My neighbours and I tore down our fence and built a shared outdoor kitchen

My neighbours and I tore down our fence and built a shared outdoor kitchen

I like to think that I sold my next-door neighbours their house. It was 2004, and I saw a couple, Jennifer Fraser and Jamieson Kerr, coming out of the open house looking a touch alarmed. Somehow I knew they were the ones. The house had been entirely, indeed meticulously, redone in the late ’70s in a style that can only be called “Bob Newhart’s Apartment.” There was a lot of plaid wallpaper, and the floors were wall-to-wall-to-wall-to-wall carpeting: brown, to pick up the the browns in the wallpaper had been laid just about everywhere. That included the bathrooms, one of which took the form of a circular wood laminate pod that appeared to have landed in the middle of the dining room. That lost ship of a powder room housed a black water faucet so large that it was like opening a rounded door to be greeted by a menacing goose-necked alien.

The house’s reno was of its time in being not at all of its time—a ’70s reno in a Victorian house—but I knew it had good bones. It was detached with a high and dry basement and as much space as a family would ever need, and it was in Cabbagetown, a downtown village. No expense had been spared in the Dr. Hartley–ing of the home, although it sure looked like Emily had left a long time ago and Bob had let things slide.

Of course, this was back before the age of staging, back when, with a little imagination, you depersonalized, decluttered and repainted a prospective home in your mind. In those days, you swapped out the grimy sofa in your dreams and then you went in, under asking. Nowadays having an eye is something you can invoice for, but back then there were houses on the market that had not been hastily painted white and festooned with IKEA mirrors. In short, there were deals to be had. I knew that this house was one of them, and somehow I knew that these people, the ones I saw from my front porch coming out from the open house, were the neighbours I wanted. They looked fun. They looked the right kind of plaid-shocked.

The homage to Bob’s place is the mirror of my house next door—they are sometimes called “bookend houses.” When Jennifer managed to smile at me as she came down the weedy walk, I invited them both into my home, to which a lot less has been done. As Jennifer tells it, she decided to buy Bob’s house right then and there.

The neighbour thing could not have worked out better. Over the past 15 years, if either of us has ever needed a dog let out, a child minded, an egg spared, a drink poured, a spare key to our own house fished out or whatnot, we’ve known where to go. We’ve also co-operated on the endless maintenance of the homes we know we are so lucky to own. Jennifer will text, say, if she’s having a plumber around, and I will do the same with the electrician, the roofer, the painter or any of the other people who keep an older home going, in case they’re needed next door as well. We sometimes refer to these layouts as “unsexy” money: the money you spend on a house that keeps it standing, lighting and flushing without making it any better.

When the fence started coming down in that weird stretch of property that runs between our houses, we knew fixing it would be the least sexy money we would ever spend. That strip of land is a very Toronto space. It is the place where Toronto homeowners have traditionally stored their garbage pails, air conditioning units and barbecues. Ours was a bleak bit of yard, like the rest of them, and the prospect of spending the money it would take to put in 28 feet of fence and three new gates was uninspiring. Then one day, barbecue tongs in hand, it struck me that if we put our six-foot-wide tunnels together we’d have a 12-foot-wide space, the size of many urban yards right there. We’d split the bill down the middle.

I proposed taking the fence down, installing wrought-iron gates across the garden sides of our yards, and putting one big joint kitchen in the strip. I’m blessed with great neighbours who, like me, love food, cooking and feeding people. Jennifer is a food television director-producer, most recently the force behind Bake with Anna Olson, and Jamison is the owner of the always-welcoming Queen and Beaver and Peacock Public House, along with several other hip and homey pubs.

A huge part of why this project worked is that we both trusted the man responsible for implementing it: Doug Stephenson of Classic Exteriors Ontario. He was Jennifer’s find, and over the years he’s done a lot of work for both of us. He’s never steered us wrong. When any cost or design questions arose, one of us would say, “What does Doug think?”

Doug took up the patchwork of cracked and broken concrete that lay in Utilitarian Alley and harmonized the space with flagstone. Together, he and I designed the islands, which are faced in prefab stone but don’t look like a Montana’s. They look like they belong between old brick houses. One has a gas barbecue that uses the gas line and grill I already had, and the other holds a Big Green Egg we scored off Facebook Marketplace. Jennifer had said she wanted a bread and pizza oven, and I loved the idea, but I got nervous about building the kind of lofty structure I kept seeing online. I couldn’t imagine it was legal. Eventually, I stumbled across an Ecoque oven and smoker, also on Facebook Marketplace, which now works brilliantly in its new home in the other island. An air conditioner was relocated high on a wall, and the garbage pails were exiled to the garage so there’s space for people to circulate and herbs to grow. There’s a built-in icebox with a tap, hanging lights, an umbrella and various cupboards for wine glasses and bins for fuel, and some barstools. Indeed the only revision we’ve had to make is adding more barstools because—in accordance with Universal Law of Parties, indoors and out—no one leaves the kitchen.

When it was all done last fall, we had a joint Thanksgiving dinner for about 50 people. It was great to have a place for all our various friends to meet, and in many cases arrange to meet again somewhere else. I posted photos on Facebook and was surprised at the response to the post. Among the enthusiastic comments, messages and offers to bring the potato salad next time, there were the doomsayers. “Sure, but I’d be really curious to know how you feel about it a year from now,” they said, as if I’d tattooed Jennifer’s name on my face.

The idea that there’s some extreme intimacy in co-managing a space we hose off when we’re done is a very Toronto sort of anxiety. There are whole villages that share an oven—I think two families can nest one Big Green Egg. Several people begged me to consider what would happen when I sell. Moving is something neither of us plan on doing. Even if we did leave, we certainly would never sell to anyone who didn’t want to share a kitchen. The notion of putting money into a house out of love, without considering if it’s the best way to turn a profit on your own home, has become alien in this town.

This is a story of bad fences making better neighbours. I’d say we’ve worked hard to make our shared barbecue system work, but that would be a lie. It goes like this: I get a text from Jennifer—“I’m lighting the Egg tonight”—and I text back: “I’m in.” There is no compromise in our shared kitchen. In fact, it’s just a useful reminder that there is always more possibility in areas over which you do not have exclusive domain. A space like the one we carved out by going in together can only be improved by the sharing. What would have been one family’s quiet backyard boondoggle became two families’ much-loved and much-used room-away-from-rooms. I love our outdoor kitchen, and use it all the time, but I wouldn’t want one of my own.