The Best Chef-Loved Essentials for Outdoor Entertaining
You don't need a fully equipped outdoor kitchen to host an al fresco soirée. With a few simple touches (mood lighting, music), you can quickly take a backyard barbecue from rustic to restaurant-worthy. We asked some of the world-renowned chefs featured at this year's Food & Wine Classic in Aspen to share the items they always have on hand for elevated al fresco dining. From pizza ovens and cast-iron planchas to the perfect playlist, here's how to dine outdoors in style this season.
Cloth or linen napkins
"A cloth or linen napkin makes any environment and any style of food feel instantly elevated. Plus, they come in all different colors and patterns that fit your own personality and vibe of your table!" — Kristen Kish, chef, cookbook author, and co-host of Fast Foodies
Wine bottle lights
"One of the easiest and little-known ways of enhancing outdoor dining is to decorate the setting with empty wine bottles filled with LED string lights. Battery-operated through a plastic cork, these wine bottle lights never fail to bring a twinkling and magical mood to evening gatherings outside." — Mark Oldman, founder and CEO of Bevinars
Cast-iron plancha & fire pit
"Over the past 16 'interesting' months, I've added two now-indispensable elements to my outdoor dining. The first is a fire pit; not the basket-of-wood type, but a modern, hollow-shelled version with powerful airflow. And this led me to the second discovery—the cast-iron plancha. I bought mine in an antique shop in Pennsylvania, and it weights nearly 30 pounds. Placed over the edge of the fire pit, it gets extremely hot and then can be used to cook almost anything. And now the cooking isn't off to the side—it becomes the main event." — Garrett Oliver, James Beard Award-winning brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery
"The one thing I can prep in advance and keep extremely cold is pre-batched cocktails. It makes the day run much smoother when I only need to worry about the food. When my guests think all there is to drink is water and soda, I can surprise them with specialty cocktails that are ice-cold out of an insulated YETI thermos." — Claudette Zepeda, executive chef of Alila Marea Beach Resort Encinitas in San Diego
Prepare a tableside cooler of S.Pellegrino Essenza flavored mineral waters for guests to enjoy with their meal. The gentle bubbles and Mediterranean-inspired flavors will enhance the flavors of whatever you've prepared.
"For elevated outdoor dining, I like to cook something at the table with less to-ing and fro-ing from the house. Konro hibachi-style grills offer easy and simple grilling over clean binchotan charcoal to create one or two dishes tableside. So, kebabs from the eastern Mediterranean, Japanese yakitori, or BBQ chicken wings are a breeze, and everyone can help themselves." —Andrew Zimmern, James Beard Award-winning TV personality, chef, and founder
"An elevated outdoor dining experience is all about ambiance—the right music (I wouldn't mind yacht rock) at the right volume and a few potted trees with twinkle lights." — Carla Hall, cookbook author and TV host
A good cooler
"One of my favorite outdoor dining equipment would be a YETI cooler. I go camping a lot and it turns into a great table or chair and holds everything really well."— Shota Nakajima, chef/owner of Taku in Seattle
Pizza oven & speakers
"When dining outdoors, I try to transfer as much of the kitchen experience outside through devices like a Breeo wood-burning grill, Gozney outdoor pizza oven, or a Japanese binchotan grill. This makes for a more interactive dining experience for guests. I also always make sure there's good music flowing through the outdoor dining space with a quality portable, wireless outdoor speaker like a JBL PartyBox or Sonos Move. I like to connect an iPad to it so guests can select their own music throughout the evening." — Melissa King, chef, entrepreneur, advocate
The 'Rolls-Royce of grills'
"When I'm dining outdoors, nearly everything I'm serving is grilled—from the meat to the veggies to the desserts! My Kalamazoo grill is one of my favorite kitchen items, period. It's wood-burning and gives a great smoky flavor to anything I'm cooking." — Stephanie Izard, Iron Chef, author, and executive chef/owner of five Chicago restaurants, including Girl & the Goat
Table lamps & tea lights
"I absolutely love the dark grey rechargeable Poldina PRO table lamps from Ai Lati Lights. When paired with tealights, they create the best-ever vibe for my al fresco dinner parties." — Justin Chapple, culinary director of Food & Wine
"We never dine outside without a good bug repellent. And because we also care about ambiance, we never dine outside without a candle burning on the table. A good citronella candle is a go-to for our outdoor table." — Brooke Williamson, co-chef/co-owner of Playa Provisions in Playa del Rey, CA
"The Sea Island Forge kettle has been one of the things that has improved our family life and connections the most this past year. It's a fire pit that you can sit around and enjoy, cook s'mores, and put hot dogs on a stick. It allowed my husband, Felix, and I to safely entertain outdoors and even gather around the fire with friends and family at Christmas. When I saw the lever function for how to raise and lower items, I immediately thought of cooking paella. The Sea Island Forge team had me design an attachment for the kettle to cook paella, and it's incredible see this idea come to fruition. It's a piece of Felix's upbringing and heritage, and to be able to cook on a multi-faceted kettle and share the traditions from his Spanish roots with our kids and friends here is priceless." — Katie Button, chef of Asheville's Cúrate and La Bodega by Cúrate, cookbook author, and co-founder of Katie Button Restaurants