Fire in the Pit
When the barbecues flare up each spring and the scent of charring seasoned meat floats across America, it's a wonder how vegetarians keep their resolve. Even a burger broiled on a rickety hibachi has that primal, irresistible hunter-gatherer allure and a tang of genuine alfresco hospitality. But Dr. Paul Gotkin's family wanted something more than a primitive fire pit to grill the day's catch. So under a gazebo, beside the swimming pool, along a yacht-crowded waterway in Jupiter, Florida, masons Chuck and Paul Palazzo gathered the tools and materials they needed to build the Gotkins' cookout space. For those who can afford such luxuries, there's no denying the appeal of these massive monuments to the joy of cooking outdoors. They provide broad expanses of countertop to set down a plate of burgers or basket of buns. Their supporting pedestals, whether built of brick or block, make a perfect all-weather storage space for the mitts, tongs and other barbecuing accoutrements. And unlike those movable feast-cookers that require bottles of propane or bags of coal-dusty briquettes — both of which have a way of running out when most needed — stationary grills can burn natural gas. For their barbecue, the Gotkins had a natural-gas grill, 6 feet of countertop and two storage compartments, as well as a refrigerator to keep drinks frosty and a sink. "This is not a barbecue; this is a kitchen," says Larry Malesky of the Fireplace & BBQ Center in nearby Coral Springs and the designer of the Gotkins' project. Under the Gotkins' gazebo, the Palazzo brothers could have been building a miniature house, judging by the stubble of wire and pipe poking out of the gazebo floor: electric wires for the fridge and lights, water-supply and drain lines for the sink, a natural gas line for the drop-in grill. The barbecue cradling all these amenities is going to be solid as a house too. Eight feet long, built of concrete block and pavers covered with travertine tile, this cooking island will be cemented to the gazebo's 6-inch slab, a sufficient foundation in frost-free Florida. Here the problems are salt air, moisture, bugs and rot. "Ten years ago, people built these out of wood, with tile tops," Malesky says. "But those don't last in the Florida climate. Half our business is ripping them out and replacing them with concrete." He kicked a loose block. "This'll last forever with no maintenance." To avoid blocking the house's water view, Malesky centered the barbecue between two columns on the gazebo's north side. In a couple of hours, the Palazzo brothers stacked the 8-inch-thick block into a wall 55 inches high, tall enough to provide a 16-inch backsplash behind the 39-inch counter. They worked in companionable silence, smiles on their faces. Each chore seemed to divide naturally and wordlessly into Chuck chunks and Paul portions. "Mud," Paul might say, and Chuck would know to drag some bags of mortar over to the wheelbarrow for mixing while his brother laid out the barbecue's next element. With chalk and tape, Paul carefully marked out the location of the two end walls, which projected 26 inches from the rear, so that Chuck, with deft slaps, flips, snicks and taps of his trowel, could skillfully build the 4-inch blocks up to counter height. At the left-hand end, he installed a block with screened holes to ventilate the refrigerator. If the barbecue unit had been fired with bottled gas, the containment space for the tanks would have been ventilated too. When both the end walls reached countertop height, the Palazzos prepared additional supports for the countertop's 2-inch-thick concrete pavers. Against the back wall, Chuck mortared pilasters of cut block to counter height and cemented a piece of angle iron on top of them. Then he blocked up the barbecue's facade, leaving openings for the refrigerator and under-counter storage. Flat bar steel bridged the top of these gaps. On the steel and block, Chuck troweled a ridge of fresh mortar into which he pressed each paver, then he went back and filled all the paver joints. At this point, he didn't concern himself with making the pavers level?he planned to fix that later. He set one paver down low, creating a recessed platform for the stainless-steel barbecue unit. "Watch the dust," Paul said with a grin, as he got ready to cut a 6-inch-square hole in the platform to admit the gas line. Sure enough, the instant his circular saw touched the paver, a gritty white cloud erupted from the diamond blade, enveloping him in a cementitious fog. In the counter itself, he cut a larger hole for the bar-sized stainless-steel sink. Every exposed piece of metal in this installation, even the storage compartment doors, would be stainless steel. Nothing else survives the salt air. The skeleton of the barbecue was finished. Now it needed skin and innards. Next day, when the mortar had set up, the Palazzos sponged off the pavers and began leveling the countertops. They plopped hills of stiff, low-slump mortar on the counter and flattened them out with a 26-inch aluminum bar, working it back and forth like a sidewalk builder's screed. The Palazzos could have encased the pedestal in stucco to match the house, but the Gotkins chose the elegant and more expensive look of tile. So, starting with the countertop, Paul covered every exposed inch of his concrete and cinder-block creation with tumbled beige travertine accented with black pieces. He chose the accent positions with the eye of an artist, sitting back on his heels to study their placement, taking his time, as if he were reluctant to finish. But after a day and a half of tiling, he did, and the grill was dropped into its new home. A fitter from the local gas company connected and tested the hookup as required by law. The Gotkins had a perfect place to cook and entertain, shaded by the gazebo and coconut palms and cooled by the breezes off the waterway. It wasn't as elaborate as the job that makes Fireplace & BBQ Center sales rep Larry Malesky proudest — 35 feet of triple-tiered countertop in a U shape plus a refrigerator, an ice maker, a 6-foot gas grill complete with rotisserie and, on the rear wall, a waterfall tumbling into a heated whirlpool — but it would get the family outdoors for dinner. Ena Gotkin thought the family would cook there at least twice a week. "I have a grill on the stove inside," she said, "but the food doesn't taste the same."
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