A few years back I was asked to design a garden for a new home. One of the most interesting facets of the construction, at least to me, was the elaborate outdoor kitchen the builder had created. Housed in a breezeway that connected a guesthouse to the main quarters, gleaming with granite and stainless steel, the kitchen space seemed a really fun, novel idea. Now, granted, outdoor cooking areas have long been a feature of warm-weather climates, but here in New England, the thought of getting out of a hot kitchen during the summer to cook amidst the cooling breezes seemingly held great charm. Thus one of my first questions to the homeowner (let’s call her Sue) was what she thought of this splendid creation.
“Oh” she said to me matter-of-factly, “we’ve used it only once for a party. Day to day, we just use a small charcoal grill on the deck.”
“Why is that?” I asked in surprise.
And this is what Sue told me:
This is something that people rarely think about outdoors, as the average person who grills on a small charcoal unit simply moves it as necessary to take advantage of the prevailing wind. But the reality is that grilling creates an incredible amount of smoke—this is why barbequing occurs outdoors in the first place, right? With fixed grills, you have to be very careful to make sure that your mechanism for venting smoke is sufficient to the demands of your site and the vagaries of weather. Sue’s unit had been built into the wall of the breezeway, and unfortunately provided with an insufficiently sized hood. Given the slightest breeze from the south or east, the smoke either escaped upwards, dirtying the painted white ceiling, or worse, drifted up and into the rooms of the guesthouse. And don’t presume that simply because a unit has some sort of chimney attached means that the smoke will go up as intended. Any of you who own a house with a perennially smoking fireplace will quickly sympathize with the fact that it takes expert design to make smoke go where you want it to. This science is even trickier outdoors. The lesson here is that is pays to survey your local conditions carefully and find someone who fully appreciates the dynamics of airflow before you install a permanent cooking appliance.
So many of us, including it seems the builder of Sue’s house, have been seduced by pictures of ample open outdoor kitchens found in the West and Southwest. We forget to our peril that these areas have far fewer flying and biting insects than most other parts of the country. I will never forget a visit a few years ago to Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. This incredible outdoor museum maintains the Pliny Farmstead, where staff recreates the activities of an 1830s farm family. I visited on a hot July day, and there in the kitchen two dedicated interpreters were cooking the noontime meal. The windows were wide open and unscreened. (Screens were first advertised in 1836, but didn’t become common in American homes until 1900, both because of cost and because the relationship between insects and parasitic disease wasn’t fully understood.) At the Pliny Farmstead, with cooking well underway, the result was little short of stomach churning: flies crawling over every dish. Rarely have I ever been so grateful for modern technology as I was that day, and if you live in mosquito or fly country as I do, screens are a must. Sue’s open, unscreened breezeway meant that its extended use was limited to daytime when there are fewer mosquitos.
Outdoor kitchens take a beating from the weather, and require special equipment and rugged materials to face the normal climate cycle. This means that everything is by necessity custom-built for outside use. In Sue’s case, the equipment added around $30,000 to the cost of her home, with annual running and service costs between $500 and $1000 per year.
Outdoor Kitchen Appliances
Think twice, and then think again, about what features and appliances you will need and where you need them. In Sue’s case, the kitchen setup lacked a critical feature: a sink. This meant that all cleanup had to take place back in the indoor kitchen, essentially obviating stand-alone use. If everything has to be hauled back and forth, back and forth, usage of outdoor kitchens becomes problematic. Sue’s kitchen had another drawback: neither she nor her partner cared much for wine, so the stainless steel refrigerated wine-rack sat empty. If you’re building your outdoor space for long-term use, by all means tailor it to your likes.
Exterior Kitchen Placement
Correct siting is perhaps the most critical factor of outdoor kitchen design. Smoke issues aside, if the kitchen isn’t self-contained, meaning that is has everything you need to store, cook, serve, and clean up after a meal, and if it is too far from your indoor kitchen, its use and value will be severely compromised. My general rule is that if you are less than 20 feet from the kitchen door, you need only a grill. More than 30 feet or so warrants a grill, a fridge and perhaps a sink, depending on your requirements. But 50 feet or more, say off a pool cabana or other outbuilding, you’ll need a self-contained real kitchen. Anything less will sit lonely, unused, and undervalued.