Backyard bistro: Locals love their outdoor kitchens

Elise and Jimmy Lalonde. Photos by Collin Richie.

Cue the patio lights—it’s time to get outside, fire up the grill, and invite a few friends over for summertime food and fun. Passing by the lakefront homes of south Baton Rouge, there are outdoor spaces that beckon curious passersby. With a detour off the beaten path, there are hidden gems all across the city.

Cruise beneath a winding canopy of every shade of green just a stone’s throw from Perkins Road and arrive at the home of Jimmy and Elise Lalonde. At this two-physician household with four school-age kids, there’s a built-in vacation getaway right in the backyard.

While the kids splash in the two-tier pool, Elise gathers eggs from the custom chicken coop and Jimmy lights the smoker to finish the brisket that slow-cooked overnight in the oven. As guests arrive, he ignites the 1,200-degree searing side of the gas grill for chargrilled oysters, a favorite for entertaining.

The Lalondes built their home and pool with just a sliver of land remaining. When an adjoining neighbor offered to sell a small piece of connecting property, the stars aligned. Enter Richard Hymel, a landscape architect who converted the seemingly unusable pie-shaped lot into a sparkling gem. “He’s a great guy—he fit this in here,” Jimmy says, gesturing to the outdoor kitchen, living space and dining area that feel like an escape to Napa Valley complete with a grape arbor.

Jimmy’s chargrilled oysters are often on the outdoor menu.

Strings of party lights dancing overhead illuminate the space as the sun sets. “We found an awesome guy who’s been helping us with some projects,” Jimmy says of Jacob Gauthier, an electrician whose lighting brings evenings to life in the Lalondes’ backyard. The upkeep is in the hands of Jimmy and Elise, who tend the herb beds and tropical landscape, and cook for crowds every chance they get.

“In the summer we are out here every night grilling chicken and tenderloin,” Elise says. “We don’t even cook inside.”

Tucked away in Jefferson Highlands, Jeff and Amy Echols’ home was love at first sight. “We had been house hunting in this area and held out until we found the perfect place,” Amy recalls. “We walked through the house and straight out to the pool and outdoor kitchen, and I told Jeff, ‘Let’s give them full price.’”

Entertaining is always on the Echols’ menu. They settled right in and open their home to neighbors and friends year round. They coordinate the Jefferson Highlands crawfish boil and will roll right into celebrating their son’s graduation with an outdoor fete for 50. Every year they host Jeff’s company’s Christmas party for 28 guests.

“We had been house hunting in this area and held out until we found the perfect place. We walked through the house and straight out to the pool and outdoor kitchen, and I told Jeff, ‘Let’s give them full price.’” — Amy Echols

“I love to cook! I cook five nights a week, and I love to grill,” Amy says. “This grill is so easy to use. It has lots of features. I’ll grill salmon or sear tuna. Sometimes I’ll have friends over and we’ll get chickens going on the rotisserie. Dinner cooks itself while we play in the pool.”

Amy is also working on a goal of perfecting her son’s favorite dish, fried chicken, before he leaves for college in the fall. With a turbo burner in the outdoor kitchen space, she can fry away where the mess doesn’t matter.

A “Yard of the Season” sign propped next to the garage validates their attention to every detail. “I’m pretty proud of the backyard. It was overgrown when we took it over. We have redone a lot of the landscaping,” Jeff says, gesturing to a formerly obscured stand of palms near the pool.

Continue east where the interstate meets Highland Road. On the edge of a perfectly manicured golf course, the scent of wood smoke tempts everyone within striking distance. “Baseball bat trimmings burn really well—they are great for a pizza fire,” says Jack Marucci, the man who created a baseball bat success story from a wood shop project and also serves as director of athletic training at LSU.

A few steps from the indoor kitchen in the home he shares with his partner Janet Deal and just beyond the basket overflowing with scraps of northern hardwood remaining from bat production, Jack’s heritage awaits. “My grandfather immigrated from Italy and started a restaurant in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. Everything we do revolves around food,” he says, eyes twinkling at the recollection of traditional Italian family dinners. “Everything we cook is based on the red sauce. We had rigatoni every Sunday.” The pasta shape is so beloved in the Marucci household they named their dog Rigatoni.

“If you’re serious about pizza, commit to a wood oven. Get it hot, 800 degrees. You’ll know it’s done when the pepperoni is nice and curled up on the edges.” — Pizza tip from Jack Marucci and Janet Deal.

The inspiration for installing a pizza oven in his backyard came from Jack’s brother, who lives in Pennsylvania, just north of Morgantown, West Virginia. When WVU hosted LSU in 2011, Jack shuttled a busload of his colleagues to his brother’s home after the game. “My brother is the king of pizza,” Jack says. “He got a big brick oven from Italy. Then my sister and her husband built one at their Philadelphia home, and it came out great. Mine is scaled down. I bought a kit and built a dome around it.”

The water feature at the Marucci home is a fish pond, rich with tropical plants and home to koi fish named for legendary Pittsburgh athletes. It’s a tranquil backdrop to the intense heat of the fire where the pizza magic happens. Jack’s quest for the perfect combination of pizza ingredients has been fulfilled after much trial and error.

Though he downplays his oven, pizza mastery is in his blood. “Making a pizza is our boiling the crawfish,” Jack says. “We always make pizza when the kids come home. That should be everybody’s birthday cake.”

Janet shares Jack’s secrets to pizza perfection: “He’s very serious about it. He gets cans of the 6 in 1 tomatoes shipped in. He gets the baseball-size pepperoni from Anthony’s Deli. He makes the dough with 00 flour. Then there’s the cheese—it has to be whole-milk mozzarella.”

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