide ready access to drinks, are easily cleaned and are infinitely preferable to placing a separate, camp-style ice chest off to the side of the cooking area: They look a bit tacky, involve too much bending over and are simply a hassle relative to built-in alternatives.
Along similar lines, I’m not nearly as enthusiastic about outdoor refrigerators as I am about drop-in coolers. They work well, but they gobble up considerable energy to do little more than keep a few beers or sodas cold between parties. Truth be told, there’s almost never a need to store food in an outdoor refrigerator, so they end up wasting space and money.
There are, of course, some exceptions: If there are a lot of kids using a nearby pool area on a regular basis, then an outdoor refrigerator might make sense to keep bottled water and soft drinks at hand (and keep the kids from traipsing in and out of the house dripping wet). Another special case is when the outdoor kitchen is truly remote from the home and there’s some merit to the idea of making the outdoor kitchen more self-contained and complete.
[ ] Trash Openings: This is a simple thing, but all outdoor kitchens should have through-the-counter trash openings. These allow for convenient disposal of cooking debris while also keeping trash cans out of sight and helping the whole area seem neat and clean. There are also trash receptacles that come out as drawers, which works as well – and some of these units come with built-in cutting boards, which can be mighty convenient for scrap and trimming disposal.
[ ] Drawers: It’s important to remember that even with an outdoor kitchen, most of the food preparation will still take place indoors. This puts a premium on having outdoor storage drawers that can be used to hold prepared foods in much the same way drawers are used to stash food in restaurants prior to cooking. With that in mind, manufacturers have developed models equipped with pullout liners for easy food transfers and drains to speed up cleaning.
|Many watershape spaces are used primarily in daylight hours, but when an outdoor kitchen is part of the exterior environment, it’s a virtual certainty that these areas will be used after the sun goes down. This opens design possibilities to all sorts of great details – from special visual effects such as radiant countertops to warm and welcoming fire effects.
[ ] Paper-Towel Holders: I’m only half-joking when I say that the simple drawer equipped with a paper-towel spindle is, in my opinion, the biggest recent improvement in outdoor kitchens. Placed near the grill, these features help cooks (and others) resist the temptation to wipe their hands on their clothes. And the fact that the roll is hidden inside a drawer protects the paper towels from incidental spills – a great practical feature.
[ ] Sinks: Although these are seemingly obvious inclusions in outdoor kitchens, they are certainly the most problematic. The reason is simple: Once potable water passes through human hands, by code it has become contaminated and must flow to a sanitary sewer instead of into a simple drainage system. This can mean significant effort in routing the drain to the sewer, which is why so many homeowners, balking at the expense, don’t include these fixtures.
Truth be told, very few people are going to wash dishes in an outdoor sink. Indeed, simply rinsing hands is the likeliest use, so as an alternative, we commonly recess a hose bib in the side of the grill or counter structure that serves a dual purpose for quick rinses and for connection of a hose for post-party clean ups.
[ ] Pizza Ovens: I love the thought of great pizza and understand why so many people request these ovens, but I’ve come to see them as impractical. They’re quite expensive, take up lots of space, are tough to clean and use lots of energy. And on a practical level, unless you know your way around a real pizza oven through experience in a real pizza cookery, they’re pretty difficult to use.
For those who insist, we’re happy to oblige. But I’ll spend a good bit of time making certain they know the practicalities and haven’t simply been caught up in the romance of the idea. If they know what they’re doing and we move ahead, tremendous pizza can be the result.
If you do everything properly in working with your clients to develop their custom outdoor kitchens, much more than good pizza is on the way: Above anything else, these amenities are about fun and enjoyment.
Sometimes the results will fit seamlessly within the property’s architectural themes, but other times our clients will see these kitchens more as extensions of themselves and their personalities than as reflections of their built surroundings. Whichever direction we take, we know that if we’ve listened well and have translated what we hear into outdoor kitchens they’ll actually use, these spaces will help these homeowners experience the good life in myriad new ways — and enable them to bring their friends along for the ride.
As a designer, I’ve always approached outdoor kitchens with confidence, knowing that unless something goes seriously awry, the clients are going to spend quality time using the wonderful spaces I’ve devised for them over and over again. And if my own experiences in attending parties hosted by former clients are any indication, outdoor kitchens truly are where the action is!
Scott Cohen is president The Green Scene, an outdoor design/construction firm in Northridge, Calif. An accomplished ceramicist and sculptor, Cohen specializes in custom-designed tiles and sculptures that add imaginative personal touches to his designs. His work has been featured on HGTV’s “Landscaper’s Challenge” and “Designing for the Sexes,” as well as in local and national media including The Los Angeles Times, Sunset Magazine Pool & Spa Book, Woman’s Day and Better Homes & Gardens. Through the years, he’s become a frequent resource for HGTV on subjects related to designing and installing outdoor kitchens. Cohen is member of California’s Contractors Board Industry Expert Program and lobbies for ethical Workers’ Compensation practices in the construction industry.