The Outdoor Kitchen Takes Center Stage
Sinks, counters, cooktops, even wok burners and freezers are just as at home outdoors as their indoor counterparts.
BY BILL HENSLEY
PHOTOS COURTESY OF JOHN MICHAEL KITCHENS
WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE KITCHEN THAT HAS A MAGNETISM BEYOND OTHER ROOMS IN THE HOUSE? Whether it’s a cook’s kitchen or a kitchen that rarely goes beyond reheat, that magnetism is there nonetheless. Food is the ultimate sharing experience. It’s no wonder that at most parties the guests sooner or later end up in the kitchen – even the not-so-great kitchens.
Because more than any room, the kitchen is that welcoming hearth that surrounds us with positive emotions. At a party, that inviting warmth mixes with a feeling of being backstage at an exclusive show and it’s easy to be part of the crew – “Open these bottles, please. Can you get the salad out of the ‘fridge?” It’s not just the food but the sharing of food that creates this emotional pull. That’s why when we think about the best meal we ever enjoyed, it is who we enjoyed that meal with that comes to mind first.
Designers have known this kitchen magnetism for years. Modern, open designs are placing the kitchen front and center. It goes beyond social time; more than ever the kitchen is the hub for the family, so opening the kitchen up to the “family” space makes perfect sense. In a retrofit, walls might come down between the kitchen and family room to create something much larger than its parts — more social, more inviting, more engaging, but sometimes more challenging. That range hood that pulled plenty of air in the enclosed kitchen might be underpowered for a larger space with competing airflow and ventilation. But in a new home, the architect and kitchen designer can start from a clean slate addressing all considerations as they plan.
As the warm summer months remind us, the best parties might not just end up in the kitchen, but in the outdoor kitchen. This is where social food prep can really shine. Because when the weather is great, the parties and social time move outdoors. And the family hub can move outdoors as well. Breakfast may still be indoors as the family gets ready to head off to school or work – even if that work is in the COVID-inspired work-from-home office – but in the warm evening the outdoors calls us to dinner.
Today, that outdoor kitchen is more than just the enviable bar-b-que or pizza oven. Sinks, counters, cooktops, even wok burners and freezers are just as at home outdoors as their indoor counterparts. What separates them are the types of materials, particularly those materials that withstand the elements. While you might be prepping, grilling, frying, serving, entertaining and cleaning up – well, maybe not cleaning up – in good weather, the appliances and cabinets must endure the harsher weather conditions that send you back indoors. What unites the outdoor kitchen with the indoor “primary” kitchen is the need for good design.
To learn more, I spoke with Amanda Lardie and Kaylee Neal, Senior Kitchen Designers at John Michael Kitchens. Based in South Carolina with showrooms in Charlotte, North Carolina and San Francisco, California, John Michael Kitchens is a design, manufacturing and retail company dedicated to providing a customer-focused kitchen design-build experience. Founded by John Craig and Michael Sloan, the company got its start designing kitchens for outdoor spaces, and success has led them to design and build for indoor spaces as well.
Along the way, they have built a reputation for quality, design and dependability. Their outdoor kitchen collection makes use of marine-grade 316 stainless steel exteriors. As the name indicates, marine-grade 316 is the preferred steel for use in marine environments due to its greater resistance to pitting corrosion than other grades of steel without molybdenum. Moly-what? Good question. Molybdenum. (If we want to take a metallurgic sidetrack, Molybdenum is a chemical element with the symbol Mo and atomic number 42.) John Michael Kitchens couples the 316 stainless exteriors with high-quality 304 stainless steel interiors. The outdoor cabinets are fitted with a rubberized gasket to keep elements outside and make use of soft-close door hinges and drawer slides for dependable long-lasting use.
Senior Kitchen Designer
JOHN MICHAEL KITCHENS
Senior Kitchen Designer
JOHN MICHAEL KITCHENS
BILL: What are the biggest trends in outdoor kitchen design in 2021?
AMANDA: The biggest trend that we have been seeing in outdoor kitchens is a preference for a more ultra-modern look over traditional style. Clients are seeking clean, simple lines with sleek hardware and incorporating color. One advantage of the modern design is very practical: modern style cabinets are easier to clean, saving time with lower maintenance. You’re not having to deal with little crevices and small spaces to clean. People want to enjoy their outdoor spaces and not spend all their time cleaning.
BILL: Since the beginning of the COVID lockdowns, homeowners have had a chance to — or have been forced to —rethink how they use space at home. The inside challenges have been well-documented, from fighting for limited Wi-Fi bandwidth to turning the dining table into the office desk. And we’re rethinking outdoor spaces as well. How have homeowner goals in outdoor kitchens changed in the last year?
KAYLEE: Most definitely we see people wanting to spend more time at home so outdoor kitchens are getting larger, with more appliances. And people are venturing out into different appliances more than ever before. We’ve seen a large interest in Evo Flattop Grills and have been incorporating them into many kitchens. Since people haven’t been able to get out, for a variety of reasons, they’re investing those resources they would have spent out into bringing their ‘entertainment’ into the home.
BILL: And “the home” meaning indoors and out.
