Al Fresco Living: Four couples use outdoor kitchens for entertaining, relaxing

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Outdoor kitchens have quickly moved from being reserved for higher-end custom homes to becoming mainstream.

According to marketresearch.com, the U.S. demand for outdoor kitchen equipment is projected to be $735 million in 2022. And the expansion from primarily high-end installations to more mass-market versions will further boost sales.

Cooking fixtures in outdoor kitchens can be anything from gas grills, pizza ovens and smokers to islands, cabinets, refrigerators and ice machines.

Research reveals that an outdoor kitchen needs to be much more than a place to cook. Homeowners want an emotional connection by including features that make their outdoor space unique, fun and memorable, like big-screen TVs, fireplaces and cozy sitting areas – in other words, they want their outdoor space to feel like a room.

Here we feature four families who have turned outside space into places to relax and entertain.

The Ellises

When Gregg and Celeste Ellis began house hunting in 2020, they knew they wanted something that was move-in ready. The home they were leaving had been nothing but one project after another, and they didn’t want to have to do any remodeling.

The couple looked at five houses, but there was one in the Joyner neighborhood they kept coming back to – the one with the outdoor kitchen.

“I gave up having a garage for this outdoor kitchen,” said Gregg Ellis, director of marketing and communications for the Tupelo Public School District. “I’m out here all the time.”

The 400-square-foot kitchen is in a free-standing building in the backyard. It came with a sink, gas grill and a bar area. The Ellises added a refrigerator, a comfortable seating area with wicker furniture, a rug and a flat-screen television.

“I always said I’d never have a gas grill – I’d always had a charcoal grill,” he said. “I had to learn how to cook on gas. It was trial and error.”

From spring until fall, the couple is in the outdoor kitchen at least four nights a week, and even a couple of nights in the winter.

“When you stand by the grill, it’s enough heat to keep you warm,” he said.

Celeste Ellis, an instructional coach for the TPSD with an emphasis on math curriculum, acknowledged the space is largely a man cave for her husband.

“But when it’s nice out, we all spend a lot of time out here,” she said.

In the fall, they spend weekend afternoons watching football, and on Saturday mornings, they enjoy listening to music and relaxing on the couch.

“The dog will come sit on the couch with me and we’ll watch TV together,” Gregg Ellis said.

The outdoor kitchen is in a shaded area of the backyard, surrounded by a brick patio partly covered in moss and shade plants like hostas, hydrangeas, ferns and acuba. Edison lights are suspended across the patio area.

Behind the kitchen are gravel pathways Gregg Ellis built that lead to a two-level water feature with koi and lily pads. Azaleas and phlox complete the woodland setting.

“Gardening is my escape,” he said. “It’s all self-taught. I just love being outside.”

The Sweeneys

Before Doug and Wanda Carol Sweeney built a pool in their backyard in Okolona, they first wanted an outdoor kitchen.

“We always wanted something outdoors with a tall ceiling and pretty wood,” Wanda Carol Sweeney said. “We wanted to get this area like we wanted before we started a pool.”

Work on the outdoor kitchen and seating area started in November 2019 and was completed the following July. The pool, designed by landscape architect Bob Mercier, was started that September and finished in June 2021.

The outdoor kitchen features a Coyote gas grill with a wooden vent hood wrapped in copper. The grill is surrounded by stack stone and the wall behind it is brick.

Behind the grill is a dining table that seats eight, and behind the table is a seating area with a couch, two chairs and a swing.

The focal point of the seating area is a stack stone fireplace. The Stone Yard of Tupelo built the kitchen and the fireplace. Tupelo Stone did the stone around the pool and patio.

“We had the fireplace built where we could burn wood, but also have gas inserts,” Doug Sweeney said.

“We love to entertain here,” Wanda Carol Sweeney said. “We had my mother’s 80th birthday party here, my daughter-in-law’s baby shower, a bridesmaids’ luncheon for my niece.”

But the real reason the couple built the outdoor kitchen area was for family.

“We just wanted a place for our kids to come, our grandkids to come, a place for the family to enjoy,” she said.

