Thomas J. Story

How a caterer with a decorator’s eye reimagined what cooking, eating, and entertaining outside can be.

Christine Lennon  –  Updated June 6, 2021

The outdoor kitchen at the home of caterer and event planner Kai Loebach does not have walls. That’s the only thing this cooking space has in common with other outdoor kitchens.

Loebach relies on none of the sensible trappings of a typical backyard cooking area. He doesn’t even own a charcoal grill. Instead, he cooks on a sturdy, industrial six-burner range with a built-in grill. It’s just outside—under a roof but otherwise exposed.

“I prefer it,” Loebach says with a shrug, as if putting a stove outside is the most normal thing in the world. “I have six stoves. I like to collect things.”

Evidence of these collections is everywhere you look in his lush garden. Stepping through the gate of the home in Nichols Canyon that Loebach shares with his partner, Lee Miller, a professor of pediatrics at UCLA medical school, feels like you’ve arrived at a very chic boutique hotel in Lisbon or Mexico City. Each nook and niche is filled with beautiful ephemera: myrtle topiary, blown glass, air plants, vintage terracotta. There are multiple koi ponds, and too many plants to name. It is unique and inspiring and, yes, it is high-maintenance.

Ancient Ceramic Post with Flowers

Thomas J. Story

“I’m the kind of guy who will walk around the yard with a Shop-Vac,” laughs Loebach. “I spend at least an hour every day weeding and watering and painstakingly caring for the plants. I won’t let anyone else touch the myrtle. It’s a collection I’ve been working on for 30 years.”

Loebach and Miller bought the house 25 years ago when it was “an absolute linoleum-covered disaster.” Over the years, they’ve reimagined every inch of the space, inside and out. The garden exists on three tiers. The lowest, where the pool and back patio are, is where you’ll find Loebach’s kitchen. There’s a steel sink, and a large countertop for a butcher block, and metal cabinets for storage. Loebach and Miller have collected earthenware serving pieces over the years during their travels to Portugal, Morocco, Greece, and Mexico, and a small fraction of their collection is on display on the shelves.

“If I’m in a restaurant and I love a piece, I’ll ask the owners if I can buy it,” he says. “It’s one of my collecting secrets. Most of the time the owners are so flattered that I asked and are happy to sell it to me.”

The second tier is a dining pavilion with a corrugated metal roof, rustic support beams, and two metal walls that Loebach had finished with zinc paint. They call it “the bus stop.”

“It reminds me of a simple bus shelter you’d see in the countryside in Germany,” says Loebach, who was raised on a farm in Wuppertal, Germany, where his family grew what they ate. “I’ve always loved to grow succulents and cacti.”

Instead of minimalist dining chairs, Loebach has primitive handmade benches and Belgian potato crates that have been filled with heavy stones and fashioned into stools. The table under the shelter is vintage and used to live in a school. A metal tray filled with air plants, art glass, and votive candles rests on top of it. Spanish gothic iron candelabras stand in the middle of abundant plants, near a small fountain.

“Those aren’t really my style, but a friend of mine I work with had them and offered them to me. Cher had them made, and I guess she had extra,” he says. “I couldn’t resist.”

Outside fireplace with succulents

Thomas J. Story

The top tier of the garden, which is at street level and connects to the main, indoor kitchen, is where the outdoor fireplace is, and another long custom-built teak table for dining and cocktails.

Loebach isn’t deterred by pesky things like dust and wind and spiders. It’s as if all of those things understand that this yard is too magical to be messed with. Spending an afternoon in Loebach’s world, where he squeezes juice from a massive bowl of citrus for cocktails, sears tuna to pass on perfect little croquettes, and coordinates a summery salad with thinly shaved radishes that are the precise shade of his deep-fuchsia accent pillows, makes you re-think everything. Stepping back through the portal onto the street, you might wonder (but for the crumbs of burnt Basque cheesecake still clinging to your shirt) if it was all dream, and puzzle over how to squeeze your own stove through the back door.


Read our 2021 “Waters of the West” Issue Right Here!

Get one year of Sunset—and all kinds of bonuses—for just $24.95.