Photography: Linda Oyama Bryan

This custom woodburning oven (above) by Van Zelst cooks meals quickly and evenly. The company also designed this kitchen in Kenilworth (below), which includes a 41-inch grill, double burners, and other appliances from Viking.

Summer is such a short, sweet season in Chicago, we can’t help wanting to make the most of it. Maybe that’s why backyard entertaining is becoming so much more elaborate. Outdoor kitchens-ranging in scope from a deluxe grill and some counter space to a full-service operation with refrigerators, warming drawers, side burners, beer taps, wine chillers, heat lamps, and more-have arrived.

And they’re not just for die-hard grilling enthusiasts. After all, cooking outdoors is an engaging way to entertain. Throw some tilapia in the brick oven, flavor it with herbs from the nearby garden, whip up a batch of margaritas in the grill-side blender, and you have a party that gets everyone in on the action. "With an outdoor kitchen, entertaining and food preparation become one and the same. People want to gather ’round, see what’s going on, and get involved," says Doug Freerksen of Von Dreele-Freerksen Construction Company, an Oak Park firm with its own line of outdoor woodburning ovens.

And there’s no need to retreat indoors when the temperature drops. "Many people use their outdoor kitchens nine months a year," says David Van Zelst, owner of the Wadsworth-based landscape contracting firm Van Zelst, whose designs often include outdoor kitchens. Says Freerksen: "Usually people don’t sit outside and cook in the winter, but they do bake or roast things that you can leave alone for a longer time. I use my outdoor oven all winter long. I roasted chestnuts for the kids recently when it was freezing cold."

What you should know

Positioning is key
Kitchens can be built on patios, decks, and even rooftops. Before installing one, consider how close you’d like it to be to the indoor kitchen. How far are you willing to trek with an armload of dishes? Also check that neighbors won’t have a direct view into the space, and that smoke from the grill and stove won’t billow back into your indoor kitchen. Place dining tables away from ponds and trees to distance yourself and your guests from mosquitos.

Arrange the space
Since cooking over an open fire is a great way to keep guests entertained, arrange seating so everyone can see the grill. Make the space cozy by surrounding it with tiki torches, shrubs, or trellises. A roofed area can be useful for shelter from rain or too much sun. Dimmable electric lighting gives you even more control over ambience.

Winter proofing
A deep freeze doesn’t have to deep-six your outdoor kitchen. Just make sure to turn off water and drain pipes before winter hits if you run water to outdoor sinks, and to unplug refrigerators and other outdoor appliances before the temperature drops below 32 degrees. When you’re planning your kitchen, choose appliances, countertops, and furniture made from stainless steel, brick, concrete, natural stone, and other durable materials. Covers are optional. And consider adding heat lamps or an outdoor fireplace to make the space usable in the cooler months.

Hire a professional
An experienced outdoor kitchen designer asks good questions: Will you be entertaining large or small groups? Are you a Cordon Bleu chef or an amateur griller? Do local fire codes allow open flames? Do you want to prepare food outside as well as cook it? How many seasons out of the year do you want to be able to use the space?

"It’s a lot to think about. It’s not like you just take the grill and cooler outside and have a picnic," says Jill Jarom, a designer with EXPO Design Center. A professional can help you think things through and deal with technical problems such as safely running water and electric power out to the space. It is largely landscape design firms, rather than indoor kitchen designers, that design and install outdoor kitchens. Some options:

This high-end outdoor kitchen (below) with stainless steel Viking appliances was installed by Van Zelst. From left: A 41-inch gas grill with rotisserie atop two warming drawers; refrigerator; dual side burners; a high-heat burner, used primarily for woks and lobster pots, situated above a small cabinet for storing snacks and dishes. Total cost for design, materials, and installation was about $16,000.

EXPO Design Center
1500 N. Dayton St.
(312) 694-2400

Von Dreele-Freerksen Construction Company
509 Madison St.
Oak Park
(708) 848-4130

Van Zelst
39400 N. Hwy. 41
(847) 623-3580

Grant and Power Landscaping
700 E. Roosevelt Rd.
West Chicago
(630) 231-0069