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5 Steps to Designing the Perfect All-Weather Outdoor Kitchen

Los Angeles designer Mandy Cheng on how to craft an alfresco cooking space you’ll actually want to use

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By Architectural Digest US | January 19, 2022 | Kitchen

Outdoor kitchen planning is a regular part of the job for Mandy Cheng, an L.A.-based decorator who designed the home of actors Daveed Diggs and Emmy Raver-Lampman that recently graced the cover of AD. As she explains, everyone in Southern California wants an outdoor cooking and entertaining space—even the people who don’t really like to cook. “When you think of an outdoor space, it’s really for entertaining,” she says. “It’s not very typical that on a random Tuesday night, you just decide, let’s fire up the grill. It becomes an extended gathering place.”

If you’re one of those people who craves a place to congregate with friends and family in your own backyard, or if you really do like to fire up the grill on a random Tuesday night, there are a few important things to keep in mind before setting up your outdoor kitchen space. It may seem as simple as securing a grill and rounding up a table and a few chairs, but Cheng explains that there is a lot more to it than that. If you want to create an area that will actually get used, take note of Cheng’s essential recommendations below.

Remember: Location is everything

Optimizing the location of your outdoor kitchen is Cheng’s number one rule. “If you have the barbecue on the opposite side of your yard, are you really going to walk all the way across the yard every single time to get to your grill?” she asks. “People get these very funny ideas of where they want to stash things.” She points out that proximity to your indoor kitchen helps so you can easily grab plates and utensils from inside, and that having a sink and trash can nearby is key. Seeking out a shady spot in the yard may also make everything more comfortable.

“Be realistic with your space parameters: You need to not only think about what goes into a kitchen, but how you access that kitchen,” Cheng continues. “You need walk-around space, and not be too close to a pool.”

Furthermore, safety should factor in from the get-go. With wildfires so rampant in much of the western U.S., this is more critical than ever. “You should never set up your barbecue grill underneath a tree with a canopy overhang, also because then you’ll get leaves falling into it,” she adds. “Do have some type of overhead covering.”

Be a good neighbor

When thinking through the location of your outdoor kitchen, remember your neighbors, says Cheng. “Things you need to consider are how close are you to the edge of the property—are you going to make your neighbors mad if you’ve got barbecue smoke wafting over the walls?”

For a home that the interior designer recently completed in Santa Monica, California, certain features were added for the benefit of the surrounding residents. “It was excessive for us to have this crazy vent, when in fact you really don’t need a vent,” she says. “Part of it is so that neighbors aren’t pissed off about smoke going over there, embers flying. It really controls it.”

Picture: The outdoor kitchen, adjacent to the indoor one, features a barbecue made of concrete block and stucco to match the exterior of the house. Photo by Madeline Tolle.

Assemble your basic elements

It should go without saying, but make sure you are selecting outdoor-grade materials when buying anything for your backyard. Otherwise, there’s a chance that things may get damaged by the elements over time. For her L.A. project, Cheng selected UV-protected outdoor quartz, an extremely durable material, for the countertops. She also recommends concrete countertops.

If your budget allows, a custom kitchen is the way to go to ensure a space that’s tailored to your property and your needs. That said, Cheng points out that a number of major retailers have started offering modular outdoor kitchen systems that are pretty darn great. Check out options from Pottery Barn, West Elm, and Brown Jordan—many of them feature attractive teak or ipe wood bases, with countertops in stainless steel or concrete. “It’s a really great and more budget-friendly way to put in an outdoor kitchen that still looks good,” she says.

Don’t skimp on appliances

Picking out appliances is more complicated than selecting a nice-looking grill. Professionals like BBQGuys can help you figure out all the technical elements, such as making sure the barbecue has access doors so that the appliance can be easily reached if maintenance is required. “If you’re investing in a custom kitchen, it would sense to invest in premium appliances. Don’t skimp on them, if your budget allows,” Cheng advises.

She also recommends determining what you actually need—will an outdoor refrigerator be a game changer, or will it take up extra space and go unused?

Think holistically about your yard

An outdoor kitchen is more than just a place to cook hamburgers. Investing in one means considering the whole space. Decide what kind of lighting you need—“not just for the chef, but for the people who are sitting outside,” Cheng says. That may require running electricity through the entire backyard. You also may want to bring in heat lamps to turn your space into a year-round hangout.

Along with your furnishings, be mindful about the accessories too. “We’ve got smog and dirt and things outside get gross—so what’s outside stays outside,” Cheng says. When entertaining, side tables with tray tops are an easy way to carry things indoors and out—she loves the ones from Safavieh.

All in all, the designer emphasizes that outdoor kitchens require just as much planning as interior rooms. “Really think through the space and don’t just throw it together,” she concludes. “Once it’s built, it’s built.”

Written by Allie Weiss.

This article originally appeared on Architectural Digest US.