Creating Better, More Functional Outdoor Kitchens

By Chris Mordi

Once upon a time, it was good enough to put a built-in grill and some storage space into a masonry enclosure and call it an outdoor kitchen. But times, and outdoor kitchens, have changed — dramatically.

“The thought process behind building an outdoor kitchen has changed,” said Russ Faulk, vice president of product development for Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet. “Because of the recession, people are staying in the same place. They can’t sell their homes so they are remodeling them. And an outdoor kitchen is often at the top of their list. Outdoor kitchens are now seen as an investment in enriching their lifestyle and increasing the value of their home.”

The outdoor kitchen has become much more sophisticated. Even if you started the year 2010 with one level of understanding and expertise, chances are you need to take it up a few more levels in 2011 because the expectations of your clients are increasing.

Homeowners want their outdoor kitchens to be as efficient as the one they have indoors. They are asking their outdoor kitchens to do more. The equipment has become more specialized. Everything needs to be located appropriately and space appointed properly. In other words, you need to start thinking like a kitchen designer. To do that, you need to strong working knowledge of countertop space, functional zones, and landing area requirements.

The cornerstone of the outdoor kitchen is the counter. Quite literally everything revolves around it and the space you give to it. With the right amount of counter space, you allow room for functional zones and landing areas.

“You need to have a place to put items down by the grill, for prep, serving and more,” said Faulk. Leave too little room near the grill, and the cook has nowhere to place platters for putting food on or taking it off the grill. Landing areas are needed not only next to the grill, but also next to sinks, cooktops and pizza ovens, as well as above refrigerators. “Counter space goes fast. We have worked on hundreds of outdoor kitchens, and planning appropriate counter space is one of the biggest challenges,” he added.

“One of the biggest mistakes we see is designers placing grills at the end of a counter run,’ says Faulk. Without space on either side of the grill, you’ve essentially made it more difficult to cook.

Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet’s kitchen design guidelines recommend the following minimums for landing areas: grill — leave 24 inches on one side and 12 inches on the other; cooktop — 12 inches on each side; sink — 18 inches on each side.

Faulk said small kitchens give a degree of space to work with, but things are tight. “It’s not until you get into a medium sized kitchen that you start to see space freed up. This is where you have room to work, where there is space for two cooks in the kitchen. Here, you’re looking for a minimum of 6 feet of counter space,” he said.

Faulk recommends a minimum of 36 inches of uninterrupted counter space for small kitchens, 72 inches for medium kitchens, and 158 inches for large kitchens.

Convincing clients to plan more counter space than they think they need might be difficult, but, according to Faulk, once you explain how landing areas and functional zones fit within it, the “sell” becomes easier.


An outdoor kitchen can be broken down into four functional zones: hot, cold, wet and dry, said Faulk. And each is dedicated to specific activities. “When the balance and flow between these is right, cooking outdoors can be effortless and elegant,” he added.

The hot zones are where all of the magic in the outdoor kitchen happens. Everything revolves around these areas. The other zones feed into them and need to be placed appropriately. Things get trickier when you have more than one type of cooking appliance, such as a countertop pizza oven or cooktops. Faulk recommends keeping in these units in close proximity to the grill — making it easy to keep an eye on a variety of cooking activities.

The cold zone is where you place your refrigeration and store the produce, meats and other cold ingredients you will be using. The placement of the cold zone(s) may be different if the refrigeration primarily services cooking activities or is more a part of serving. For example, you would want beverages accessible to guests without them needing to venture far into the kitchen or past the grill.

Wet zones include sinks and ice reservoirs.

Dry zones cover a variety of activities, including food prep and staging or storing dinnerware.  They are where you set up finished food and where guests can pick it up. You also want to include waste and recycling containers.

Faulk summed up these key kitchen design principals as follows: “Plan the functional zones and the flow between them for a variety of prepping, cooking and serving activities. Mentally walk through these activities and where things can be stored and put down during use. Allow adequate space for each zone and for the primary pieces of equipment.”

Chris Mordi is vice president of communications for Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet. For more information, visit

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