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Cooking in the elements
"Outdoor dining" no longer means charcoal grills and paper plates. These days, entire kitchens are moving outside making summer entertaining much simpler.

By SHAYNA MILLER

 

Seasonal Services of Mukwonago built this outdoor kitchen for a client.


In a state famous for beer and brats (and long winters), we’re pretty passionate about our cookouts come summer. What used to be the humble charcoal grill for a backyard bash has morphed into some pretty spectacular outdoor kitchens, equipped with luxurious add-ons. Setups have surpassed the lone grill to include wine chillers, cocktail stations and cabinets — even granite counter tops. They’re the equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife — you’ve got everything you need in one convenient location.

Although summers are shorter in Wisconsin, people tend to take advantage of the outdoors as much as they can, making outdoor kitchens just as useful here as in warmer climates, according to Kelly Rigdon, president of Kennedy-Hahn.

Indeed, manufacturers and southeastern Wisconsin businesses have taken notice of the outdoor kitchen trend. Bret Achtenhagen, president of Seasonal Services in Mukwonago, says their outdoor kitchen business has increased in the last couple of years. The business now sees about five or more outdoor kitchen requests per year. He points to an increase in home gatherings.

"People entertain in their backyards more," says Achtenhagen. "I think there’s a tremendous increase in outdoor entertaining."

Rigdon says that Kennedy-Hahn just started carrying many of the outdoor entertaining products in March, like cocktail stations and outdoor cabinets, due to popular demand.

"We get a tremendous amount of interest in these products," he says.

Kris Zimmer, manager of Oconomowoc’s On The Deck agrees. "People aren’t traveling as much, and many aren’t traveling because of gas costs or the price of airline tickets. They’re investing more in their homes and really enjoying it, and entertaining more at home."

Tools of the Trade

Bob Radtke of Milwaukee can tell you what he wanted in his outdoor kitchen: "Fire," he says jokingly, referring to the large Weber seven-burner grill and smoker he had installed, along with a large wood-burning fireplace.

The main attraction in Radtke’s backyard is the tumbled limestone island topped with granite counter tops. Built in is the Weber grill, and underneath, a wine chiller/refrigerator. A large wood-burning fireplace is in another corner of the patio, along with a dining area and propane heater to keep guests warm on chilly nights.

"At our house we like to entertain, have friends over and dine out there," he says. "We wanted something that gave us a lot of counter space and was versatile enough to have people dine outside. It’s really for entertainment and functionality."

Radtke’s experience is exactly what homeowners want in an outdoor kitchen: convenience and flexibility.

"The trend is to have a downsized version of your kitchen outside. If you remember grilling and having picnics at home, all of that hauling, cleanup is not convenient. It’s really a convenience issue," says Achtenhagen.

Outdoor kitchen setups will typically include a main component with a space to drop in the grill or cook top. After that, it’s up to the customer what they’d like in their custom setup. Such amenities may include a cocktail station/side burner, stainless steel cabinets, refrigerated drawers, wine chiller — even a wet/dry bar.

Rigdon points out many customers like a modular design for the main component, which allows for customization.

"If you want an L-shape, you can do that. If you want to create an island, or a cocktail area, you can do that. "You can create that space specific to what you want to do; it’s flexible," he says.

Lap of Luxury

With high-end materials like granite, quartz, limestone and Corian counter tops and stainless steel appliances, outdoor entertaining has stepped up to compare to indoor kitchens, but with tough-weather standards. Perlick refrigeration systems (they designed the Miller beer taps at Miller Park) have heavy-duty glass doors. Kennedy-Hahn sells Danver marine-grade steel cabinets that have a stainless-steel outdoor finish to stand up to the rigors of temperature extremes. Appliances and counter tops for the most part are easily cleaned with a pressure washer, stainless steel cleaner or plain old elbow grease.

Along with appliances, outdoor furniture for dining and lounging areas are low-maintenance, too.

"Low maintenance is key," says Zimmer. "The season is short, so people don’t want to worry about that, so a lot of products we carry are maintenance-free. They’re mostly aluminum, wrought iron and outdoor fabrics for cushions."

To up the convenience factor even more, Kennedy-Hahn even carries a line of Solaire infrared grills that heat up in 3 minutes, even when it’s 20 below outside, says Rigdon. On the opposite end, Achtenhagen sells Frigidaire, Perlick and Thermador refrigeration systems, all of which are specifically designed for outdoors.

"The refrigeration units are usually built into a masonry island. We then craft openings to slide the appliance in, so the appliances are protected and out of the elements," adds Achtenhagen.

So how do you start on construction of your own outdoor kitchen?

"Check out and search a couple of companies first. Don’t rush the project and plan ahead, because it’s really a process," says Radtke.

Radtke used friends’ recommendations to purchase his Weber grill from On The Deck and used Terra Firma, a landscaping company in Muskego, for the masonry and patio landscaping.

Interested homeowners will want to sit down and plan their outdoor kitchen with an experienced company, because most are custom-made. Radtke consulted with a couple of companies before deciding on Terra Firma, mainly because Terra Firma understood the limitations of his compact Milwaukee lot and worked around those.

Homeowners need to determine their needs for an outdoor kitchen. How much space do you have? How much money would you like to spend (custom-made projects can be pricy)? Would you like to keep cold foods outside? Would you need a wet bar/condiment station or warming drawers to keep food warm while you grill? And the list goes on.

If you do decide to install an outdoor kitchen, all of your cooking needs will literally be at your fingertips — a major bonus for a relaxing and fun outdoor gathering. Radtke wholeheartedly agrees: "It’s unbelievable and worth every penny. Everybody that comes over just adores it and really loves it. It’s better than I thought."