Enjoy 3 seasons of al fresco dining at home with a thought-out custom kitchen

Those of us who reside in Coastal Virginia are fortunate to enjoy three growing seasons, which translates to three seasons of cooking and dining outdoors. A grill and a prefabricated portable food prep station are just about all it takes. However, if you covet a more custom kitchen, there are at least seven S’s to consider.

Create an outdoor space for dining al fresco

Sympatico spaces. Start by asking yourself some basic questions about how you cook and entertain indoors, how you imagine yourself doing the same outdoors, and how you want your indoor and outdoor spaces to relate to each other. Though outdoor cooking and dining open up new possibilities for how you entertain, you aren’t liable to become a dramatically different cook or host when you step outside. And unless your outdoor kitchen is fully outfitted and independent, these two hardworking spaces will need to function in tandem. So, think also about the distance between them as well as the navigable route between them. Will the outdoor space be attached to your home or detached? Remember, no matter how appealing, if your outdoor cooking space isn’t easily accessible and easy to maintain, you aren’t likely to use it.

Style. Though most homeowners think visually when they imagine al fresco entertaining, the truth is that style should be secondary to durability. Hire the best contractor you can afford, for Mother Nature is especially intolerant of shoddy craftsmanship.

In general, sleek lines and polished finishes look more contemporary, while irregularity, texture and matte finishes impart a more classic, rustic or traditional look. The choices of layouts tend to be a straight line, often against a pre-existing edge, border, or wall; an L- or U-shape; or an island. Incorporating bar seating as a casual dining option for a few people is a smart choice, even when a dining table is nearby, as outdoor cooking areas tend to become hubs. With food prep, cooking, and dining all in close proximity, dual level counters are nice in order to separate functions.

Surfaces. As for counters, experts agree that homeowners’ best choices are natural stone (including less expensive stone veneer), properly installed concrete or outdoor-rated tile. However, if a manufactured countertop like quartz or recycled glass is a key component of your dream kitchen, seek the advice of the manufacturer to ensure that the pigments and any epoxies or fillers will hold up during outdoor use over time without changing color from UV rays. Porous stones – marble, soapstone, slate, limestone, and bluestone – will likely stain over time, while granite performs well in the elements, is less prone to absorbing stains and odors than other stones, and is unlikely to fade. Don’t discount corrosion-resistant stainless steel or some less frequently seen options like brick, stucco, sealed teak, or virtually maintenance-free marine-grade polymer. Regardless of the material, darker colors and metal will absorb more heat.

As for flooring, stone is appealing, of course, but it is fairly expensive and can absorb oil, leaving stains behind. Stained and stamped concrete is an excellent choice, but you only need look around at driveways to know that considering a base adhesive is a smart move to help the concrete withstand the freeze-thaw cycle without cracking. Likewise, if tile is your choice, you need only think of your cracked ceramic planters to know that a frost-proof, unglazed product, preferably protected with a penetrating sealer, and a grout with the proper additive is worth the extra cost. In all cases, consider the most slip-resistant version of your preferred material.

Shelter and shade. Enjoying a meal outdoors is hard to beat. But complete exposure to the elements is not necessarily desirable. Consider a pergola with a slatted or lattice roof for ventilation, an electric or manually operated awning, or even an umbrella in a sun-resistant fabric, which works for both portable and built-in kitchens. For the latter, a hole in the counter to accommodate the umbrella post is ideal. Shade trees may sound like the perfect protection for your outdoor paradise, but when their leaves start to drop, paradise may transmute into perdition. To extend the outdoor cooking and dining season in more extreme temperatures, consider portable butane heaters and dual-use fans, perhaps with built-in misters.

Splurges and necessities. It is helpful to think of your outdoor kitchen in terms of hot, cold, wet and dry zones. For longevity and optimum performance, make sure that your hot and cold appliances are not placed immediately next to each other, and choose only appliances rated for outdoor use. In the hot zone, most everyone would agree that a grill is the centerpiece. Hybrid or dual grills allow cooking with gas or charcoal, with the latter making a comeback. If the grill is close to the house or under an enclosure, a range hood or other proper ventilation is paramount. Of all the “extras,” many homeowners find that a side burner is all but essential.

Other “hot” zone items to consider include a dedicated gas line instead of propane, a wood-fired pizza oven, a smoker, and a deep fryer. Frying outdoors is much less hassle than indoors. In the cold zone, ask yourself how critical are an under counter refrigerator, a wine cooler, a kegerator with two taps, and an ice maker.

For the wet zone, don’t let your first dinner party be the first time you realize that you didn’t consider cleanup. Sinks and even dishwashers may be more indispensable than you would have thought.

In the dry zone, think “2 x 3.” Thirty-six running inches of 24-inch deep counter space is considered by most experts to be a bare minimum of prep space. Some kind of undercounter storage is handy, perhaps with a seamless rain gutter around door and drawer openings to prevent water and dirt from getting inside. Infuse it all with music – say, with an iPod-compatible marine-grade sound system. Or just plan to bring your waterproof Bluetooth speaker outside with you.

Seeing. As with indoor kitchens, their outdoor counterparts require a blend of – preferably dimmable – task, accent and ambient lighting, most of which should likely be rated for wet or damp locations. Typically, appliances and lighting should be on different circuits. A bright clip-on grill light or standing lamp can provide adequate lighting for work areas while ambient lighting might take the form of all-weather string lights or rechargeable LED tea lights. If your kitchen includes a covering, pendant lights are pretty and practical over bar areas, while a ceiling fan with a light kit will provide lighting over a dining table and help keep mosquitoes moving at the same time. For safely moving between indoors and out, “garden” style fixtures on short posts along paths, riser lights on stairs and wall sconces or an overhead lantern near the entrance to your home should do the trick.

Safety. Lest your outdoor kitchen investment go up in smoke, position your grill at least 15 feet from combustible materials to include wood siding, deck rails and tree branches, and always keep a fire extinguisher stored nearby. An insulated grill jacket and vent panels aren’t glamorous, but are essential components of your outdoor built-in kitchen’s structure. If yours is a gas kitchen, check the line for leaks. And, if electric, GFCI outlets will be required. Also, you should use only extension cords, fans and lights that have Underwriters Laboratories outdoor ratings, because they stand up to UV exposure and extreme temperatures.

Now, tie on your apron, light some candles, and embrace the other two all-important S’s: spring and summer.


Chris Ettel is founding partner of VB Homes. He serves on the Tidewater Builders Association board of directors, is a past chairman of the TBA Remodelers Council and is a longtime board member of the Virginia Beach Public Schools Education Foundation. For more information, visit www.vbhomesliving.com.