How a Chicago Chef Transformed Her Backyard into an Outdoor Kitchen | Midwest Living

How a Chicago Chef Transformed Her Backyard into an Outdoor Kitchen

Chicago chef Stephanie Izard shares how she turned her urban backyard into a compact, can-do outdoor kitchen.

Mouthwatering smoke wafts from a sizzling grill as plates plunk down on a table and icy cans open with a hiss-pop. A backyard barbecue satisfies primal cravings for food cooked over fire—and even rock-star chefs are not immune. “I simply love grilling,” says Chicago-based Stephanie Izard, who shot to foodie fame on Top Chef and just opened Cabra, her fourth eatery in the city. “It’s quick. Easy cleanup. Fun entertaining. Great flavor. Best way to eat in summer for sure.”

Despite a hectic schedule, Stephanie and her husband, Gary Valentine, a craft beer consultant, like to host friends in the outdoor kitchen behind their West Loop home. The custom space, designed by Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, includes a built-in grill, cooktop burners and refrigerator drawers in a 13-foot-long L-shape.


 Stephanie’s hybrid grill cooks with gas, charcoal or wood. She prefers a wood fire, “but sometimes for a quick dinner I just want to turn the gas on and grill.”

The venue gets its biggest workout on July 4th, when Stephanie and Gary throw an open-house party. “It’s a good excuse to see friends and cook a bunch of food,” Stephanie says. “Instead of a more formal sit-down situation, we like to go for something that’s more of an all-day eating and drinking extravaganza. It’s nice to have it outside in an all-in-one space.”

Outdoor Kitchen Musts

Site It Right Choose a level spot with a slip-resistant patio surface and easy indoor access, especially to the main kitchen.

Tap Into Utilities Depending on what features you want, you’ll need hookups for gas, water and electricity.

Ease Meal Prep Include countertop space around the sink and appliances, plus below-counter storage areas.

Keep It Legal Do you need a building permit? Check local codes and ordinances.


More Outdoor Kitchen Tips

Amp Up Your Food Sprinkle wood chips on top of the charcoal for extra smoky flavor. Gary likes less-pungent peach wood. Stephanie’s secret for perfect burgers (above)? Keep the patty simple. Just season with salt—and maybe a fun spice mix—before grilling. Stephanie says, “You have to butter and grill the inside of the buns. It makes them so tasty!” Stephanie mixes a little unused (no raw meat contact) marinade with mayo for a creamy sauce or dressing.


On the table, recipes from Stephanie’s latest book, Gather and Graze (Clarkson Potter, $35): Banh Mi Burgers, Smoky Broccoli with Blue Cheese Dressing and Un-Belize-able Chicken.

Pair with Sips Gary stocks the refrigerator drawers with brews for guests to try. He includes a “welcome beer” (like a light, easy pale ale), one from a small local brewery, and one that’s new, cool or “just plain weird.”


Consider Durability Soapstone counters like those pictured above stand up to extreme Midwest temps, even the freeze-thaw cycles that can damage more porous materials.


Stephanie commissioned the picnic table from Brandon Hards, a local craftsman who also made the patio tables for her West Loop restaurant Girl & the Goat.

Blend Styles Make an outdoor kitchen feel like a natural extension of your home. Brick surrounds closely match the exterior of Stephanie’s home.

Embrace Your Space Stephanie’s space proves that you don’t need tons of room for an outdoor kitchen. A Michigan-based designer created an inviting cooking and gathering spot in her modest-size backyard, where trees and shrubs help with privacy and add to the sense of escape in the city. Another plus? No grass to mow!

Use It Year-Round Since son Ernie arrived, Stephanie and Gary go out less and entertain at home more. “We try to use our outdoor kitchen year-round,” Stephanie says. “The grill is strong enough to get hot even during a Chicago winter.”

Stephanie with son Ernie

Stephanie with son Ernie

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