Interior Design

It’s roasting out here

With their wood-fired ovens and sleek über grills, outdoor kitchens are springing up in British gardens for family meals and serious entertaining, says Katrina Burroughs.

April 21 2011
Katrina Burroughs

We’ve coveted them in the Caribbean and admired them Stateside. They’ve long been the life and soul of European party houses, from the Riviera to Ibiza. Now, tooled up with canopies and heaters, warming drawers and weatherproof lighting, outdoor kitchens have arrived in the UK. And high-flying home cooks who combine a love of gastronomy with a passion for gadgetry can’t get enough of them.

“I was just thinking of getting a new gas barbecue,” explains Simon Holley, founder of property fund Altyon LP, who lives near Windsor with his family. They are outdoorsy folk, keen on barbecues summer and winter alike. “I wanted a proper barbecue where you could cook for a party. I remembered the Fire Magic grills from a house we rented in Barbados, so I knew how efficient they were. I was looking on the internet and, lo and behold, I noticed they did these outdoor kitchens.” Checking out these US-made supergrills, Holley had stumbled across their UK distributor, The Lapa Company, one of a handful of UK outdoor kitchen designers – and one thing led to another. “I thought, ‘You know what? In the summer we cook outdoors and by the time we bring the food in, it’s cold. Let’s have a whole kitchen outside.’”

The Holleys’ ensemble from The Lapa Company includes the Echelon 1060 built-in barbecue (from £6,350), with a rotisserie and a cooking area large enough for a suckling pig. There’s also a charcoal grill, a wood-fired pizza oven, a deep-fat fryer, a stainless-steel butler sink with Franke taps, a butcher’s block and a brace of gas burners, all set into a handsome slate counter. The unit also has its own water heater. Anything else? “We got in lighting specialists. So if you’re cooking at night there are little pole lights to illuminate the area and task lights for the work surface.”

Not every client is as passionate about his outdoor kitchen kit as Holley, whose final bill came to about £20,000, but increasing numbers of high-end homeowners are being seduced by the array of smart and efficient grills and accessories that are now available. Simon Prince, sales manager of Fire Magic, says his average customer spends £3,000 to £5,000 on barbecue equipment (grills, fridge, sink) and the same again on slate or granite tops. A few pay more, but they seem to find it good value. “I quoted a guy £25,000 recently,” says Prince, “and he pointed out that his kitchen indoors cost £180,000, and this one has to work outside.”

While there’s a proud, pioneering tradition of cook-outs in the US, where many of the renowned grill manufacturers are based (notably Lynx and RH Peterson Co, which makes Fire Magic’s grills), the Brits have historically been more tea-on-the-lawn types. So whence this enthusiasm for outdoor kitchens? Charles Weston-Baker, head of Savills International Residential, believes it’s been imported by a smart set of holidaymakers, who have come to enjoy this form of entertaining in European houses. “Outdoor kitchens are popular in second homes in the South of France and the Balearics,” he says. “All the ‘wow’ houses have to have them now. It’s a great selling point. When you look around a house with an outdoor kitchen you think, ‘This is a great place to party.’”

In their latest incarnations, though they are equipped with ice crushers and wine fridges, outdoor kitchens aren’t just about the party – they’re also very much about the cooking. Chef Jamie Oliver launched a wood-fired oven company last summer, describing the stoves as “the ultimate foodie must-have”. And its foodie fans maintain that of all the outdoor kitchen kit, the WFO is the prize. “The oven cooks with a very dry heat and seals in the moisture and flavour of food,” explains a spokesperson for Wood Fired Ovens by Jamie Oliver. “We have customers who have fitted grills alongside our ovens but wish they hadn’t, as they don’t use the grill. There is a technique called Tuscan Grilling whereby the chargrilled effect can be replicated within the oven.”

The WFOs are made from heat-efficient Cotto Refrattario (refractory terracotta clay), with curving inner walls and integral floor for even heat distribution. Produced by a Tuscan family firm, these ovens have a more traditional, rustic feel than the shiny barbecues of the US makers; you can still buy the Casa model designed by founder Sylvio Valoriani in 1945 (£1,875 plus £320 for the flue). The only problem with WFOs is a certain lack of control. There are no dials to twiddle, no on or off switches, and it can take up to an hour to coax the oven to the perfect heat to cook a five-minute pizza.

