Rick and I have always talked about cooking outside, and how we could achieve this without buying a Weber Summit S-460, or something like it. The big stainless grill aesthetic just doesn’t fit with our house. We’re attracted to more primitive elements of cooking: big copper pots, stone vessels like molcajetes, a wood or charcoal-fired grill, mostly stone or stucco surfaces, and a seamless interaction with the garden.
The best example of this in Austin, and possibly in the country, for that matter, is the outdoor ‘kitchen’ of James David and Gary Peese, former partners in Gardens. Wood-fired barbecues are built into a limestone wall and offer three different means of cooking: a smoker and two sizes of grills (one for small events and one for cooking on a big scale). They also have a fireplace outfitted with a Tuscan grill, which is a small enamel dish that evenly cooks its contents. A wood-fired pizza oven is conveniently located just outside the kitchen on a back porch. Inventive stone details, like pyramids, spheres, and offset planes lend a modern, whimsical aesthetic to these functional objects.
So, how to achieve all this on a small scale, on our corner half-lot in a dense neighborhood? In this scheme, we give relative privacy to the outdoor eating areas, and shield the cooking components from public view. The grills and work table are located near the vegetable potager and out of sight from our indoor dining area.
These cook tops are enclosed in a masonry box that is constructed from the same materials as our house: autoclaved aerated concrete panels with stucco finish. The charcoal is contained in a custom steel box, with a slide-out tray below for clean-out. Core-tin steel doors cover the storage below and match the planter boxes of the potagers.
The cooking element on the left is a 30″ wide charcoal-fired grill, which is the only way to achieve that smokey flavor so characteristic of outdoor cooking. Over the 30″x18″ grill tray, I could line up meats & veggies for over 10 people, turn a rotisserie, or smoke a brisket (or two).
The element on the right houses a highly efficient outdoor burner, perfect for boiling huge stock pots of gumbo or crawfish, or deep-frying a turkey – something inconceivable in our tiny house. Check out Tejas Smoker’s “Monster” burner: it puts out an amazing 225,000 BTU/hour using an adjustable high-pressure regulator. It’s designed so there’s an optimum 5″ between the burner and the bottom of the pot. I just want to make sure the propane tank is located just the right distance away from this sucker!!
Bonus: lay a grill grate about 5″ above the hot plate surface, and you have a typical gas grill. Perfect for when I have a spontaneous idea to grill something, like peaches on rosemary skewers (my favorite in the height of summer).
A limestone-top work table sits right adjacent to the grills, which I see as an indispensable part of cooking outside efficiently. How many times have you cooked on a grill with those inadequate shelves sticking off the side, and awkwardly balanced a whole platter of grilled goods on your forearm? Not safe. So, we’ll have a 24″ x 48″ surface for prep and serving.
To accommodate large groups for dinner, we can be economical with our ground space and use our carport as a temporary dining area. To transform this structure into a pleasant dining atmosphere, we could lay an outdoor rug for color, hang paper lanterns from the ceiling, and transfer the mosquito net curtains to the I-beams surrounding the carport (thus hiding the cars from view). With two rented tables and chairs, we could seat up to 14 people. That’s a perfect sized dinner party!
The summer patio is located on the north side of the house, shielded from the sun. In this tiny oasis, it’s all about climate control: misters cool the air by 25 degrees, a water feature relaxes the mind and distracts from traffic noises, and mosquito net curtain hanging from the I-beams forms an enclosure that lends privacy and keeps out bugs. Most of the plants would be broad leaf, shade-loving varieties, like Oak Leaf Acanthus or Hostas. A 30″ round table is the perfect size for our family of three (or for Mom & Dad to enjoy a margarita after #3 has gone to bed). This is what it looks like now; consider this our ‘before’ photo!
We will probably slate this project over a 4-year time period so that we can afford the quality of masonry and steel work desired. I hope to begin laying the concrete pavers this fall when the weather cools, as then begin to select some good potted plant specimens for the Summer Patio. I’ll update more as we progress!