Let’s Step Outside | Outdoor Kitchens Expand Possibilities for Multi-season Enjoyment



Dear old Dad stationed at his Weber grill, flipping steaks and burgers while friends and family lounge in lawn chairs on the patio, is a classic tableau of simple summer pleasures. You can bet many of Smith Mountain Lake’s earliest residents enjoyed lakeside life in this fashion, and there’s nothing wrong with that! But just as SML has grown and changed over the years and decades, so have our options for al fresco feasts.

Never before have there been so many possibilities for cooking and enjoying meals outside—and with so many creature comforts now available for exterior spaces, an outdoor kitchen can be used for much of the year, making it a valuable addition to your home. With all the choices and options, it can be hard to know where to begin and what will work best for your property and way of life. We’ve talked with local experts to get top trends, design ideas and tips to help you maximize your lakeside lifestyle.

stepoutside-3As with so many things home-related, location is key. Sure, your outdoor kitchen will most likely be somewhere at the rear of your property, but how you intend to use it and where it will sit are by necessity intertwined. Do you want to take advantage of a lovely view? Do you need ease of access to a particular indoor area, or perhaps to the dock? Would you like a covered space or open air? These are just a few questions to consider when it comes to adding an outdoor kitchen. If there’s only one possible location, it may be that its size or layout will dictate how you’ll use it. In any case, it’s a great idea to start by gathering some photos of spaces that appeal to you.

Mark Maslow, owner of Southern Landscape Group, likes to start the design process by meeting at clients’ homes to assess their individual situation, and says inspiration photos are helpful in getting a sense of what the homeowners desire. He notes that it’s important to understand what clients are envisioning when they picture an outdoor kitchen.

“Many people just want a space to grill, serve food and have a little storage,” Maslow says. “They’re not necessarily thinking of things like a dishwasher or an ice maker.”

stepoutside-4He asks questions such as: Will the area be used just for cooking, or also for serving? Would you like your cooking area to also have seating? Do you want lake views from the seating or cooking area? Does the space need to be covered? The answers help determine things like potential electrical requirements, as well as less obvious factors like clearances for activities. For example, Maslow says that built-in grills need a minimum of an 18-inch clearance on each side for things like setting serving trays, and if you don’t plan accordingly, you could find yourself boxed in when the design becomes reality. While it sounds like a lot to consider, in many cases the available outdoor space will help dictate its size, layout and function.

Once you’ve got the location settled and a basic idea of how you plan to use the space, you can begin to think about materials and features. Ronnie Mitchell, owner of Ronnie Mitchell and Son Landscaping, says that while a grill is the most popular part of an outdoor kitchen and most spaces incorporate one, there are options to consider. If you want a built-in grill instead of freestanding, Mitchell says, “We prefer to use concrete cabinets instead of building the cabinet out of block.” He says it’s a thin concrete cast that makes a sturdy base for the cabinet, which can then have rock facing and be topped with a granite counter.

stepoutside-5James Edwards, president of GroundScapes, agrees that grill tops with granite counters are popular, noting that granite is actually well-suited to outdoor use because it seals well, is durable, easy to maintain and has an elegant appeal. He says natural stone and concrete countertops are other good choices, and adds that cabinetry can always be customized to suit a client’s needs, both in terms of materials and budget.

“In general, it might include the grill enclosure, a sink and a mini fridge,” Edwards says. “But we will do some ‘all out’ spaces that have the same appliances as a home kitchen.”

Maslow says a recent trend he’s noticed are smokers, which barbecue enthusiasts love to use for slow-cooking tender, flavorful meat. Whether electric, propane or charcoal, smokers can be incorporated into your outdoor kitchen either in place of, or in addition to, a traditional grill. He has also installed power burners for clients who like to steam shrimp or have a crawfish boil, and infrared burners that can quickly sear a steak in the style of an upscale steakhouse. However, Maslow says charcoal grills are also popular—proving the old adage that everything old is new again.