Dough Sweeney, who has Redhead Technologies in Okolona, often cooks steaks, burgers and hotdogs on the gas grill. Mostly, the couple just enjoys sitting outdoors.

“It’s really become a big room we use when the weather permits, which is a lot,” Wanda Carol Sweeney said. “The sun sets on the other side of the house, so there’s always a breeze blowing.”

“We thought about adding a television out here, but decided we didn’t want one hanging on the wall,” Doug Sweeney said. “Plus, when we come out here, we just want to enjoy being out here.”

The Wilsons

David and Scarlet Wilson of Tupelo can’t imagine a home without an outdoor kitchen.

“We’ve always had an outdoor kitchen, wherever we’ve lived,” Scarlet Wilson said. “If we didn’t have one, he built one.”

When the couple, who owns Scarlet’s Donuts on Cliff Gookin Boulevard in Tupelo, built their home on Mount Vernon Road in 2020, David Wilson designed the outdoor kitchen.

“Well, I started with a plan and kind of reworked it,” he said.

The area has concrete flooring and gray stack stone from the Stone Yard that starts around the wood-burning fireplace, extends to the outdoor kitchen and then goes all around the house.

In the kitchen itself, there’s a Lion gas grill, a small refrigerator and storage drawers. The cooking area is surrounded by a granite-countertop bar with four stools. Recessed lighting dots the bead board ceiling.

“In the springtime, we’re out here three or four times a week and every weekend,” David Wilson said. “If it’s just the two of us, we’ll have anything from steaks to hamburgers to breakfast. It smells really good when you’re cooking bacon on that grill – it has a griddle on it.”

On the weekends, the Wilsons’ daughter and her family often come over. At Easter, Scarlet Wilson’s whole family visited, and the couple entertained about 40 people.

The seating area has a sectional couch that faces the stack stone fireplace with its black walnut living-edge mantel.

“When we got iced in last year, you’ve never seen so many country people having parties,” Scarlet Wilson said. “We had grills going everywhere. People got on their 4-wheelers and drove over here.”

The Youngs

When Anna and Cole Young bought their home in Tupelo in the fall of 2018, there was nothing in the backyard.

“It was a blank canvas,” said Anna Young, a pharmacist.

“I wanted something I could make into an outdoor entertaining space,” Cole Young said. “When I first met with Curt Luke from Luke Landscape Design, I told him I wanted something that was magazine-worthy.”

And that’s just what he got.

The 3,700-square-foot area has the three things Cole Young requested: an outdoor kitchen, a living space and a pool.

“We started planning it in October 2019, broke ground in June 2020, and finished it in December 2020,” said Cole Young, an emergency medicine physician. “So it really was a yearlong process.”

Rob Morgan designed the living space and kitchen, Luke did the landscaping and helped with the design and layout, and Green Pools, now Aqua and Oak, built the heated saltwater pool.

“I was flexible about some of the interior finishes,” Cole Young said. “I knew I wanted both a gas grill and a Big Green Egg, and a Sonic Ice Maker. That ice maker was the most expensive thing in the kitchen, but it was a must-have.”

Cole Young said he’s been cooking on a Green Egg for about 10 years, and enjoys smoking brisket, pork shoulders and turkeys.

“But I love the convenience of a gas grill,” he said. “We can do hamburgers or something quick when we don’t have a lot of time.”

Cole Young, whose undergraduate degree was in engineering, designed the outdoor stereo system, which is hidden in the living area’s ceiling and controlled by his smart phone.

“I can put a sporting event on TV and hear it through the speakers, so we can watch it and hear it from the pool,” he said. “You just turn the chairs around from the tanning ledge of the pool and watch it.”

In the living area, there are two facing couches, two swivel chairs and a coffee table built by a friend.

“We like to have people over and enjoy the space,” Anna Young said. “When the weather is nice, this is where we are. But it’s totally Cole’s space. He even picked out the furniture. I change out the throw pillows – Easter, 4th of July, Halloween, Christmas. We like to make it seasonal.”

Photos by Thomas Wells