Cooking Outdoors

Iron Chef judge Donatella Arpaia shares how she created her amazing outdoor kitchen, and how you can entertain with finesse in the great outdoors.

 

Not everyone has the space that chef and TV personality Donatella Arpaia and her family are lucky enough to have, but you can steal her tips and style from her own outdoor kitchen in Greenwich for yours at home (no matter the size). 

When it came to her own backyard kitchen, she says “I wanted a kick-ass kitchen, especially after living in the city for so long. I finally had the space.” 

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No matter what space you have to work with, functionality does not have to trump style, Arpaia says. 

“For me style always follows function,” she says. “People really need to know that they don’t have to settle for ugly. I think about the function, and then I think: How can I make it look great?

For her kitchen, Arpaia thought it important to have a full line of appliances, which she found in Lynx. 

“I wanted it to be a complete outdoor cooking experience,” says Arpaia. “So everything I can do inside, I can do outside. There is a sink, burners, a grill, a wine refrigerator, and I have a wood oven.” This comprehensive approach to design minimizes running back and forth for virtually everything. 

To design her dream outdoor kitchen, she followed some simple but smart tips. “Walk in your space and lay it out,” says Arpaia. “[Do] a mock run-through of cooking something, to see what makes sense, where the sink should be, etc.”

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Arpaia drew the elements of her design on cardboard, cut them out, and placed them around the space before building started, to ensure that everything was where she wanted it to be. “Because once you do it, you can’t undo it,” she says. 

She also says to listen to the professionals, but don’t let them push you around. And, she notes, couples should design the space with the chef in mind. If one of you is the primary cook, do what works for that person. 

You should also consider lighting when designing your outdoor kitchen. “It’s really important,” says Arpaia. “[Everyone] is grilling throughout the year, and at nighttime, during the winter, it gets dark [earlier], so you want to make sure you have good light.”

One of the more special features in Arpaia’s outdoor kitchen is the stone oven, which has her name etched above it. “It is crazy awesome! Not only can you cook pizza in it, you can cook many different things,” she says.

The personalization was a present from her husband. “I knew [the oven] would anchor the entire kitchen,” says Arpaia. “Right across from it is where I do cooking demos, where my son sits on the counter, and where we make pizza. In Italy there is a tradition of putting your name on the oven. If you go to Naples, where my father was born, you see names on the ovens. That’s why my husband surprised me with it.”

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Another of Arpaia’s favorite things is the tech advances that have made food preparation so easy—something every home cook can appreciate. “I have a gas grill, and the technology today makes it so simple,” says Arpaia. “It’s as easy as turning on an oven, and it has taken the intimidation out of outdoor cooking. I like the fact that I have burners, so it’s not just about grilling. I can make pasta, but I also have a flattop grill for pancakes and scallops. There’s nothing like cooking outside. It’s like a vacation.”

 

 Entertaining Tips From Donatella Arpaia

The restaurateur and entertaining expert shares suggestions for creating a successful get together. 

Plan ahead. Think about what you and your guests will need ahead of time. Whatever you can eliminate once the party starts is really important, says Arpaia. If you have help, have them come 40 minutes early, and tell them where everything is. Let them get the lay of the land, and give them the timing of everything you want.

Simplify the menu (which doesn’t mean boring). You want to enjoy yourself and the party. I like to do an antipasti spread as an appetizer, says Arpaia. I like to focus on a main (a meat on the grill and a starch), and a dessert (usually with fresh fruit).

Hit every category, but don’t go crazy. Make sure you have one type of beer, wine, water, and something for the kids.

Set up stations. Use beverage tubs. Set a table for the kids with everything they need. And be sure food stations are easy to find. 

Make a playlist. Have music that matches the tone of the evening. Organize it so it’s a little more mild in the beginning and then gets a little crazier, and then have it wind down when you want guests to start leaving, says Arpaia.

Create signs and clear paths. Post signs for the restrooms, so guests are not walking through the whole house searching for one. 

Think about lighting. You can do this inexpensively or expensively. Consider candles, citronella candles, torches, string lights, and more.

It’s all in the details. I always have a table with bug spray, sunscreen, and a little first-aid kit, says Arpaia. If you think about what can happen ahead of time, it becomes a more intuitive experience for your guests.

Reduce the amount of cleanup. I have a lot of oven-to-table stoneware, and there is so much high-end disposable stuff now, says Arpaia. Mosaic has a great line of utensils and linens.

Keep everything near you and organized. When you aren’t searching for what you need, you can relax and have the best time.

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