Welcome to the most popular summer gathering space: the outdoor kitchen.
After all, why settle for a stand-alone grill and paper plates when you could have an entire kitchen in your backyard — refrigerator, oven, sink, countertop and cabinets included? We asked area experts for their top tips on creating the perfect outdoor kitchen. Here’s how to make yours happen in five easy steps.
1. Start with the perfect design
There’s no end to how spectacular — and upscale — the space can be. The ideal outdoor kitchen design will take into account the space constraints, as well as the specific tastes and cooking styles of whoever is doing the grilling, basting, roasting and broiling, says Rick Glickman, founder and president of Dream Kitchens, Inc. in Highland Park.
2. Consider the space constraints
“When the customer comes in, we first talk about the area. I don’t even see it as a design yet,” says Ray Kulinski, high-end appliance salesman with Abt in Glenview. “I give them an idea of available appliances, and as we go, we start tweaking.”
Cost, of course, plays heavily into design choices — just because someone wants a pizza oven doesn’t mean they can afford the $5,000 price tag. Mostly, though, the design depends on how a particular buyer plans to use the outdoor kitchen space.
“Basically, how much use will it get, and how much space are you looking at?” says Marion Gorski, senior designer with Ruffolo Landscaping Inc. in Indian Creek. “Some people want to build much larger than others based on how they entertain, so it’s customized to how customers want to use the space.”
Gorski generally starts with the grill area, focusing on where to position it based on the quickest way to get from the kitchen inside the home to the outdoor kitchen. Most people want to make that a short distance, he says, to make it easier when anything is being carried from one kitchen space to the other (dishes, for example, or a marinade or salad that was prepared in advance).
As with an indoor kitchen, an outdoor kitchen usually consists of four components, says Kulinski: cooking, refrigeration, cleaning and storage.
For cooking, of course, homeowners can choose from a variety of grill areas in brick or stone, and sometimes a charcoal-heated wall oven and burner accessory, like an open burner for side dishes. Some people opt for full refrigerators, while others stick with more basic drinks-only coolers. (“Most people typically bring out the refrigerated food as they go,” Kulinski says.) Cleaning components include some kind of sink area and a trash/recycling bin that can be pulled out from under a cabinet. Those cabinets, of course, also serve as storage for grilling tools and other cooking utensils, although Kulinski suggests drawers, since they make it easy to reach all the way to the back.
Once the buyer chooses appliances and the designer arranges them in the space, the last piece of the puzzle is making it all work.
“We have to figure out, how do we facilitate this?” says Gorski. “Do we have a gas line running from the house out to the grill area? How do we wire everything in?”
3. Make it tough
Installing an outdoor kitchen typically costs more than a new indoor kitchen would, and that’s because materials have to be heavier-duty — and are therefore more expensive to make — to withstand the elements, Glickman says. In Chicagoland, that means being able to stand up to extreme temperatures, high winds, snow, rain and humidity.
Outdoor cabinetry is also made by a different process to hold up over time and through the seasons. That can mean stainless steel cabinets with wood framing or, for less maintenance, stainless cabinets that are coated with a heartier, synthetic substance that looks like wood.
Even stone — a building material known to stand the test of time — erodes when exposed to the elements, says Glickman. The fissures in granite can expand in heat, for example. To avoid this problem, Glickman suggests creating countertops with Dekton, a compact blend of raw materials (porcelain, glass, quartz and others) that’s temperature-resistant, waterproof and weatherproof.
In addition to building with sturdy materials, making an outdoor kitchen strong enough also means doing without some common indoor amenities that would either break or be difficult to maintain.
Ice makers, for example, aren’t common in outdoor kitchens because they require a lot of maintenance, Kulinski says. Instead, he recommends installing a drawer with a drainage plug. That drawer can be filled with ice for an event or an evening in the outdoor living space, then easily drained at the end of the day and forgotten until its next use.
Dishwashers are also uncommon in outdoor kitchens because of the difficult plumbing installation and drainage system they require, according to Gorski. More likely, people will install a simple sink used to rinse dishes before bringing them inside for a full cleaning.
4. Make it useful
When it comes to making an outdoor kitchen super functional, a galley sink is the way to go, Glickman says. These sinks, which come in several lengths, actually work as a prepping/cooking/serving system, with two tiers of accessories that slide back and forth.
“There are so many ways you can use it. This is revolutionary to making kitchens work,” Glickman says. “If you cook right next to it, you can even set it up as a buffet.”
Kulinski suggests starting simple — just one counter, a grill unit, a small fridge and some cabinets — and then building up to the more elaborate. Because slow cooking is popular, some customers are mixing both gas and coal-fired grills, then also adding a slow cooker for longer days outdoors.
Like indoor kitchen appliances, outdoor kitchen appliances come in a wide range, from average to super premium. Average brands would be the lowest-cost, and would be considered “one step under Weber,” which is a well-known premium brand, Kulinski says. Premium products tend to be built better, cooking quality increases (thanks to more consistent heat) and warranties are better. Super-premium products, like Wolf or Viking brand outdoor grills, will have the highest-quality burners and best results — as well as the highest price tags.
Kamado Joe is Kulinski’s go-to grill maker, because the lids are spring-loaded and super light, allowing for a better grilling experience. “Nobody wants to have to lift a heavy lid over and over, but you want it to be sturdy enough so it lasts,” he says.
5. Delight in the details
It’s imperative that an outdoor kitchen be easy to work in and around — but that doesn’t mean the design can’t be fun and include several outdoor-specific touches, Glickman says.
For a homeowner who considers him- or herself a true grillmaster, a full grill might not be enough. That person may decide to put in an additional round griddle for making side dishes. A beverage connoisseur might consider adding a full bar with an ice chest and a rail to hold various bottles, as well as a tap in the fridge.
Pizza ovens are a particularly popular add-on, Gorski says. Freestanding fireplaces linking a bar area with the cooking area are common as well.
“If you’re having a party, it’s no different from when you’re inside — people like to congregate in the kitchen,” Gorski says.
And once the kitchen itself is perfect, the homeowner may want to add a full entertainment space, complete with fire pit, dining table and lounge furniture.
“The sky is the limit — you can really make it fancy,” Glickman says.
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Megan Craig has been a journalist for more than a decade, writing and editing stories on a variety of subjects. Most recently, her writing has focused on real estate trends in the Midwest and around the country. She lives in Chicago’s Printers Row neighborhood with her roommate and a few too many cats.