Kitchens express our era like no other room in the house. Living rooms offer soft furnishings and the comforts of the past in ornaments, pictures and books. Bedrooms have changed least through the ages. Kitchens, however, are constantly being updated by technology. Over the past couple of decades, culinary fashions have sold a willing public the emulation of restaurant galleys with brushed steel extractor hoods and vast range cookers capable of catering for hundreds were there enough bar stools on which to perch. The smart addresses now have a back kitchen just for preparation. Exhausting, isn’t it?
Yet fashions are shifting. Around the world, people are heading outdoors to cook and eat in an open kitchen space that involves family and friends in the daily rituals of food preparation. What makes this a trend to watch is that its origins can be claimed by the nostalgic and the progressive alike. We naturally ate al fresco when mammoths roamed the earth, and still do for street parties. But for two centuries, domestic kitchens in the western world were relegated to basements, until they were moved to the ground floor as standard. And it was here that 20th-century pioneers of modernism emancipated living space and embraced the great outdoors.
In 1938, Patrick Gwynne built The Homewood in Surrey with an outdoor kitchen. Yet it was a false start, as postwar consumer technology heralded frozen food and cleaner cooking. The gain came at the loss of freshness, flavour and flame. The barbecue was mere compensation: everybody knows food just tastes better outdoors, but you have to wait for the weekend sun, don’t you?
Now, modernist-Neanderthal types, rejoice, for your time has arrived. Actually, the revolution started in hippy communes of the 1960s and 1970s like The Ark in south-central France, which baked 120 loaves twice a week for its communards in a masonry oven. In 2012, a modern manifesto was published for the outdoor kitchen. Cook Wild: Year-Round Cooking on an Open Fire was Susanne Fischer-Rizzi’s call to farms, one photo illustrating a Teutonic vision of grim determination to share a joke under an umbrella as drizzle falls on skewered mackerel.
And yet grim determination is a quality of pioneers. Fischer-Rizzi (the very name sizzles) suggests deep-fried nettle chips, cooking vegetables in glass bottles, a salted side of salmon nailed on a wooden board over embers – all quiet acts of genius. You’d think that snow would put her off – not a bit of it: “If you can light a fire outside, and prepare something warm over it to eat and drink, you can put your trust in Nature and enjoy the winter tranquillity. No other season brings home to us so poignantly that fire is life itself.” We’re talking Russian hogweed soup here, with a steaming pot of goulash and Native American bread. I’m asking Santa for half a ton of dried hardwood and a box of matches this Christmas.
Yet if it were every day, that occasional al fresco fun would become more like a hardship, an affected homelessness. And the ingredients surely have to be stored and prepared somewhere. Lighting a fire and cooking out is different to moving the entire kitchen outside, which would be ridiculous. Who in their right mind would leave a fridge in the sun, a cake out in the rain?
An outdoor kitchen makes more obvious sense in warmer, drier climates. In parts of the Mediterranean, the habit is centuries old. Some villagers in Greece and Cyprus still use communal ovens to share the cost of fuel for baking a simple loaf – and spare households the smoke – much as Argentines communally grill over the embers of a great smouldering parrilla. Today, bread/pizza ovens, with all the technology of wood-fired brick or a clay dome, are part of the standard repertoire for chichi home entertaining across the world.
Much of the practical guidance for the back-to-basics bread oven movement can be found in the 1999 book The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens, by Americans Daniel Wing and Alan Scott. This is an excellent guide to the lust for crust that enabled many to prepare a sourdough and build themselves a domical oven with the right geometry to circulate the forceful heat needed to rise and scorch convincingly.
The beauty of bread ovens is that everybody can make their own favourite pizza, and the entertainment value of searing heat bubbling and blistering beats watching your host smearing a coulis. Nobody disappears to the prep kitchen – it’s all brought outside for assembly – and the heat keeps a sheltered outdoor space warm well into the autumn. Children can run around if they want a distraction. And while the oven’s still hot you can bake your next day’s bread, too.
So while the bread oven is a crucial part of the outdoor kitchen, speciality firms are springing up to build outdoor kitchens with every mod con. The company Australian Outdoor Kitchens leaves you in no doubt about its intention to transform the living habits of Perth. Outdoor restaurants like the Kam Sha Kok in Hong Kong may yet spread the idea further. In the US, it has taken off like wildfire. House Beautiful magazine recently ran a feature titled “Seven Incredible Outdoor Kitchens” – and they really are, from California to Connecticut, top-end kitchens with a roof over them, no external wall, but a view and a breeze, where people cook, eat, exercise, rest and watch the world go by during long summer days.
Amber Morrison, 36, once a chef and now a developer with a special interest in orchards, decided on an outdoor kitchen not because of fashion, but because Hawaiian planning laws wouldn’t allow her to add an enclosed space to her house on Kauai. Now built, its granite worktops and solar-powered cooler are open to the garden, while a picnic bench serves as the dining table.
“I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, in a house so formal it was intimidating. I just wanted to be outside,” says Morrison. “Everybody loves the outdoor kitchen – kids run through it, my musician friends write music here – I can be making drinks or cooking, and everyone’s in the mix.”
I ask whether cooking is the same experience when done outside. “I’ve a double gas burner and a grill and I wound up making a fire pit 20ft into the garden. There’s no cooking smell in the house, and if food ends up on the floor, I just hose it down. It doesn’t matter,” she says.
Does she feel she is part of a movement that is changing living patterns? “Definitely. So many of my friends are moving away from office jobs and taking up small-scale farming, connecting with nature and being outdoors. I have friends building kitchens in tree houses. Or gazebos that are really a place to cook and eat.”
But what about bugs and beasts? “Oh, if I leave the cat bowl here, it’ll be full of frogs. And roosters. They’ll fly in and eat the fruit. They often come in the mornings, but I have an air gun that I shoot to scare them. But between the rats, frogs and roosters, it’s really fine,” she adds.
Hawaiian fauna aside, my prediction is this: in 20 years’ time, rethinking the kitchen and its relationship to the garden will render the dining room an endangered species. It was a creation of the 18th century that rejected eating in open halls to contain a formal etiquette that is fast becoming irrelevant. Watch this space.
Jonathan Foyle is chief executive of World Monuments Fund Britain
Photographs: Pascal Shirley; M&N/Nikos Desyllas/Alamy; RGB Ventures/SuperStock/Alamy