Cooking Al Fresco

Cooking Al FrescoOutdoor kitchens are a hot (pardon the pun) trend now. Find one that fits your household budget and lifestyle.By Lis King

Your nose twitches. What’s that tantalizing aroma floating in from your neighbor’s lanai? These days, it probably isn’t a basic burger or hot dog. It’s more likely chicken cordon bleu, bouillabaisse, Thai shrimp or some other culinary triumph. Essentially, anything you can cook indoors, you can now cook outdoors.

“A professional stainless steel range is just the start of today’s outdoor kitchen,” says John Linn, president of Linn’s Prestige Kitchens in Destin. “It’ll probably be accompanied by at least a sink, refrigerator and cabinetry of stainless steel, and  ipe (a type of Brazilian hardwood), teak or other woods that can stand up to the weather.

“After that, the homeowner may decide to add a dishwasher, wine cooler, warming and smoking drawers, a built-in wok, a pizza oven and even a garbage disposal,” Linn says. “In the most elaborate al fresco kitchens, the appliances are installed in masonry, complete with granite countertops.”

With such kitchens, it’s no wonder that Bobby Flay, HGTV’s Iron Chef extraordinaire and undisputed king of the grill, is inspiring novice chefs to reach for new delicious heights.

“It certainly explains all those delicious aromas emanating from Emerald Coast yards these days,” Linn says.

A Delicious Investment

Carl Mignacca, a Niceville homeowner, shares Flay’s devotion to the grill. Since he and wife Kathleen had their outdoor kitchen installed, he is responsible for dinner at least three to four times a week. During the kids’ summer vacation, he may even do dinner duty daily.

“Dinner duty, though, isn’t the right terminology,” Mignacca says. “That sounds like a lot of work. The truth is I love cooking, especially outdoors, and I love it even more when my daughter Katie pitches in. She’s getting really good. Am I a professional chef? No, I’m a financial adviser, and I find our outdoor kitchen a wonderful investment.”

Mignacca tells that after a disastrous house fire, he and Kathleen decided to rebuild to get their dream house, including the ultimate outdoor kitchen and entertainment area. With the help of builder Randy Wise of Randy Wise Homes in Niceville, they got exactly that.

The 500-square-foot kitchen consists of a stainless steel grill with overhead vent, sink, cabinets and refrigerator set in a stone wall in the covered lanai. A bar also is part of the kitchen. In addition, there is a 1,700-square-foot entertainment area featuring a table that will seat eight, a seating and lounging area and a TV, all next to the pool and hot tub.

“Deciding just what the kitchen should entail was a long and difficult process,” Mignacca says. “I can’t begin to even count the hours we spent looking at equipment and weighing this design against that. I would advise anybody in the market for an outdoor kitchen to seek the help of a design professional. It requires a lot of thought, a lot of decisions to get the layout that’s just right for you.”

A Hot Trend

The outdoor kitchen trend is sweeping the country, according to the Heart, Patio & Barbecue Association. Close to 17 million new grills were sold in 2009 and the association reports that in Northern states homeowners even take to snow-covered backyards to cook the Thanksgiving turkey and the Christmas goose.

But as builder Wise reminds us, along the Emerald Coast, that kind of hardiness isn’t necessary to enjoy grilling.

“Here, all we need to do, any time of year, is open the sliding glass doors to enjoy our outdoor kitchens,” he says. “That means a 100-percent return on our investment in all that outdoor equipment.”

What exactly is it about backyard cooking that we love so much?

“It’s part of the trend toward improving the home to the hilt,” Wise says. “We want to make our homes the best they can be for family and friends, and the image of a big dining table on the patio or lanai or under a big old tree is irresistible. It’s one we know from the movies and trips to Napa and Tuscany, and we want to recreate it for ourselves. This thought has evolved into outdoor rooms, and what’s the most important room? The kitchen, of course.”

“It’s a happy trend for Floridians,” Linn adds. “Too many lanais are underutilized, but now kitchens are giving them new focus. They’re becoming the centers of enjoyment they were meant to be,

especially because the kitchen is often augmented with special lighting, media and reconfiguration of existing walls.”

Return on Investment

Even the current economy hasn’t put a damper on the outdoor cooking trend.

“On the contrary,” says Leslie Wheeler, communications director of the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. “Many people are staying home and making the most of their backyards rather than going on vacation. This phenomena has given birth to the term ‘staycation.’ Our surveys also show that people would rather have a home cookout for family and friends than eating out.”

Wise calls an outdoor kitchen “the home improvement that keeps giving.”

“Yes, it can be expensive to put in,” he says, “but the return on a really well-planned installation is 130 percent. Quite simply, it makes a home easier to sell. We now include outdoor kitchens in upscale new construction, and in less expensive developments, we routinely rough in the utility lines needed for outdoor kitchens.”

