How to make the most of your outdoor kitchen
The heart of the home is moving outside, along with pizza ovens, beer taps, and hang-out zones
There was a time when the backyard chef was a lonely figure, hunched over a kettle-shaped charcoal grill while family and friends congregated inside, eating all the hors d’oeuvres. Nowadays, though, a backyard chef is just as likely to preside over an outdoor kitchen that would be the envy of celebrity griller Bobby Flay. And family and friends are just as likely to be out there, too. Because, especially in Park City, what goes better with grilled elk burgers and conversation than a mountain view?
“The rise of outdoor kitchens is definitely a result of families wanting to spend more time outside together,” says Michael Mecham, owner of Salt Lake City-based Outdoor Kitchen Concepts.
Over the 17 years that Mecham has been building custom outdoor kitchens he has seen their popularity grow to the point that for new luxury homes they are almost a must.
“People like to get together in their backyard, and not just in the summer,” said Mecham, who claims he grills as often as six days a week right through the winter.
Growing, too, has been the number of accessories luxury homeowners want to find in an outdoor kitchen. Ranging from pizza ovens to complete outdoor dining and entertainment areas, options might include dual heat sources that make it possible to switch between gas and charcoal, smokers for slow cooking on low heat, motorized rotisseries, side burners, warming drawers, food preparation areas, sinks, under-counter refrigerators, stainless steel storage cabinets, wine coolers, beer taps, granite-topped bars, fire pits, fireplaces, and adjustable lighting and sound systems.
“If you have it in your indoor kitchen, there’s probably an outdoor version, too,” Mecham said.
The range of possible add-ons is so extensive that homeowners often hire a licensed contractor with the experience to oversee the project from planning and design all the way through construction, perhaps even of a pergola or other overhead shelter that extends the summer grilling season.
Cocktails & climate
One of a contractor’s primary responsibilities is designing an outdoor kitchen that will work well with how the homeowners intend to use their outdoor space. For example, a tradition of gathering before dinner for a drink might suggest the need for a larger area dedicated to hanging out. And gathering this kind of input is key to putting together a budget.
Also at the forefront is choosing options that can withstand the Park City elements, not only at the height of summer but also during the times of year when a balmy afternoon is about as rare as a camel strolling down Main Street. One brand that stands up well, according to Mecham, is Alfresco, a Southern California based, top-of-the-line grill manufacturer ($17,351 for their 8-piece, 42-inch outdoor kitchen package) whose customers have included chefs Jean George, Emeril Lagasse, and Wolfgang Puck.
“You can cover everything in the winter, but you don’t really need to,” Mecham says. “Even the nuts and bolts are stainless, so nothing is going to rust.”
Counter tops are one big outdoor kitchen element that needs weatherproofing, Mecham says. He recommends using granite, but sometimes sees tile, which is a mistake. “The freezing and thawing causes problems with the grout,” he says.
Mecham says constructing a major outdoor element such as a kitchen involves a good bit of planning. Here are a few other factors homeowners should think about:
• Determining the most suitable location, which could help decide, for instance, whether a ventilation hood is needed to keep smoke from seeping into the house and making it smell like a barbecue joint when the rodeo is in town.
• Ensuring that an outdoor kitchen’s visual elements — color and style —fit in with the home’s overall style. This may include working with the home’s designer. It also means recognizing that styles change. For example, Mecham says that the masonry structures long used for built-in grills are “becoming obsolete.” The style now is leaning toward more modern finishes such as stainless steel and powder-coated side panels. An added benefit of the new materials is that fitting cabinet doors and other attachments is much easier than when working with masonry.
• Making provisions for gas, water, and electricity, including getting the necessary permits, may seem mundane, but is crucial. With utilities, being closer to the house is better, because of the cost of running lines, especially if the spot you have in mind would require digging a trench equivalent to the length of the Keystone XL Pipeline.
• Configuring lighting and entertainment systems (including charging outlets), for optimizing LED lighting and Wi-Fi.
Noodling the numbers
Outdoor kitchens can be pricey. A top-of-the-line pizza oven alone can cost in the thousands, and the kind of kitchen that might have a TV chef trying to fly a drone over your backyard could top $100K.
There is a way to rationalize even the big numbers, though. When it comes time to sell a home, especially at the luxury end of the market, an outside kitchen can return a significant portion of its cost, up to 100 percent or more, according to some sources.
But of course with the elk steaks sizzling on the grill, the conversation just getting interesting, and the sun setting over the Wasatch mountains,
who wants to go anywhere?