Small-kitchen cooking tips from a camper-living chef

When many New York City dwellers fled to smaller towns and rural areas last year, I, like many others, was skeptical of their intentions. But the journey of one of my favorite voices in the city’s food scene, Lee Kalpakis, was one that felt inspiring (and soothing!) to follow during this time. When the pandemic hit, Kalpakis — who has worked as a recipe developer, food stylist, culinary producer, and video host—and her partner both 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, they purchased a bare-bones 1976 Fleetwood Prowler van to refurbish. Now, they’re on their own land — much more isolated than when they had started out in 2020 — but building a home all their own.

Though Kalpakis has spent most of her professional life working in restaurants (including her parents’ growing up) and large test kitchens, she’s accustomed to cooking in small spaces by nature of living in NYC apartments. Now, she’s figuring out how to evolve her cooking, not just for a weekend camping trip, but for the long haul in the woods.

Here, Kalpakis shares her tips for cooking in a small kitchen — whether or not you live in a cozy camper in the woods.

Make everything in a Dutch oven

When working in what is essentially a miniaturized version of an apartment kitchen (already quite small!), you don’t want to do a lot of dishes. “Even two dirty bowls can make the place feel messy,” says Kalpakis. In turn, aside from grilling outside, she prefers to make everything she can in her Le Creuset Dutch oven. “It’s particularly simple in the colder months, because we just want to eat soups and stews anyway, and when we’re finished eating, I refrigerate the leftovers directly in the pot to make it easy to heat up the next day.” Of course, Dutch ovens can do even more: Kalpakis also uses the vessel for proteins and vegetables, crisped on the stovetop or braised in the oven.

Pare down your spices (but leave room for hot sauce)

Even with little room for a full pantry, there is a plethora of dishes you can keep in your roster that come alive with just a few spices or seasonings. Still, make it personal: Inside Kalpalkis’s pantry you’ll find three kinds of hot sauce: 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 Diamond Crystal kosher salt are a must, as are olive oil, vanilla extract, and furikake. She also makes seasonal spreads for toast in the morning (right now there’s cranberry-persimmon compote.) Finally, the pantry is rounded out with a special tin of saffron that her boyfriend’s mom gave her. Says Kalpalkis: “I am so afraid to run out of it!”

Make cleaning products out of what’s already in your kitchen

Living off the grid, Kalpakis attempts to minimize the use of any chemical cleaning products. “It all goes back into the earth, so we clean everything with white vinegar,” she says. With gallons of it on hand, they also often use the vinegar in salads and for pickling vegetables.

If you do live in a camper (or have a backyard), do your batch cooking outdoors

Even in the winter months, Kalpakis enjoys grilling a big piece of meat or a large batch of veggies outside—they’ll last her a few days. “I keep [seasonings] basic so it’s versatile,” she says. She recently grilled chicken thighs 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 was craving al pastor but didn’t want to go out to get pork.”

A smaller refrigerator could mean less waste

“In my old kitchen, I’d lose things in the back of the fridge pretty frequently. Now, my fridge is so tiny, nothing is forgotten,” says Kalpakis. If she grills lamb chops and fennel for dinner, she’ll keep the bones and scraps to make stock the next day. “There’s no delivery out here in the woods, so everything gets used. That feels good.” Bonus: “It saves a lot of money in the process.”

Dessert can be a drink (and you don’t need a full set of glassware)

Kalpakis developed a sweet tooth during the pandemic and has been enjoying making a pot of hot chocolate or horchata to keep on the stove for a quick sip when she pleases. Though there’s no separate vessel for switching from cocoa to wine at the end of the night. (And really, why bother?) “When we downsized, I got rid of a large mug collection. I pretty much kept just one, and now I use it all day, every day, for everything I drink.”

You probably don’t need separate “pet food”

“Look, I love my dog, but I’m not trying to fuss over his meals,” says Kalpakis. While she assures me that Mac eats high-quality dog food, if she’s having burgers, he’ll get some raw beef for dinner, and perhaps some vegetables, too. “I get sweet potatoes from our local farm stand pretty often.” Feeding dogs and humans similarly presents another unintentional (but certainly appreciated) money-saving tip.

Your hands are the best cooking tools

Without room for added appliances, Kalpakis has simplified her cooking. “If a recipe calls for a stand mixer, I can’t make it. I can only do things by hand,” she says, whether it’s a quick cake batter or a dough that requires kneading, like focaccia. “It’s easy to get frustrated, but it has been a positive experience overall because it makes me feel like I’m doing things the way my great-grandparents would’ve done.”

Still, she kept a few tools that expedite certain recipes, like the whisk she recently used to whip cream for an apple crisp. She was pleased to learn that the camper does indeed have enough power to allow her to use her old Vitamix, but in the meantime she’s been drinking “baby versions of ‘smoothies,'” by mixing spirulina with water and a splash of apple cider or pineapple juice to “get some extra nutrients in.”

Most of all, set realistic expectations

“I love this journey, but I don’t want to portray it as glamorous — I always want to be realistic about it,” she says, noting that when she began watching “Van Life” videos, they sometimes felt alienating in their perfect portrayals of the experience. Whether you’re in a camper or any other small kitchen, it can be challenging to keep things tidy and cook efficiently. It takes time and work to create a functioning — and eventually, comfortable and inviting — tiny cooking space. “Yes, this is a wonderful thing I’ve always dreamed about, but it’s also fucking hard.”

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