So, how much will it cost?

It depends on your appetite for accoutrements, of course. Design professionals acknowledge that if you’re the Fourth-of-July kind of cook, you can make do with a simple $50 grill, but if you want a really good one, you should spend at least $2,000. If you have your heart set on one of the high-end outdoor ranges, you might well spend from $5,000 to $10,000, perhaps even more now that companies that manufacture commercial appliances for restaurant kitchens have jumped into the al fresco fray.

An appliance lineup similar to the one you have indoors is likely to cost $20,000 and up, depending on how glitzy you want to go. It’s not difficult to get to $100,000 if the installation includes masonry work and fancy stone counters — and this is before the homeowner has even selected the dining table that will do justice to a new al fresco kitchen.

Fire Up the Grill

The grill that’s the heart and soul of the outdoor kitchen typically runs on propane or natural gas, and it can be either the portable, roll-about type or installed permanently.

Some grills generate heat at a temperature that is almost commercial grade, and some have halogen lights built into the top so they can be used after dark. Other features include side burners, rotisseries and heaters.

Outdoor kitchen equipment sports the labels of nearly every manufacturer of high-end appliances for the consumer, including Viking, Kitchen Aid, Jenn-Air, Wolf, Dacor, Electrolux and Jade. Check out the “outdoor” categories on their websites to learn about some of the delicious possibilities.

Then again, you could order the whole shebang already laid out. Cal Spas, for example, offers an outdoor kitchen-entertainment center that includes a gas grill, separate burners, refrigerator, sink, fire pit, fireplace, seating area and a 42-inch plasma TV screen that pops out of the countertop. Another version includes a hot tub and bar.

Planning Counts

Mifflin Hollyday of Dragonfly Design & Detail in Santa Rosa Beach, who won the national 2008 Oasis Award for Outdoor Kitchen Design, warns that you shouldn’t think you can slack on the planning process just because the kitchen you want will be outdoors. There is a lot to consider if it’s to be the fun and functional center of your backyard life, and a professional kitchen designer is strongly recommended.

Hollyday tells of a just-completed Dragonfly Design & Detail project in Rosemary Beach that she feels exemplifies the kind of planning needed to make the yard the perfect timeout center.

“It’s a veritable complex, which includes a pool with sun shelf and spa, a custom water feature, arbors and coral rock paving,” she says. “The kitchen boasts a cross-ray turbo gas grill, drop-in cooler, trash storage unit, three-drawer cabinet, under-counter storage and a separate firewood storage area.”

In most cases, a kitchen is best placed next to the house. Even in Florida, it should have minimal exposure to the elements and good protection from the wind. Often, an existing patio or lanai is a great site, but remember to think about what’s overhead. Nothing flammable, please.

Also think of location in terms of sun exposure. You don’t want to be scorched, warns Wise, and now there is excellent screening available to protect against insects, including no see-ums.

Check with the local building and zoning department to make sure your new outdoor kitchen doesn’t violate property line restrictions, and you’ll probably need permits for electrical and plumbing installations.

Design Considerations

As for indoor kitchens, design for comfort. Countertops should be from 32 to 36 inches high and at least 24 inches deep. The recommended space on each side of the grill is at least 36 inches.

Now that we cook entire meals outdoors, including the hors d’oeuvres and veggie side dishes, it makes sense to get the largest cooking surface available, say the pros. Also plan the layout, so the sink and refrigerator are close to the grill, and it’s a good idea to have a counter opposite the grill. It provides extra prepping space and keeps kids away from the grill area. It’s also good for serving.

By the way, an outdoor kitchen is weighty. Make sure the foundation is appropriate; sometimes when the kitchen installation is scheduled for an existing home, a crane is needed to hoist the equipment into the backyard.

And don’t forget the accessories. The tried-and-true spatulas and tongs will no longer do the trick. These days, you’ll have to think pizza stones and pans, presses for panini sandwiches, perforated baskets for grilling peppers and onions, skewers for kabobs, and tiered racks for increasing cooking space.

Then again, if you’ve already spent $20,000 or more for a fancy outdoor kitchen, a few thousand more for a crane and the perfect cookout paraphernalia shouldn’t come as a major shock.

CookOut Couth

The Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association conducts polls to gauge homeowners’ cookout preferences. Here are some of its findings:

• The favorite griller is one who accommodates everyone’s food preferences by serving a variety of foods, including meat, fish and vegetables.
• And here are homeowners’ least favorite guests:

The Slob — the guest who makes a big mess and doesn’t clean up after himself.

The Picky Eater — the guest who doesn’t want to eat anything the host serves.

The Moocher — the guest who doesn’t bring anything to the party and doesn’t help with anything.

The Backseat Griller — the guest who gives unwanted grilling advice.