Mitchell notes that pizza ovens are another fun trend in outdoor kitchens. They come in a variety of styles and finishes—or can be custom made—and homeowners enjoy making authentic wood-fired pizza outdoors for family and friends. Specialty items such as smokers, infrared burners and outdoor pizza ovens are all about allowing home cooks to replicate their favorite food experiences, whether from a roadside Southern barbecue spot or a high-end restaurant.

In addition to popular components like the mini fridge, your outdoor kitchen counter can house more custom items such as a prep sink, warming drawer, ice machine, dishwasher or even a kegerator, which is a built-in stainless steel beer dispenser that houses a keg of temperature-controlled suds under your cabinet and features a tap just like the local bar. Kegerators often come with removable shelves so the unit can be converted into a mini fridge if desired.

When planning all the fun stuff, don’t forget to leave some open counter space. You’ll need room for prep work, serving trays and setting dishes and drinks. Storage for utensils and serving ware is also important to consider so you don’t find yourself repeatedly dashing inside for needed items. Edwards says when designing outdoor cabinetry, amenities can help determine the materials.

stepoutside-6“If it’s a simple grill enclosure, a cabinet with stone facing on it and stainless steel access doors works well and looks good,” he says. “If the cabinets are going to have a sink and lots of features, we really like to do custom woodwork. We use outdoor wood such as high quality ipe, [a dense and durable South American hardwood] which gives you look of indoor cabinets and also allows for more cabinet
space than stone.”

or many modern outdoor kitchen items, electricity will be required, and you might also like some outlets for appliances such as slow cookers or blenders. While newer electrical appliances designed for outdoor use often feature LED lights and lighted controls for nighttime use, you’ll probably also want electrical wiring for general visibility at night. If your outdoor kitchen is going to be under cover, dimmable recessed lighting can provide a gentle wash of illumination, while a chandelier, sconces or task lighting are both helpful and attractive.

A significant factor in shaping your outdoor kitchen is whether or not it will be under cover. A covered space will not only provide shade in the warmer months, but also offer some protection for furnishings, appliances, and also for entertainment extras such as TVs and stereo systems. Maslow says an open air cabana or pavilion, finished with stained pine tongue-and-groove ceiling, is an appealing cover for outdoor kitchens and can be wired for lighting, audio, TV and a fan. Ceiling fans are useful for keeping cool in warmer months, for keeping flying pests at bay, and, as Maslow notes, “Circulation when grilling, with its heat and smoke, is important.”

stepoutside-7Edwards says it’s possible to have a TV even in an exposed location by installing one that’s specially designed and rated for outdoor use. When space permits, he likes to have an outdoor seating area similar in layout to an indoor living room, in keeping with the philosophy that, “Outdoor living is about bringing the rooms inside your home outside.” Edwards has worked with Sound Decisions in Roanoke to install surround-sound speaker systems that can be controlled by your cell phone, and notes that many outdoor features, including pool lights and pumps, can be managed via cell phone, allowing homeowners to adjust settings even while out of town.

During cooler weather, Mitchell says, “A fire pit or fireplace built somewhere in the project makes a nice addition, and most clients want this feature.” Edwards recently completed a double-sided fireplace that allows the homeowners to see through the fireplace to the lake beyond. Fire pits are affordable alternatives to full outdoor fireplaces, and are natural gathering spots in an open air space. Free-standing patio heaters can provide additional warmth during times when the air is chilly but the fresh air and scenery beckons.

While there are a seemingly endless array of possibilities where outdoor kitchens are concerned, the most important thing to keep in mind is that the design needs to work for you. Covered pavilion or open air, simple grilling station or expansive space with cooking, seating and living areas, an outdoor kitchen can take many forms, but its primary purpose is to get you outside enjoying meals in the sunshine or under the stars. We hope there will always be dads grilling on a Weber, but with so many possibilities for today’s outdoor chef, you can create new memories and enjoy life at the lake like never before.