AMANDA: We’ve also had some homeowners who have been quite concerned about germs, the 316L stainless steel we use to build our cabinets has excellent antibacterial qualities. We’ve had quite a few homeowners show an interest in our cabinets – even for our indoor kitchens – for that reason alone – they fight germs!
BILL: Indeed, according to the World Health Organization, silver has been known to have antibacterial properties since Roman times. Let’s shift our focus to design. What are the essential components of a successful outdoor kitchen design?
AMANDA: First and foremost, the space needs to be functional; you must have a good balance of counterspace/workspace and appliance placement. You want your storage placement to make sense with your appliances as well. For example, you will want the utensils you need for the grill to be close by, or you’ll want your trash can conveniently located in the prep area. It’s just thinking about those little details that make all the difference in how much you’ll enjoy your kitchen and how much time you will be spending in the space.
KAYLEE: Aesthetics are important as well. This is an extension of the home. The homeowner wants the investment that they are making into the outdoor living space to bring value to the home. The outdoor kitchen needs to look like it belongs there. And who doesn’t want to spend more time in a ‘pretty place’?
BILL: Making the outdoor kitchen ‘fit’ with the home’s style seems easier in new construction when everything is planned together. But with the right team, a retrofit or remodel can have just as much success. Who are the experts an architect should rely on in outdoor kitchen design?
KAYLEE: Typically, an architect will work with the contractor on the job. The architect should heavily rely on the contractor for the correct measurements. The architect will usually send us drawings of how they would like the cabinets for the outdoor kitchen to lay out. This gives us a great visualization of the space and how it will eventually look.
AMANDA: Architects would also work with engineers. Your engineer kind of marries the architect’s vision and the contractor’s measurements so that the physical product works structurally and within the desired space.
BILL: We talked about the trend to use our outdoor spaces more. In what ways are outdoor kitchens becoming more “everyday” and less “special occasion”?
KAYLEE: I think it’s the appliances that are on the market. There is so much available as well as great specialty appliances like our Fuel pizza oven – but you can cook anything in the pizza oven. It can easily become your go-to oven. Other options include outdoor flat top griddles, ranges with burners — I mean you can really do anything in an outdoor kitchen that you can indoors.
AMANDA: And you get a better view!
BILL: And fresher air, too. Following from the previous “everyday” and “special occasion” topic, how does the outdoor kitchen integrate with its indoor counterpart?
AMANDA: We often see the indoor kitchen as a larg¬er version of the outdoor kitchen with full size appliances. We’ve also seen the outdoor kitchen be an extension of the indoor, with counter space right outside the kitchen door so it flows into the outdoor living area.
“The biggest trend that we have been seeing in outdoor kitchens is a preference for a more ultra-modern look over traditional style.”
BILL: So this gets back to knowing what the homeowner wants, and how the indoor space integrates with the outdoor areas.
KAYLEE: Yes, and sometimes the homeowners do not want them integrated at all. The outdoor kitchen will be a completely independent space that allows them to do everything they could indoors – so you may find the outdoor kitchen poolside or on a rooftop terrace.
BILL: That sounds inviting but pools and rooftops are usually sunny locations. What is the role of shade in a successful outdoor kitchen and how important is it for the appliances to be in a covered area?
KAYLEE: Our cabinets and the appliances we sell are climate resistant – so shade or no shade, they will withstand any climate. Of course, shade can be important for the comfort of the user!
AMANDA: And everything will be slightly cooler to the touch in the shade. But our cabinets are extremely durable and function very well in any environment. Many of our kitchens are installed in outdoor environments that are not shaded at all.
Bringing the smart home outside…
After all, this is Technology Designer Magazine, so let’s talk about smart home tech as it relates to the outdoor kitchen area. If the homeowner has a control system, they will likely want to extend home control into all frequently used spaces, and outdoor spaces continue to be among the hottest sectors in home design and technology. If there are entertainment elements—say a SunBrite or Samsung outdoor TV, or an extension of the whole home audio system — then a remote or smartphone integration is vital. If the space is covered, a wall-mount touchpanel might be an option. Kaylee mentioned the popularity of outdoor kitchens being placed poolside or on a rooftop terrace. This can be more challenging for control; other than the U3 water-resistant remote from RTI, there aren’t many options other than being extra careful when placed in or adjacent to a wet or harsh environment.
And integration is not just about the technology. When planning the outdoor kitchen, it’s a missed opportunity not to plan the kitchen garden. Think proximity and think seasons. Nothing beats fresh vegetables and fruits straight out of the garden for flavor, and of course there is that healing sensation that the garden knows how to deliver. Whether it’s the farm-to-table feel from a small planter box of leafy greens, or the “shinrinyoku” walk in the forest among a broad expanse of fruit trees and edibles, keeping the edible areas of the garden close to the outdoor kitchen elevates the outdoor experience.
The party is winding down…
And the closest friends are gathered around the table, talking about the great evening they just shared, perhaps with friends they were away from for too long during the first year of COVID. Leftovers are being divvied up to be sent home with the guests. The hosts smile and think “how is it that all our parties always end up in the kitchen?” Only this time it is not just the kitchen, but that wonderful extension of the home we know as the outdoor kitchen.