Fresh-air Kitchen

More homeowners are deciding to cook outside, and they're bringing the appliances (and more) with them.

Focus On Cooking

June 26, 2005|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun Staff

The walls between the house and the garden are coming down, as homeowners find new ways to create entertainment areas out of doors.

The latest evidence? The outdoor kitchen. Dining al fresco now means cooking al fresco, too.

It can be as simple as a new grill with some storage space and some attached counter space -- which can cost as much as $10,000 -- or it can be as luxurious as the outdoor kitchen Jack and Kristin Fusco constructed in the cozy backyard of their Annapolis home.

The Fuscos had three good reasons to invest in this outdoor living space: Anthony, 14, Chris, 12, and Mark, 3. The indoor kitchen is too far away to allow Kristin to watch over her sons while scrambling to keep their summertime appetites satisfied.

"The boys are at an age where I needed a safe spot for them and their friends and a way to keep an eye on them," she said.

"All I really wanted was a brick pizza oven like we had in California. It just sort of took off from there."

Like the most ambitious outdoor kitchens, the Fuscos' kitchen includes a first-rate grill for meats, burners for Kristin's tomato sauce, a refrigerator for chopped vegetables and an icemaker for sodas.

"All I need to do is bring out the dough, and we are all set," said Kristin, who bakes pizza three or four nights a week for the boys and their friends.

But the backyard haven also includes a pool with a pair of small waterfalls, a hot tub and a fireplace.

And that is not all homeowners are adding. As family vacation money is redirected toward bringing resort living home, outdoor kitchens have begun to resemble the trophy kitchens indoors.

Inspired by home improvement and cooking shows, homeowners are fueling an outdoor cooking industry that some estimates place at $2.5 billion a year, and growing.

The appliances they choose can be as simple as a gas-fuel fire pit fitted with a grill top. Or, their outdoor kitchens can include a pot burner for crabs, lobsters or corn. A rotisserie, an infrared burner, a smoker and warming drawers for meats. Cabinets for linens and seat cushions, as well as dinnerware and appliances. An outlet for a blender, as well as a wine cooler, and a beer keg cooler. Sinks -- even dishwashers. A restroom and a changing room, too.

Pergolas and other overhead structures can support waterproof stereo speakers, ceiling fans, lights or pot racks. Commercial style portable heaters can extend the cooking season late into the fall. But the crowning touch might be a plasma television that retracts into the countertop.

Outdoor kitchens, of course, come with their own set of design and constructions issues, said Steve McHale, co-owner of McHale Landscape Design of Upper Marlboro, which created the Fuscos' kitchen.

"The appliances we use have come a long way and that has made it easier," said McHale, who said this side of his business has grown from one or two kitchens a year to more than a dozen this year.

Viking Range Corp., of Greenwood, Miss., makers of the super-status kitchen range, saw this trend take hold in the mid-1990s and has produced an entire line of what vice president Robert Woods calls "bulletproof" appliances that can take a beating from the weather.

"People are remodeling and doing quite a bit on the outside," he said. "And builders are starting to offer outdoor kitchens as an option. It has changed the appliance industry."

Outdoor kitchens can require the coordination of a number of craftsmen: carpenter, electrician, plumber, stone mason, irrigation expert and pool builder. And, of course, the landscape designer.

"The idea is to not have it look like someone plopped a kitchen down in the middle of nowhere," said McHale.

These kitchens can cost as little as $5,000 to $10,000 -- not much more than a modest home improvement project -- or more than $100,000.

And just about anybody can claim to be able to create one for you: interior designers, kitchen and bath contractors, landscape architects. It makes sense for the homeowner to check credentials closely before signing on for such a complex project.

"If your kitchen is within easy reach of your backyard, you might not need more than a good grill, a pot burner and some counter space," said Mike Miller, who designs these kitchens for McHale's company.

"It can be hard for a homeowner to know when to stop," he said. "But I think people are using them more than they ever thought they would. They let you spend the whole day outside."

Outdoor kitchens mean the smoke and the mess stay outdoors, too. A spilled glass of wine doesn't mean much if it falls on the grass. Messy kids aren't a worry. And outdoor kitchens mean the hosts can be with their guests, instead of holed up indoors preparing food.

Debra Judge Silber, associate editor of Inspired House magazine, which has a cover story on outdoor kitchens in its August issue, said more and more products are making outdoor living -- and cooking -- more comfortable.

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