Outdoor Kitchens: Grilling and Chilling in the Great Backyard

The sky is the limit when it comes to today's outdoor kitchens.

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It's not your father's grill anymore. From classic built-in outdoor grills to fantasy island units jam-packed with amenities such as wine coolers, pizza ovens and lobster boilers, the sky is the limit with today's outdoor kitchens.

"Outdoor kitchens are becoming much more fully functional. Before, it was a grill, fridge and sink. Now people want the outdoor kitchen to do everything they can do indoors; that's why big appliance makers like Viking are getting into it, even with cabinetry," explains Russ Faulk, marketing manager with Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, a maker of high-end grills and accessories based in Chicago.

Unlike other makers of grilling stations and islands that offer fully finished and modular products, all Kalamazoo products are modular. "While high end, our units actually offer landscape architects and other contractors less finishing costs because of our modular systems," says Russ.

Kalamazoo Gourmet also illustrates the dual or hybrid grill trend, and Russ adds charcoal has made a big comeback. Kalamazoo grills feature interchangeable drawers above the main gas burners to allow any combination of hardwood, charcoal or gas on one grill. "This means contractors can market the convenience of gas burners with a high-performance charcoal and hardwood grill," Russ says.

Rhonda Mindrum, designer with Abbotswood Ltd. landscape design firm in Terrace Park, Ohio, has seen the market turn toward extreme outdoor kitchens. "In the last year or two, we've fielded a lot of requests for full-service outdoor kitchens." One recent project by Abbotswood featured a built-in charcoal grill, gas oven, smoker grill, icemaker and full sink.

Another Abbotswood project featured a series of outdoor rooms, complete with a 12x20 feet grilling/bar area: built-in Dacor grill and side burners, generous sink and deep under-counter storage to accommodate a Big Green Egg smoker grill (coveted by the man of the house). The cooking area was placed perpendicular to a stone-covered bar that accommodates four barstools on each side and doubles as a buffet.

Outdoor Islands

"There's a tremendous amount of customization going on in outdoor kitchens. We feature customized islands made to specification and modular systems that are finished on site," says Ross Johnson, vice president of sales at Fire Stone Home Products, a maker of outdoor grills and accessories in Burnsville, Minn. Fire Stone's modular systems can be finished by the contractor. "This gives a custom look with a semi-custom process, such as finishing with stucco or cultured stone," Johnson says.

Refrigerators and stereo systems are two of the most popular must-haves requested on Fire Stone islands. Johnson notes that many grill makers offer built-in marine-grade sound systems that are iPod compatible. Some of Fire Stone's models feature convection grills, refrigerators and umbrella stands. Counter finishes include tumbled marble and Corian. Technology advances in engineered stone are also offering more weatherproof and fade-resistant surfaces.

Casey Loyd, president of Cal Spas, which makes Cal Flame barbecue islands and grill stations in Pomona, Calif., says cooking areas are gathering centers. Cal Flame offers a diverse range of ready-made and customized barbecue islands and grill stations. "The grill is a place to entertain to provide food and drinks. One of the hottest accessories we have now is our beverage chiller, which serves as a chilling coaster of sorts." The electric-powered tiles replace standard countertop tiles of most custom kitchen islands. Another popular accessory is a three-in-one item installed in the center of the island with a removable grill. The space doubles as an ice bucket or a mini fire pit.

Experts suggest those with indoor kitchen design experience are best suited for planning today's outdoor kitchens. Here are some tips for contractors to consider:

  • Walk your clients through the process from food prep through final cooking and cleanup to make sure they include all the necessary components.
  • Do your homework. Check for permitting if you need to run a gas line, for instance.
  • Pay attention to the details you can market: Maintenance and upkeep are key selling points. Cal Flame's Clear Tropics Steam Cleaner houses a grill sprayer and related equipment in a two-drawer stainless steel unit. Kalamazoo Gourmet units feature a seamless rain gutter around door and drawer openings to prevent water and dirt from getting inside.

With so many options available, it's too bad that contractors can't offer clients the option of a few more leisure evenings to enjoy their outdoor kitchens.

Marcia Jedd writes frequently on design and construction issues.

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