Courtesy of Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet
Courtesy of Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet

Don’t keep up with the Joneses.

Earlier this year that quote caused some commotion in the landscape architecture and building communities.

The person responsible for causing it? Eric Groft, principal at the Washington D.C.-based landscape architecture firm Oehme, van Sweden & Associates.

He was speaking about the need for design professionals to take their clients down a path of soul searching to get to a place of honesty before they start designing an outdoor kitchen.

It’s essential to learn a person’s outdoor cooking identity before creating this backyard room. One person’s outdoor kitchen won’t necessarily work for another person. Mr. Jones’ can’t be repeated in Mrs. Smith’s backyard.

Adam Miller, principal at Chicago Roof Deck + Garden gets colorful when talking about the need to dig into a client’s cooking style and psyche before designing an outdoor kitchen.

“Not all kitchens are created equal,” Miller says. “Have you ever been in an argument about Kansas City versus Memphis barbecue? You trying telling those guys that their barbecue is basically the same. Burnt ends will go flying for sure!”

To understand how people want to interact while they are in the kitchen, he often poses this question: “Is this a kitchen to show off your cooking skills or is this a kitchen that you want your buddies to hang out in while you experiment with new recipes over a few beers?”

Miller continues: “Some of our clients are building outdoor kitchens for other people to use. That seems strange, but often these big outdoor kitchens are great to bring in a chef and just sit back and watch the show. And for some of our clients, the outdoor kitchen isn’t really a kitchen at all, but a giant bar that just happens to have a grill in case someone wants a hot dog.”

Getting the facts straight

Courtesy of Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet

Courtesy of Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet

Groft’s “built-in” efficiency is a list of three questions he always asks the client before starting on an outdoor kitchen design. They serve as the foundation that everything gets built on.

He asks, “When are you going to use the grill, as in what season? What are you going to be cooking? Where do you want to be in the garden when you cook?”

The location becomes a big issue, he says. Some people don’t want to see it at all. They want the designer to make it disappear or put it behind a wall.

Miller’s questions are similar to Groft’s with one long exception. “This is one really long question but it tends to go something like this…Beer, wine or the hard stuff?  Hot dogs, salmon or smoked meats? Is the fridge filled with adults' or kids' beverages?  Do you grill in the snow?”

The questioning really starts to get into the daily schedule for the space.

“These questions are geared to try and get a sense of what a day or night would be like for this family using their outdoor kitchen," he adds.

Polly Ho, western U.S. and international director for Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, drills even further into the daily schedule when she starts interviewing a client. “When I’m designing an outdoor kitchen, I think about what’s important to me, which is functionality first,” she says.

That's why she always ask her clients to explain how they function in their indoor kitchens

Ho probes for details because clients have their own habits when they cook inside. She wants to know where they put certain things -- where they want their pots and pans; how they reach for things; and where they put their knives. Patterns vary from client to client, so she wants to design a kitchen with their individual preferences in mind.

As she explains to clients: "Your patterns are going to be different and so that’s why it’s important to really get your own style in it because you want it to be comfortable for your use and how you function and how you work and what makes sense for you.”

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus

Courtesy of Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet
Courtesy of Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet

Outdoor kitchen design takes on a new dimension once you ask who will be the primary user.

There are times where one spouse thinks about function and the other wants to show off the toys.

Says Ho: “When I have designed kitchens for women vs. men, the main differences have been about function for women, so a lot of times they’ll want to make sure there’s enough storage and enough counter top.”

Groft concurs, saying, “A woman generally wants everything to be very efficient in the layout of how she is actually going to move in the kitchen. It’s kind of the same as in the interior [of the house].”

Groft, Ho and Miller were unanimous in their characterization of how men design outdoor kitchens: they’re about the “toys.”

“The guys want to make sure they are entertaining properly with the big grill, the keg tappers and the beverage centers,” Ho says.

But Miller cautions against making easy stereotypes. In a two-parent household, it's typically the one who stays at home doing most of the cooking who has the most to say about function. And these days, that could be Mom or Dad.  "If this was the 1950s, we would assume that was a woman, but being 2015, 'roles' tend to be a little less [defined] ...," Miller says.

Dan Marguerite, owner of Backyard Barbecue Store in Wilmette, Ill., believes the best way to design an outdoor kitchen for a couple is to blend the functionality with the toys so everyone is happy in the space. “It seems to me when it is a bigger kitchen or project, then usually both are involved in the decision making as they both have their wants and needs no matter who is the primary user,” he says.

So while Mrs. Smith may covet Mr. Jones' outdoor kitchen, that doesn't mean she should get a carbon copy of that kitchen. Ask the right questions, know who’s going to be the primary user of the kitchen, and you’ll design for her an outdoor kitchen she wouldn’t trade for anyone else’s.

Chris Mordi is the vice president of communications for Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, headquartered in Chicago. He also is a freelance writer who has written about outdoor kitchens for publications such as Casual Living, Professional Builder,, the, and more.