Luxury outdoor kitchen with a gazebo
One of the great pleasures of summer is entertaining your friends and family in your own backyard. But entertaining typically means supplying food and drink, and dedicated hosts often find themselves running madly between the house and the patio to keep everybody happy. That's why, in recent years, so many homeowners have put kitchens in their outdoor living spaces - and we're not talking just a hibachi and a plastic ice chest. Today's outdoor kitchen has become increasingly elaborate, with built-in gas grills, side burners, refrigerators, wine coolers and warming drawers, just to name a few of the options now available.

"There's something magical about entertaining outside," says Rosa Loayza, co-owner of Unique Outdoor Living, a specialty retailer of patio products in San Jose. "There are so many incredible things about it. For one, you don't have to limit the number of people you're cooking for."

Outdoor kitchens start at a few thousand dollars for a basic pre-fabricated barbecue island, and can go up to $100,000 or more for custom jobs that include the fancier appliances. "It all depends on your budget," says Deidra Darsa, media relations manager for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. "The grill is the centerpiece - you grow from that and add onto it."

The essential pieces of the puzzle are a grill or oven, a sink, countertops for food preparation, and storage for kitchen and dining paraphernalia. Other necessities might include an attached dining/bar area, a refrigerator for keeping perishables close at hand, and overhead shelter of some type. Some of the other innovations that add further utility to the outdoor kitchen space are dishwashers, wine and beer coolers, ice makers, warming drawers, built-in lighting, waterproof stereo systems with MP3 and satellite radio capability and even pop-up television screens.

Just the choice of grill alone is staggering. These days, brand names like FireMagic, Cal Flame and Lynx are offering outdoor grills that include gourmet extras such as motorized rotisseries and infrared searing.
Outdoor kitchen with stainless steel grill
Gas grills are by far the most popular, Darsa says, although built-in charcoal and electric grills also have their devotees. Side burners are handy for cooking the entire meal alfresco. Some cooks, however, are opting for European-style wood-fired ovens, in which everything from soup to roasts to desserts can be prepared. These ovens can also produce pizza in minutes - the perfect dish for family get-togethers. Not only that, but these ovens provide a warm and attractive atmosphere when the fire is glowing within.

"It becomes a focal point of the outdoor kitchen. It's like a piece of art," says John Thess, general manager of Mugnaini Wood Fired Ovens, based in Watsonville. "It's live and interactive." Beyond the components of the outdoor kitchen, there's also the style to consider as well as materials. Kitchen islands can be finished in stucco, tile, stone, or faux stone; some people turn to ultra-durable concrete or granite countertops. The look of the kitchen should complement your home and yard. Because there are so many options available, it's a good idea to visit an outdoor living showroom to get a feel for what's on the market, and what might benefit you most when you're entertaining. Darsa recommends gathering as much information as possible and reading books like Ultimate Outdoor Kitchens: Inspiration Designs and Plans, (Gibbs Smith, $24.95) by Michelle Kodis; and The New Outdoor Kitchen: Cooking Up a Kitchen for the Way You Live and Play, (Taunton Press, $19.
close up of a kitchen drawer, steamer
95) by Deborah Krasner. She also notes that it's helpful to think about how you're going to use your outdoor kitchen. Will it be for small, intimate groups, or large crowds? Every night or just occasionally? Do you prefer to grill, or do you want more versatility? It's helpful to jot down ideas, create a wish list, and clip pictures before meeting with a designer or contractor, and that way the experts can see what it is you're looking for, and work with you to realize your backyard aspirations.

Working with professionals is recommended because of the amount of planning it can take to put in an outdoor kitchen. The outdoor kitchen should have protection from wind and excess sun; it should have easy access to the house; and there must be consideration of how best to install gas, electric and water lines, and proper venting of smoke. If your dreams exceed your checkbook balance, ask if the project can be completed in phases so that you can keep adding on over time. The HPBA recommends defining the grilling and eating areas first, then accessorizing when the budget allows. Outdoor living specialists like Loayza can also help develop plans for homeowners and may be able to help them sort out the bewildering range of options. "The first thing is, I sit down with clients and see what they want to accomplish," she says. "The sky is the limit on outdoor kitchens."

Resources:

Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association
www.hpba.org

Mugnaini Wood Fired Ovens
www.mugnaini.com

Unique Outdoor Living
www.uniqueoutdoorliving.com

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