Cooking up plans for a custom open-air kitchen? Kim Wade finds her appetite in the elements.
From Lowcountry boils and oyster roasts to down-home backyard barbecues, Savannahians have many reasons to dine, as the French say, en plein air. Kevin and Fabienne Dickinson have elevated outdoor dining to high art in their Wilmington Island home, perched along the picturesque Shad River. They had a little help from neighbor Franco Marra, Italian chef and owner of Frali Gourmet, who moved in next door a decade ago and invited them over for a pizza party.
That evening, Marra treated his guests to homemade delights baked in the outdoor pizza oven he had constructed. Marra says he knew Kevin loved to cook, so he wasn’t surprised to see Kevin’s jaw drop over the oven. In fact, Marra offered to help his friend build one. Fabienne laughs as she recalls the two men working tirelessly for months, even through the uncharacteristically frozen winter of 2009. But Kevin and Marra say an endless supply of homemade white wine kept them warm during the building project.
Kevin explains that his oven was copied from an old stove, circa 1500s, that he saw in a friend’s backyard during a visit to his wife’s native French homeland. Unfortunately, the copied pattern is too big and the oven takes a lot of time to heat up and consumes a lot of wood. But the Dickinsons admit they love having friends over, and the oven makes for an incredible evening of feasting outdoors with a large crowd.
Marra explains that in Italy, many of his friends have outdoor pizza ovens, and he had to call back home to get construction tips.
“We used bricks for the exterior, but you have to use fire brick on the inside; that is mandatory,” explains Marra. “We used 60 bags of cement and a lot of sand.”
If constructing a pizza oven is not your particular calling, there are plenty of outdoor kitchen alternatives to get you fired up. Architect L. Scott Barnard, president of Barnard Architects, is a Georgia native and very familiar with what makes a coastal outdoor kitchen (or “summer kitchen,” as he likes to call them) successful.
He says the first step is to have a good understanding of the site. “The kitchen in a modern home is the gathering spot,” he adds. “So the outdoor kitchen is probably going to be very much the same thing. You really aren’t going to build an outdoor kitchen to go out and cook a hamburger because you want a hamburger. You are creating an outdoor kitchen to get outdoors and into the environment.”
Barnard also recommends simplicity in design. “You aren’t going to want to put a huge outdoor kitchen out there if you have a moderate size yard. Ask yourself, how much are you going to use it? Think about maintenance. Small but powerful is always better. Simple elegance is so Southern, and it’s good architecture, whether you’re talking about your home or your outdoor kitchen.”
Even partial cover can make the outdoor kitchen more usable year-round. A permanent cover offers structure for adding ceiling fans and lighting. Ceiling fans are also a great way to shoo those pesky sand gnats and provide relief from humidity.
Build to last
Barnard says stainless steel appliances are absolutely necessary to create an outdoor cooking space that will last. Another key factor is using materials with finishes made to handle our warm and humid climate, as well as the inevitable growth of mold and mildew. He says newer composite materials for flooring and cabinetry are ideal.
“It’s important for people to understand coding,” Barnard says. If you choose the DIY route, he recommends speaking with a building inspector. “The codes are based on years and years of disasters; they know what happened and how to prevent it. Just a simple trip could save you a lot of money.” Other safety features he recommends are slip-resistant surfaces, handrails, guardrails, anchored seating on decks and good lighting.
Accentuate the positives
Finally, Barnard recommends looking for the unique opportunities and natural features your backyard already offers. “Make the best of what you’ve got. Most of all, be yourself and let your outdoor kitchen and living space represent you.”