A Heart as Big as the Whole Outdoors
Never a man to do things in a small way, when Art Smith constructed a substantial outdoor kitchen in the backyard of his Chicago condominium complex, it quickly became a gathering place for his neighbors, friends, and family. And for neighbors of neighbors and friends of friends!
"We cook there all summer," he says, "and even into the fall and winter. In fact, in the fall, the kitchen becomes chili-and-grilled-pizza central." Art's outdoor kitchen includes a wood-and-gas-fired oven, a large grill, and a tandoor oven, which may be a common sight in Northern India and Pakistan but is a novelty in Chicago.
The inclusion of the tandoor is not surprising. Art knows his way around outdoor and indoor kitchens everywhere. Oprah's personal chef and the former executive chef for Senator Bob Graham when he was governor of Florida, Art is also a respected cookbook author and celebrity chef who has worked all over the world. During his travels, he found that cooking outdoors is universal—and universally loved.
"It's not an American thing," Art says. "The Italians have incredible outdoor ovens, as do the Croats, who cook one-dish meals to die for in large outdoor ovens." In South Africa, he says, the backyard grill is called a braai, which is a term that refers to the act of cooking over a hot fire, the grill itself, and the party—not unlike our own American term "barbecue."
Art took great care when building his outdoor kitchen and has a word of advice for anyone considering one: Include a refrigerator and ample work space if at all possible. This way, you can prepare the entire meal outdoors. If you have to mess up your indoor kitchen to cook outdoors, he reasons, you will be less inclined to do so, and the novelty will soon wear thin.
"Nowadays, we have so many choices when it comes to what we cook outdoors," he says. "Even hot dogs are varied! But it's not just hamburgers and hot dogs anymore." Art remembers the fun he and his neighbors had when he taught them how to "throw naan," a type of Indian hearth bread, using the tandoor oven. And as exciting as food cooked outdoors might be, the meal itself tends to be unhurried and casual. "People expect nothing more than something hot off the grill," he says. "And then all you need is a salad and maybe some cookies and fruit." What's more, he continues, everyone is attracted to the grill "like moths to light," so just the act of firing it up tends to be communal.
"We're also drawn to the craft of it," Art says. "By this, I mean you have to think about the wood or the charcoal, the heat intensity, the grill marks on the food." He admits these challenges seem to attract middle-aged men more than some other demographics. This country boy who grew up in rural Florida muses that when you live with as much concrete as he and so many other Americans do in cities and populated suburbs, "You yearn for green, but that doesn't mean you want a farm." The idea of spending time out of doors, cooking, eating, and visiting, is overwhelmingly appealing.
"We dug up the concrete in the condo's backyard for the kitchen, and let me tell you: It's the focal point of our little community." The good thing about the outdoors is that it's big enough for everyone.