Cooking Alfresco with Outdoor Kitchens


Photo courtesy of Anchor Walls Systems, Inc. 

Let’s face it: Midwestern summers are always a flash in the pan. Every second spent indoors is precious sun and warmth lost—and who wants to miss a minute of it? With a fully equipped outdoor kitchen, you don’t have to. Forget running into the house for cocktails and condiments. Everything you need is out back by the barbecue—refrigerated, weatherproofed, and raccoon safe.

Outdoor entertaining spaces can range from simple to sprawling. And just like opinions on how to grill the perfect steak, the options for open-air kitchen designs are endless.

Photo courtesy of NRD Landscape Design Inc.

Party Central

A design for big events and cozy gatherings alike

They say the kitchen is the heart of a home, and it’s no less true in this Edina backyard. Here, the kitchen anchors the space and serves as the control center for the entertaining elements, from the lighting to the stereo to the mechanical pool cover. “It’s the central hub that holds all the wiring,” says Eric Robertson, owner of NRD Landscape, the firm that designed and built the project. “It needed to be functional on a large scale for big events but not overwhelm when it’s just the family making burgers on a weeknight.”

It’s a beautiful space that the homeowners don’t intend to keep to themselves. They host events of all sizes and requested multiple entertainment areas—separate, but visually linked—for various groups. Robertson created five spaces: two on the pool deck, an outdoor room under the house deck with an adjacent patio, and an area for the wood-burning fire pit. He used a combination of Chilton flagstone and wall stone on the vertical spaces, textured concrete around the pool, patterned bluestone for the fireplace patio, and a special-order paver by Unilock on the walkways and patios. All the materials harmonize, despite their differences.  “We aimed for an old-European look to match similar elements on the front of the home,” says Robertson. “We wanted the project to look like it was meant to be there—not a new addition.”

Despite the many seating areas, the homeowners and their guests can’t help but flock to the fully loaded kitchen. It includes a gas grill and side burner, two refrigerators, built-in storage, a drawer for garbage and recycling, and a sink that runs hot and cold water. That’s important. Water sources are always cold, Robertson explains, so he had his team install a water heater inside the kitchen cabinetry. Down to the last detail, he wanted to make the outdoor cooking experience as easy and comfortable as possible. “Who wants to wash dishes in ice-cold water?” he asks.


Photo courtesy of Anchor Walls Systems, Inc. 

Simplicity Meets Style

Family fun and functionality

In fitting with Midwestern inclinations towards modest, functional design, the main goal for these Omaha, Nebraska, homeowners was a simple, durable outdoor kitchen that would blend in with its surroundings. Eddie Koterba, owner of VIP Lawn & Landscape, took this as his cue to create a scene straight out of Americana. “They wanted to host parties—to cook and grill while the kids run around the backyard,” he says. And Dad, Koterba adds, “wanted to have the guys over to watch the big game and drink cold beverages straight out of the fridge.”

Koterba custom built the kitchen with Anchor-brand concrete blocks, the same material he used to create the retaining walls. “They wanted the kitchen to blend in versus stand out as a focal point,” he says. “For me, good design is about feel and flow. I aim to be landscape savvy—to ensure that the design elements feel natural and don’t overpower the surroundings.”

The design may look simple, but the kitchen is loaded with high-end conveniences: a gas grill with storage, a refrigerator, an eating bar, a television hookup, and an intricate lighting system. “We called ourselves carpenters with concrete,” says Koterba, who cut channels up through the blocks to hide the wiring.

Inconspicuous light fixtures are tucked under the kitchen countertop and all along the seat and retaining walls. With a soft, gentle glow, they illuminate walking spaces and the steps into the backyard. (For after-dusk cooking, the grill has its own tabletop task light.) The patio’s built-in fire pit is illuminated by fixtures on either side, controlled by a switch in the kitchen. Lights on, it’s part of the party. Lights off, it’s a cozy campfire for two. Either way, it’s a relaxing denouement to an outdoor meal.



Photo courtesy of Spears Landscape Inc.

Kitchen Island

A backyard oasis defines nooks for alfresco entertainment

Who’s the biggest fan of this Otsego sanctuary? It might be homeowners’ yellow Labrador, who enjoys drinking from a “bubbling boulder” water feature that sits between the two patios. The fountain also emits a soothing sound that turns this suburban backyard into a secluded retreat. “It’s centering,” says Jeff Spear, President of Spear’s Landscape, the company that designed and built the space. “You can see it from wherever you are—the bar, the kitchen, or the fire pit.”

This small backyard is now packed with gathering spaces, having escaped its destiny to remain a flat, unremarkable landscape. To create this, Spear designed an adjoining kitchen and fire pit, surrounded by foliage and mulch, at the backyard’s edge—an island getaway surrounded by grass. His team built a berm around the fire pit and added boulders, evergreens, and dogwoods, as well as other plants to provide height and textural interest. The space also features multiple levels, to better define each space.

There’s a step up from the grass and two steps up to the kitchen area.

The not-too-steep climb is well worth it. The kitchen, which sits beneath a cedar pergola, features weather-resistant appliances, including a gas grill, side burner, and refrigerator. There’s also plenty of storage and a water spigot. “You don’t have to constantly run back and forth from the house,” says Spear. “We brought indoors out—it’s all right here.”

That includes the entertainment. When the bubbling boulder needs backup, there’s a flat-screen TV and 360-degree Bose speakers that emit music to every part of the yard. Though its function is primarily cooking, a newly added wood-fire pizza oven between the fire pit and kitchen has ratcheted up the space’s recreational feel.  “Outdoor ovens are so fun,” says Spear. “You can make just about anything: appetizers, steak, salmon, kebabs, dessert…”

Outdoor Kitchen Trends

New developments in design—in cooking, lighting, and entertainment elements—allow outdoor cooks to maximize every last second of fine weather.

Wood-Fire Pizza Ovens
They’re not just for pizza anymore—practically anything can be baked or roasted in a wood-fire pizza oven. And it won’t take long. Once the oven’s temperature reaches between 600 and 700 degrees, a pizza can be cooked in three minutes flat.

Outdoor Televisions
That flat-screen TV looks great—until it sits through its first thunderstorm.

Keep the bloopers at bay by protecting an outdoor television with a weatherproof case. Internal heaters warm the components so even Old Man Winter can’t come between you and the big game.

Vertical Structures
Builders are incorporating rooftops, pergolas, and arbors into outdoor kitchen designs to help define the space and make it a focal point. These structures are also clever places to hide additional lighting.

Edible Elements
Herb garden troughs built right into a kitchen counter can add color and bring life to the space. Cooks can pick what they need when they need it.

By Phoebe Larson

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