Small-kitchen cooking tips from a camper-living chef
When many New Yorkers fled to smaller towns and rural areas last year, like many others, I was skeptical of their intentions. But the journey of one of my favorite voices in the city’s food scene, Lee Kalpakis, was inspiring (and comforting!) To follow during this time. When the pandemic hit, Kalpakis – who worked as a recipe developer, food stylist, kitchen producer, and video host – and her partner lost their jobs. They decided to give up their Brooklyn loft and move to the Catskills, where they both grew up. But instead of another apartment, in 1976 they bought a bare-bones Fleetwood Prowler van to renovate. Now they are on their own land – much more isolated than at the beginning of 2020 – but are building their own house.
Although Kalpakis has spent most of her professional life in restaurants (including her parents growing up) and large test kitchens, she is used to cooking in small spaces as she lives in NYC apartments. Now she is thinking about how to develop her kitchen further, not only for a weekend camping trip, but also for the long haul in the forest.
Here Kalpakis shares her tips for cooking in a small kitchen – regardless of whether you live in a cozy mobile home in the forest or not.
Do everything in a Dutch oven
If you’re working in an essentially miniaturized version of an apartment kitchen (already quite small!), You don’t want to wash a lot of dishes. “Even two dirty bowls can mess up the place,” says Kalpakis. Aside from grilling outside, she prefers to do everything she can in her Dutch Le Creuset oven. “It’s particularly easy in the colder months because we only want to eat soups and stews anyway, and when we’re done, I chill the leftovers right in the pot so it gets a little hot the next day.” Of course, Dutch ovens can do even more: Kalpakis also uses the vessel for proteins and vegetables that are crispy on the stove or braised in the oven.
Cut down on your seasonings (but leave room for hot sauce)
Even when there is little room for a full pantry, there are a variety of dishes to keep on your roster that can be brought to life with just a few spices or condiments. Make it personal anyway: There are three types of hot sauce in Kalpalkis’ pantry: Cholula, Sriracha and Frank’s Red Hot – “I need all three because they all serve different purposes!” When it comes to the rest of the pantry, flaky maldon salt and kosher diamond crystal salt are a must, as are olive oil, vanilla extract, and furikake. She also makes seasonal spreads for morning toast (they have cranberry persimmon compote right now.) Finally, the pantry is rounded off with a special tin of saffron given to her by her boyfriend’s mother. Kalpalkis says: “I am so scared that I will run out!”
Make cleaning products out of what’s already in your kitchen
Kalpakis lives off the power grid and tries to minimize the use of chemical cleaning products. “It all goes back into the earth, so we clean everything with white vinegar,” she says. With gallons of it, they often use the vinegar in salads and for pickling vegetables.
If you live in an RV (or have a yard), cook outside
Even in the winter months, Kalpakis like to grill a large piece of meat or a large amount of vegetables outside – they last for a few days. “I keep [seasonings] Simple, so versatile, “she says. She recently grilled chicken legs that had been rubbed with smoked paprika, honey and garlic, and served them with rice, feta, dill and lemon.” The next day I sliced the leftover thighs and mixed them with Grilled Pineapple because I longed for Pastor but didn’t want to go out to get pork. “
A smaller refrigerator could mean less waste
“In my old kitchen I often lost things in the back of the refrigerator. Now my refrigerator is so small that nothing is forgotten,” says Kalpakis. When she grills lamb chops and fennel for dinner, she keeps the bones and leftovers to make broth the next day. “There’s no delivery out here in the woods, so it’s all used. That feels good.” Bonus: “That saves a lot of money.”
Dessert can be a drink (and you don’t need a full set of glassware)
Kalpakis developed a sweet tooth during the pandemic and enjoyed making a saucepan of hot chocolate or horchata for a quick sip on the stove if she wants. Although there is no separate vessel to switch from cocoa to wine at the end of the night. (And really, why bother?) “When we downsized, I got rid of a large collection of mugs. I pretty much only kept one, and now I use it all day, every day, for everything I drink . “
You probably don’t need a separate “animal feed”
“Look, I love my dog, but I’m not trying to take care of his meals,” says Kalpakis. While she assures me that Mac eats good quality dog food, if she has burgers he’ll get some raw beef for dinner and maybe some vegetables too. “I get sweet potatoes from our local farm quite often.” Feeding dogs and humans also offers another unintended (but certainly appreciated) money-saving tip.
Your hands are the best cooking utensils
With no space for additional equipment, Kalpakis has made your cooking easier. “If a recipe calls for a stand mixer, I can’t do it. I can only make things by hand,” she says, be it a quick cake batter or a batter that needs to be kneaded, like focaccia. “It’s easy to get frustrated, but it’s been a positive experience overall because I feel like doing things like my great-grandparents would have done.”
Even so, she kept a few tools that speed up certain recipes, like the whisk she’d recently used to whip cream for an apple chip. She was pleased to learn that the camper actually has enough strength to use her old Vitamix, but in the meantime she has “drank baby versions of ‘smoothies’ by mixing spirulina with water and a splash of apple cider or pineapple juice, to “take in some extra nutrients”.
Above all, set realistic expectations
“I love this trip, but I don’t want to portray it as glamorous – I always want to be realistic,” she says, noting that they sometimes felt alienated when she started watching “Van Life” videos depicting the experience. Whether you’re in an RV or other small kitchen, keeping things clean and cooking efficiently can be difficult. It takes time and work to create a functioning – and ultimately comfortable and inviting – tiny cooking space. “Yeah, it’s a wonderful thing I’ve always dreamed of, but it’s also damn hard.”