Tips for outfitting a backyard cooking space

Backyard Cooking
Courtesy of Johnna Brooks
A winding garden path bordered by drought-tolerant plants leads to a fire bowl and seating circle of basalt columns in this Los Altos Hills project by landscape designer Johnna Brooks.

What do the Big Green Egg, the American Muscle Grill and Bull products have in common?

They’re among hot items (pun intended) in cool outdoor kitchens. These appliances and the kitchens themselves are growing in popularity.
In fact, outdoor kitchens topped the project list in the latest American Institute of Architects’ survey.

For the uninitiated, the Big Green Egg is a ceramic charcoal barbecue cooker that acts as a grill, oven or smoker. The dual-fuel Muscle Grill can go from 0 to 350 degrees in two minutes and smokes, sears or slow roasts. Bull has a wide range of outdoor products including a pre-made barbecue island.

“A barbecue island sells houses,” said Michael Dougherty, whose company, Unlimited Outdoor Kitchen, has installed several thousand since its founding 20 years ago. “And outdoor kitchens change lives. It changed mine after I built one. I wound up living outdoors.”

His is covered and features a TV above the fireplace and heating and cooling elements. Dougherty’s business has increased more than twofold in the past few years. Among his clients are many Los Altos and Los Altos Hills homeowners.

Lounge-worthy landscape

Kevin Daroca, co-owner of Design Mart Silicon Valley in San Jose, attributes the growth to today’s hectic times, as people are seeking the sanctuary of outdoor living spaces – both for unwinding and entertaining.

“Outdoor living is no longer relegated to a patio and a Weber grill. And it’s gone beyond the vinyl strap chairs,” he said. “Now it can provide the same level of comfort as the house itself. It can become an extension of a family’s individual style.”

Barbecue islands can serve as fully functioning kitchens with refrigerator, dishwasher, ice machine – even the kitchen sink. Dougherty just installed one locally with burners, a smoker, and beer and wine taps.

“One of the hottest outdoor kitchen appliances is a pizza oven,” said Johnna Brooks, owner of Divine Nature Landscape Design, whose client base extends from South San Jose to Palo Alto. “It really brings people together around food.”

Homeowners are even springing for wood-fired versions at costs upward of $12,000. The ovens are usually built in, though less expensive freestanding cast-iron models are available for less than $600.

What about outdoor seating areas whilst awaiting pizza or ribs hot off the grill?

“Fire pits have always been the first thing people ask about,” Brooks said. “Many different styles can be purchased in-store or online. Custom fire pits are pricey but can be integrated into the outdoor space to match elements in the landscape.”

According to Brooks, seating is part of a landscape.

“This is the perfect way to enjoy nature and relax after a long day or spend time with family and friends,” she said.

Dr. Indira Sahiwal enjoys the view from her Los Altos Hills home and the pleasure of sharing the outdoors with her family – especially now that she has an outdoor kitchen and adjacent dining area installed by Dougherty’s company.

“I did it so we could have pool parties and keep the fun outside,” she said. “It also encourages us to eat outside when the weather is nice. I love having my kids’ friends over and love cooking. So with the outdoor kitchen, I could hang with them and still cook and feed them.”

Things to consider before you get cooking

Contemplating an outdoor kitchen? Here are some guidelines from Dougherty.

  • Determine your entertaining style. How many people do you want to entertain at one time? Do you plan to feed your guests indoors or outdoors? Before grilling, where would you prefer to do food preparation? Are you satisfied with your current outdoor cooking methods or do you want to try something
  • Decide on must-have features. A quality grill is the obvious first choice. Next, make a wish list with items in order of preference. Some features you might consider: another cooking appliance such as a pizza oven or barbecue smoker; a refrigerator or beverage chiller; a side burner or warming drawer; cabinets or other storage options; a warm gathering spot such as an outdoor fireplace, fire pit or fire table; and a pergola for shade or protection from rain.
  • Determine your budget. Being realistic at the outset is important. Knowing your budget as you begin the design stage will help you prioritize which features are most important to you. You don’t want to pour your heart into an extravagant design only to discover you have to scrap most of it because of the price tag.
  • Avoid the temptation to grossly overspend. The entire point of an outdoor lifestyle is to relax and enjoy the fruits of your labor over the years, but it’s hard to relax when you’re worried about how you’re going to pay off debts you can’t afford.
  • How much should you plan to invest in your outdoor kitchen? Cost depends on a multitude of factors. A top-of-the-line grill with a surrounding barbecue island will cost at least $5,000. The price will increase as you add more appliances, counter space and upgraded finishes. Expect to pay upward of $10,000-$20,000 for an average outdoor kitchen.

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