Not that WFO cooks complain. The individuals who typically take the lead role in alfresco cuisine, which is to say the menfolk, apparently find getting to grips with this kind of technicality absorbing, even relaxing. Indeed, the outdoor kitchen is a positive paradise of man-shopping. Spyros Sparsis, CE of Barbecue Island, creates kitchens ranging from £4,000 to £20,000 for a time-starved but equipment-savvy clientele of chaps.

“They are getting much more clued up as to what they want from their outdoor kitchens, and we’ve got more to tempt them with,” he says. “I get clients drooling over some of the kit.” Such as? “Everyone wants a teppanyaki grill set into their worktop. A sizzle dome is the latest thing, a part of the grill that gets red hot so you can sear things really quickly. Or a Lynx grill, one of the most expensive grills from the US, but we use them because of their quality [the latest model, the Lynx 705, costs about £3,000].” Some of his customers have pretty niche requirements. “There’s one guy with a fabulous house in West Sussex, who has a trout lake. We’re going to make him three units: one with a sink for cleaning and preparing the fish; another with a 4.5m-long bar with grill, plus a sizzle dome and a teppanyaki grill; and in the third unit we’re putting a charcoal pit with a rotisserie that sits in the granite worktop. He can cook his catch on charcoal, gas or teppanyaki.” Pescatorial paradise.

The next big thing to add to our barbecue wishlists, according to Sparsis, will be a charcoal oven. “All the restaurants are after the little Josper charcoal oven right now, which costs £10,000 to £20,000. It’s a Spanish product for commercial kitchens – there’s one in Heston Blumenthal’s new restaurant, Dinner. Imagine cooking in a charcoal oven. You get an unbelievable taste. I’m developing one for domestic use that will cost a grand.”

A more common request, for individuals sans trout lake or hotel dining room, is that an outdoor kitchen should blend beautifully with the grounds. Landscape and garden designer Declan Buckley has a knack for “creating outdoor spaces that people can use and enjoy entertaining, relaxing and playing in”. He frames kitchens with multilevel planting, and incorporates the units harmoniously into their horticultural surroundings. If you fancy flash hulks of stainless steel, Buckley’s not the man for you, but those wanting a laid-back cooking/dining area with a subtle, natural vibe, should look no further. A typical example is his design for the weekend retreat belonging to Alex Dawson, a director in the public sector advisory team at Savills, and his partner Dan Cooper, upholstery buyer for John Lewis.

Because the house in Broadstairs, Kent, is a conversion of two 17th-century fishermen’s cottages, ultramodern equipment would have looked incongruous. So the kitchen, surrounded by raised beds and tall agapanthus africanus in timber planters, goes easy on the metalwork. “The kitchen is on a slate terrace with the walls and units clad in shiplap [weatherboarding], using the local vernacular building style,” Buckley explains. There’s a chunky ceramic Belfast sink and slate countertops; the modest barbecue kit includes a Fire Magic Regal I Countertop Barbecue (£3,055), plus a single sideburner.

Dawson, the designated cook of the partnership, says that their outdoor kitchen has entirely changed their weekends. “It means we don’t have to keep running into the house; we can cook and eat from start to finish, and enjoy the fresh air. The grill has fresh herbs planted all around, so you can lean over and pick basil, rosemary and sage as you cook. And there is a spit roast on the grill, so we’ve done everything from burgers and sausages to whole legs of lamb. At New Year we did a beef joint. Being on the coast, it’s quite a mild climate and we’re often able to entertain outside.”

Ah yes, the weather. The most important element of the outdoor kitchen, and the one you can’t stipulate in the spec. Of course, there are ways to cope with drizzly days. Barbecue Island offers sail-like canopies and open-sided huts (both from about £3,500). The Lapa Company builds thatched gazebos (from £2,500) and cedar-tiled structures (from about £8,000). An alternative is to build your outdoor kitchen partially under cover. Max Eaglen, director of design consultancy Platform, is presently working on a £24,000 indoor/outdoor poolside kitchen in Virginia Water, Surrey. His client, a Russian who was the head of a trading floor and now works as a consultant, “has homes in several countries and is completely in touch with international trends”, according to Eaglen.

The design involves a counter that will start in the games room and finish on the pool terrace, set with three custom-built barbecues – one with a roasting spit, “a gas grill for speed and a charcoal grill for flavour” – plus hobs and hotplate. “It’s a good solution. The kitchen starts inside and extends outside, with a range of cooking facilities,” says Eaglen. “The interesting thing is that they chose to have this particular work done in the UK, when they have homes all over the world, including Manhattan and Monte Carlo, which probably have better summer weather.”