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Building an Outdoor Kitchen

An eyesore vent pipe, a nosy city building inspector, hungry garden snails--a writer overcomes all obstacles to create the cooking space of his dreams.

Two years ago, after buying a house in the Hollywood Hills, I looked at my lawn and decided it needed a kitchen. Not just a barbecue, but the real deal: grill, burners, sink, fridge and enough countertop to make a man-size mess. I spent some jolly Saturday afternoons with a kitchen designer before handing his blueprints to my contractor. In the twinkling of a year and a half I was cooking al fresco lunches for friends while watching their happy children defile the flower beds.

Nothing happened fast. Eight months after work began, the only hint of a kitchen was a gas pipe peering up from the rubble like a lonely garden eel. Before anything could be done, my backyard had to be stapled down with giant columns of steel and concrete and laced with a network of drains, lest it dissolve into a thin brown soup at the first rain and wend its way to the Pacific. This gargantuan task was further slowed by the unannounced arrival of a city building inspector. But the delays, though agonizing, gave me an opportunity to figure things out. Here is what I learned.

Think hard about position and orientation. Nearness to the house, and especially to the indoor kitchen, is vital. No matter how elaborate, your outdoor kitchen will always play satellite to the mother ship, and the less distance you have to travel with arms full of dishes, the happier you'll be. My original orientation would have faced me square into the setting sun while cooking dinner. And it would have put dinner guests--not to mention the poor struggling candles--in the path of the prevailing evening breeze. It took me many months to realize that turning everything in the kitchen by 90 degrees would place the sunset on my right and shelter the dining table in the lee of the house.

Plant an herb garden nearby. My landscape designer put in a raised one, right behind the kitchen, planted with basil, thyme, oregano and rosemary. To reach back, grab a handful of fresh basil and drop it into a tomato salad is the greatest pleasure that can be described in a family magazine. (The herbs also attract voracious garden snails, which are edible, free and prestuffed with basil. I haven't sampled them yet, but my ire and courage grow daily.)

Plumbing will drive you mad. Indoors, the connections are already in place; outdoors, you start from scratch. We had to dig trenches for water and gas lines, lending a Verdun-like quality to the already shell-shocked backyard. Then came the real fun: draining the sink.

The simplest way to drain an outdoor sink is also the most illegal: Just hook it up to the runoff drains, and send dishwater out into the street with the rainwater. My contractor and I drooled over that idea like hobos contemplating an unguarded pie. But conscience and fear of inspectors prevailed, and we chose the path of righteousness: hooking the sink up to the sewer line. This meant digging a new trench to the sewer and installing a massive sump pump to encourage the water on its way. That wasn't all. Building codes require all drains to be vented, for reasons relating to physics and bad smells. So we had to put in a 10-foot-high vent pipe, support it and disguise it. Our solution was a 2001-style brick monolith between herb garden and sump pump. (Note: I did no actual construction work myself; the "we" in this article refers to the battle-hardened team of my contractor, my plumber and my wallet.)

When in doubt, install things. The monolith ended up being very useful: We hung a couple of stainless Enclume pot racks on it. (Enclume warned me they might rust, but they haven't…yet.) And the black vent pipe sprouting from the top has in turn sprouted a small spotlight to illuminate nighttime cooking and cleanup. Not bad for an eyesore.

Think about the sun. I'd wanted a stainless steel countertop, which looks fine indoors, especially if you perform autopsies on weekends. Outdoors, though, it would have been a blinding mirror, bouncing the noontime sun up into the cook's eyes. At the last minute, I switched to black granite, which gets egg-frying hot but is as durable as steel and as un-reflective as a hockey crowd. If I could do it over, I'd replace the stainless steel sink with something dark and porcelain.

I wish the kitchen had some shade, but the only option that doesn't require major construction is a very wide-brimmed Stetson. Finally, speaking of the sun, take note: In bright sunlight, flame is invisible. If I were smart, I'd mark my burner dials with red tape, so I could tell at a glance which ones are on and save my few remaining fingers.

Give your counter a backstop. My tendency to push unused bottles and jars away from me eventually results in them tumbling, lemminglike, over the back, showering dinner guests with glass shards and mustard. A 2-inch-high granite lip would have solved this.

When necessary, fake it. To match the brick underfoot, I wanted a brick-sided kitchen. Then my contractor explained a little-known fact: There are very few bricks in the world. What you're seeing is "brick facing"--brick pressed into mortar. Whole bricks are so thick that there would have been no room to drop the sink or fridge into place. My brick facing over plywood will fool any-one uninitiated into the dark world of brick forgery.

Beware of clever ideas. For months I clung to the brainstorm of putting the sink sideways across the island, freeing up more counter space. Thank God I didn't do it, because it would have broken design rule number one: Don't do anything that looks goofy.

Suck up to your neighbors. Early on in the process, promise them a meal when the kitchen's done. They'll be much nicer about the noise and disruption, and chances are, by the time the thing is completed, they'll have moved away or stopped speaking to you altogether.

Take a second job. I recommend lucrative fields such as contracting, plumbing and building inspectoring.

Ian Maxtone-Graham is a writer for The Simpsons.

Published June 2002
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