At my house, I cook pretty much for one reason. I get hungry. If I didn’t need to eat, and didn’t actually like to eat, I would turn my kitchen into something more interesting like an ice rink or a sky diving arena or a petting zoo, which would all be way more fun than a place to toss salad.
Apparently, I’m a minority of one. Across America, kitchens are the spaces where home improvers get the most carried away. By far. So much so that having one fabulous indoor kitchen isn’t enough anymore. People are creating serious—I mean restaurant-quality-serious—kitchens outside. They have everything built in but waiters.
Now, some of you may recall, I have had homes in my past that had fancy outdoor cooking areas with men who could use them. But in my current single living situation, it’s just me and my George Foreman Grill.
George and I get along pretty well, as couples go, although, he can move a little faster than I like, and he only has two temperatures, on or off. But he’s at home indoors and out, is highly portable, remarkably reliable, low maintenance and he cleans up well.
I am grateful for George. I am also grateful for my friends, who fortunately, also like to eat, so we have a lot in common. Even better, some like to cook, I mean seriously cook, as in make bacon from scratch.
What’s more, they like to share their mad cooking skills with me. When they do, I salivate so much I put the dogs to shame. And they still invite me back. Maybe it’s out of pity. I mean, they know about me and George.
These friends also have amazing outdoor kitchens and eating areas, which just keep getting better, I’ve noticed. They’re sprouting pizza ovens.
To find out what was up with that, I called Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, partly because the name is just so fun to say, but also because the Chicago-based company (Yes, they know Kalamazoo is in Michigan.) has been designing, equipping and building outdoor kitchens all over the country for decades.
I get Russ Faulk, vice president of design, on the phone. He confirms that the trend toward building or expanding outdoor kitchens is not just my imagination, which is a huge relief, because so much often is. Two factors are behind this, he says: Americans are bumbling their way out of the Great Recession and splurging a little again, and TV cooks have turned former hot dog and hamburger grillers into tandoor oven chefs.
Let’s pause here to give two seconds of thanks to Rachael Ray, Emeril and Bobby Flay.
Faulk’s company normally does the bulk of its business between April and June, he says, and this season is already strong. If you, too, want to get your outdoor cooking and dining space warm-weather ready, consider these tips from Faulk:
• The heart of the kitchen. At a minimum, an outdoor kitchen has a grill, the heart of the space, and a working counter area. Among houses that have grills, 69 percent are gas, 47 percent charcoal, and 7 percent are electric (like George), says the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association. Trending up are hybrid grills, which offer home chefs the option of cooking with gas or charcoal, says Faulk.
• Beyond basic. Fancier kitchens add a sink and a small refrigerator. After that, popular add ons include pizza ovens, dedicated smokers, tandoor ovens, and lobster boilers. Lobster boilers? I mean, for the once every few years you cook lobster, can’t you do it inside? Sheltered kitchens are on the rise, as more chefs want to cook rain or shine.
• Enough work space. The biggest mistake Faulk sees in outdoor kitchens is not enough counter space. You need free space on both sides of the grill and the sink. He recommends three feet -- two feet on one side, and one foot on the other. Don’t set the sink next to grill, and don’t put either at the end of a counter.
• Task lighting. The second most common mistake is not enough lighting. As someone who has spent more hours of her life than I would have cared to holding a flashlight on the barbecue, I can vouch for this.
• Proximity to the indoor kitchen. No matter how well organized and equipped the outdoor space is, you will be running inside. Faulk likes to locate the outdoor kitchen as close to the indoor kitchen as possible.
• The architectural style. Whether rustic, traditional or modern, the best designed outdoor kitchens look like extensions of the home, and often use similar building materials.
• Which way the wind blows. Most yards have a prevailing wind direction. Know yours and try to put seating areas where smoke from the grill won’t blow. If that’s not possible, manage smoke with a vent hood.
• A place to hide. Build in designated storage for the tongs, grill brushes, hot mitts, and wood chips that are not coming inside.
• The mess and slip factor. Outdoor cooking is messy and hard on floors. The mix of grease and rain can be hazardous. To keep your outdoor kitchen safe and looking clean, choose flooring that is grease, fire and stain resistant. Faulk likes unglazed porcelain tile. Outdoor rugs that are easy to hose off or replace can also keep the area looking sharp.
Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through marnijameson.com.