Topic: Outdoor Kitchens

Date Posted: Thursday, October 30, 2014
Posted by: Tanya Zanfa (Master Admin)

Miller: Season of gratitude

Miller: Season of gratitude

What an amazing and transformative summer my husband and I had. Nothing exotic or far away, but simply enjoying our home. For many reasons, this summer at home was more fulfilling and comfortable than any previous year.

After years of planning and hard work, dreams and joy and severely broken hearts, we want to be home.

During the summer, we’re drawn to our rear patio which is filled with amenities for entertaining, lounging, cooking, and even sleeping. The most recent change is that we now have a wonderful outdoor kitchen.

It is perfectly situated just outside our indoor kitchen. It has two large islands which are tiled in one of my favorite slate materials. One island holds our barbecue. The second island is storage, a small sink, and a large, elliptical eating area.

The countertops were an adventure. I wanted something extremely durable, able to be exposed to the outdoors, able to handle heat and scratches and spills and stains. (I do not like to fuss over surfaces.) I contemplated many options including copper, zinc, and slab stone. But ultimately, I decided on concrete with a rustic look so as it aged and was beat up or accidentally damaged, the changes could be interpreted as character rather than flaws.

During the summer, we’re drawn to our rear patio … for entertaining, lounging, cooking, and even sleeping.

Yes, for my family an imperfect concrete counter should be a great fit, so with imperfect in mind, I wondered about doing it myself.

At a party, I chatted with a business associate who is a fantastic tile installation professional. He had been studying about concrete countertops and was interested in experimenting with me. His name is James Partridge, and we decided that with our combined skills, we could probably create what I wanted. And I would be OK with any imperfections our novice skills generated.

James and a general contractor named Rex Ballard completed the countertop forms in the complex, irregular shapes I wanted. My wishes included large, unsupported overhangs in the casual eating portion so thick sheet metal and additional rebar and concrete strengtheners were used. And on “pour day” James and I worked together to fill the forms.

James mixed a special concrete countertop recipe and because I could not find concrete dye in the colors I wanted, I added latex paint in whites and some greens and grays as a replacement for a portion of the water in each batch. On the top surfaces of the concrete, I troweled in additional white, green and charcoal concrete in jagged lines and swirls.

We did not do the best job of smoothing the surface while it was still soft enough to be troweled. So after it had hardened a few days, both James and I spent many hours sanding it smooth. It responded by becoming more and more beautiful.

In some areas, tiny aggregate pebbles are visible. And the striations of dark greys and lighter greens I had added look soft and flowing. And now, the surface is like silk to the touch. Between the two islands is a generous amount of space for food prep. And a path beyond has new concrete stairs up to our vegetable garden and other areas of our property.

Dana Ettlin of Penn Valley, an extraordinary landscaper, installed the steps and path. The steps nestle perfectly into the surroundings, and just as I requested, they look contemporary and man-made. The clean styling of the individual concrete steps was intentiona l— a planned respite, a comfortable stride, nestled between the rugged, uneven natural surroundings. To me, it represents a marriage between humans and nature, just as I had envisioned.

For more than 10 years I have worked at improving the look of the surrounding boulder-filled slopes. I planted very hardy perennials between boulders. It took trial and error and patience. Some plants cannot survive the extreme heat and cold of this south-west exposure. Others thrive, naturalize, and wish to take over if I don’t keep after them. Finally now, there are beautiful shapes and colors and textures all year long.

The countertops always need dusting and my gardens and boulder slopes require regular maintenance. So while I putter, I think and remember.

Our outdoor kitchen and entire rear patio is a peaceful refuge and a place for gratitude. The patio was born using monies I inherited from my grandfather when he passed away. We’ve had good times with many people in this space. But most often, my brother, husband and I have eaten, talked and laughed here.

We even had meals on plywood counters before “pour day.” And while I spent two days fussing over and sanding the new countertops, my phone sat beside me as I wished my brother would return my phone calls. But the hours and hours of working and wishing didn’t produce a phone call from him that weekend. And then, he was gone.

I have replayed every moment of labor as the outdoor kitchen rose up, every stroke of the sander, and every conversation and word we spoke during the week when his life slipped away last October. And I wonder about things I did and said, or did not do or say. I wonder why I didn’t know he was fading.

Autumn is my favorite season. It is a season between two extremes, a season of change. But for me, it is the most gentle of seasons. I appreciate the drop in temperature and the smell of rain in the air. And the changing leaves and their slow and gentle fall to earth is a beautiful reminder of cycles.

The leaves change color and fall, taking shape as insulation and nourishment for spring growth. As I watch this colorful cycle, I can’t help but be grateful.

I am grateful for my loved ones, my life, my home, and of course this space. I love the silky soft feel of these solid, robust and rustic counters. And as we put the cover over outdoor living and prepare for the cold season, I am grateful that Scott shared so much time with us here

I am grateful that I grew up with a single sibling — my brother who played with me, watched over me, amused me, and taught me about many types of conflict.

Now my brother has shown me that the most shocking and painful experience of all will not end my life. I am more aware, mindful, and grateful now than ever.

This autumn marks my first year of life without my brother. I am still here, but I feel a different color now.

Erin Miller is the owner of Erin Miller Designs in Grass Valley. She can be reached at 530-477-1401, or at

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