Cooking outdoors involves more than just a barbecue these days. Backyard grills have become alfresco kitchens. The humble hibachi is now the size of a Humvee—complete with rotisseries, infrared gas burners and warming drawers, not to mention interior halogen lights that actually let you see what you're barbecuing. Add sinks and garbage disposals, ice chests and beverage dispensers and you have an outdoor kitchen to rival the indoor version.
"Nearly everything in the inside kitchen has migrated outside," says Dacor assistant president of marketing Larry Lamkins. "Just as the interior kitchen has been incorporated into the living room, we're seeing the outdoor environment incorporated as well. There's a blending of spaces."
For Viking vice president of public affairs Dale Persons, the outdoor kitchen is another extension of the cocooning phenomenon: "Since 9/11 there's a 'Let's go out to the backyard and smell the roses' attitude. Also, people want quality and performance in appliances whether they're inside or out."
A lot of the discretionary income that went into foreign travel pre-9/11 is now going into the backyard, says Mike Edwards, president of Lynx Professional Grills. Indeed, according to Gopal Ahluwalia, vice president of research for the National Assn. of Home Builders, in the upscale housing market (homes costing at least $750,000), 10% to 15% of new houses feature outdoor kitchens.
Having a pie-in-the-sky alfresco kitchen is still an upscale phenomenon, sought principally by baby boomers with a $150,000-plus income, says Mark Russell, sales and marketing director for Jade Residential. "The same folks who wanted professional kitchen stoves in the '80s are migrating outside and driving the market." To some, the outdoor kitchen represents one more trophy, like a Mercedes or Rolex, to add to their collection. But to many others, it's about casual entertaining with friends and family. "It's not just about buying a product, but an experience," Russell says.
And it's no longer something you do just in the summer, according to kitchen specialist Dennis Snyder. "It's a year-round activity—especially in Southern California." Take Lola Leen and her husband Monte, who live in Seattle in the summer and spend winters in La Quinta, near Palm Springs. Both homes have elaborate outdoor kitchens that they use often. "In the summer I'm cooking out five times a week," she says. "Here in the desert, it's at least three."
The Leens' built-in California kitchen, located just outside their informal dining room, is full service and impressively outfitted. It includes a 43-inch Viking grill with a rotisserie and a two-burner cooktop with enough BTUs for a wok, a special trivet for large pots, and a nonstick griddle that fits over the grill. Other appointments: an under-the-counter Sub-Zero refrigerator, an Islands flush-mounted ice chest, a Kohler sink, a Franke garbage disposal, and a Viking warming drawer—"great for hamburger buns," she says.
In addition, they have under-the-counter storage for pots and pans and a three-drawer unit to hold mitts, spices, knives and skewers, as well as multiple outlets along the counter for appliances. "If I want to do mixed drinks I move my blender out; in the morning I'll plug in the toaster," she says. One of her favorite meals is breakfast, when she uses the griddle to cook bacon and eggs. "When I was a kid, my family always camped at Deschutes Falls. I remember waking up to the smell of bacon and my dad making skillet biscuits—everything always tastes so much better outside."
At this point there are still no outdoor dishwashers or microwaves on the market, but many in the industry say it's just a matter of time. In late spring Viking is introducing the first outdoor oven, as well as a charcoal-burning ceramic cooking capsule. Jade's Dynasty line offers the Talos, a new built-to-order cooking suite, and its Dynasty a la carte series will allow grillers to personalize their own modular cooking system.
Islands Corp. consultant Gordon Root says by mid-year there should be the first outdoor deep fryer—"people like French fries with their barbecued ribs." Lynx Professional Grills is introducing an infrared burner, ProSear, with a three-position valve that controls temperature down to 200 degrees—"so you can sear everything from steaks to more delicate fish," Edwards says.
"Eventually, pretty much everything available in today's home kitchen will be available outdoors," says Kevin Henry, director of Kuppersbusch USA, recognized as a leader in innovative kitchen appliance technology. So when's the self-cleaning grill coming? Says Henry with a laugh, "I'm sure there's an R&D department somewhere working on it."
Ed Lohrbach, Lorhbach Associates, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 661 5068; James Magni, Magni Design Inc., Los Angeles, (323) 866-0600; halogen lighting for the grill available at Designers Edge, Bellevue, Wash., (425) 637-9601; Dacor appliances available at Standards of Excellence, San Diego, (858) 274-6004, and Snyder Diamond; Viking appliances available at Renwes, Lake Forest, (949) 586-3669, Warehouse Discount Center, Agoura Hills, (818) 991-8846, and Bay Cities Kitchens and Appliances; Islands ice chest available at all Lowe's stores; Kuppersbusch USA products available at Poliform, West Hollywood, (310) 271 7836; Lynx Professional Grills available at Snyder Diamond.