Cooking in Tiny Spaces: A Beginner’s Guide

October 28, 2022
Cooking in Tiny Spaces: A Beginner’s Guide

Advices and Recipes from a Full-Time Nomad and Chef

Guest post by A.J. Forget, author of The Buslife Kitchen 


As nomads and foodies, we've found that our life on the road had led us to spend more time cooking — and surprisingly, enjoying it even more. Cooking tiny enhances creativity, and with it, the satisfaction of expanding your skills and diversifying your meals. But don't take my word for it: I'm barely an amateur cook. Instead, we interviewed a real-life nomadic chef to tell us more about his experience cooking daily in a tiny home on wheels.

For the past two years, A.J. Forget (pronounced for-zhay) has been living and traveling in the 2001 van-front mid-bus he converted with his partner, Ayana — with the invaluable help of Tori, their puggle. A passionate cook, he found that this constrictive environment actually pushed him to perfect his recipes to the point that he decided to write a cookbook focused on tiny cooking. In this interview, he explains why — and how — moving into a home-on-wheels might be the occasion for anyone to finally get into cooking! 

All pictures in this article: A.J. Forget / The Buslife Kitchen
Website | Instagram

From wildland firefighter to nomadic chef

Cooking has been a passion of mine since I was a child. I grew up in a family where all of the men cooked, and being the youngest I always wanted to do what my three older brothers were doing. When I was barely tall enough to see the stovetop, I was already cooking whatever they’d teach me. I remember making many late-night snacks for my brothers and their friends, though my recipe repertoire was pretty small back then — I mostly dealt in bacon and eggs.

 

 

I’ve heard it said that we don’t actually go hiking to be in nature, we go hiking to eat food in beautiful places, and I think that this nomad lifestyle epitomizes that.

AJ, author of The Buslife Kitchen

New people and new views. Every day.

The best part of cooking in a bus has to be its mobility. There really is nothing that compares to cooking a really fantastic meal somewhere out in the wild. I’ve heard it said that we don’t actually go hiking to be in nature, we go hiking to eat food in beautiful places, and I think that this nomad lifestyle epitomizes that. Whether it’s a pasta dish by a gorgeous alpine lake, some canapes on the roof deck at sunset, or a six-course Spanish feast on a ridgeline overlooking a city, the location of a meal can completely change the experience.

The second best bit is undoubtedly the community. There is little better in this world than sharing a meal with new friends, and this lifestyle creates many opportunities to do just that. We are always moving, always meeting new friends, and as often as we can, sharing a drink or a meal and getting to know them. If you see us out there, flag us down and say hello, we’d love to share a table with you!

The limitations imposed on you by tiny cooking actually serve to make you a much better cook

Concessions make you more efficient

The worst part of buslife cooking has to be the dishes, but this problem is largely of our own design. We put in a tiny sink, too small for our cutting boards, and opted against hot water. Between these two decisions, we doubled the difficulty of our dish operation. Fortunately for me, Ayana does most of the dishes around here. I try to help out, especially when I’ve really made a mess cooking something complex, but she handles the brunt of it (yes, I put a ring on it). Particularly for some of our bigger events, like the aforementioned six-course Spanish meal, we can make quite a mess. I think that particular meal involved at least four rounds of dishes, and that’s excluding all of the prep cooking.

Now, cooking in a tiny kitchen can definitely be limiting, but there are advantages to it as well. It is easy to see the limited counter space, the small stove, and the tiny sink as big issues, but it also narrows your focus. In a kitchen this small, everything is always within reach (or at most a couple of steps), and I think that the limitations imposed on you by tiny cooking actually serve to make you a much better cook. When your resources are so limited, you are forced to plan better. You can’t get halfway through prepping the zucchini and then realize you need to slice the meat: the cutting board (and probably most of the counter) is already occupied. Little things like that, planning the correct order of operations before you get started, might seem simple, but getting in that habit makes you a much more effective cook no matter where you are.

Our kitchen was certainly one of the primary focuses in our build, but it is still very basic. We only have about one square foot of counter space, a tiny RV sink, and a three-burner propane cooktop. If we were doing it again, we might add an oven, and we’d definitely increase the size of the sink, but as you’ll see in the cookbook, we do quite well with what we have. All of that said, there are concessions that must be made with a tiny space like this. I swear by my immersion blender set, just a cheap blender/food processor/electric whisk, but its small size means that it does not compete with the sort of equipment that you find in a commercial kitchen. Stovetop baking and RV ovens are fantastic for most applications, but they are not as controlled or reliable as a standard oven. You can do a lot in a tiny kitchen, but it does certainly make some dishes much more difficult. You’re unlikely to see me trying souffles anytime soon.

Much of the best food in the world is made quickly and simply in very basic kitchens, and there are many new recipes, ingredients, and techniques to learn from these dishes.

Gourmet ≠ complex

I really don’t think that there is much that you can’t cook in a van or bus. A lot of the work comes in finding ways to skip unnecessary steps. As you get into it, you might be amazed at how many extra steps are taken and extra dirty dishes are created when recipes are developed in a standard kitchen, with lots of space, lots of cookware, and unlimited water. But there are some things that you just won’t want to make because of the complexity. If your favorite dishes all happen to fall into the incredibly complex category, I invite you to look at other opportunities and advantages that come with cooking on the road.

For example, use your newly limited kitchen to explore the cuisines of other cultures. There are many places in the world where an oven is a prohibitively expensive item for a lot of households — or where it is too hot to want to bake often. Much of the best food in the world is made quickly and simply in very basic kitchens, and there are many new recipes, ingredients, and techniques to learn from these dishes.

In general, food is undoubtedly one of the best parts of travel. Going someplace new and seeing what the locals eat is one of my greatest joys. While cuisines certainly vary less between US states than in, say, Europe or Southeast Asia, there are still always regional dishes and local produce. When you go out to eat, order something you haven’t heard of (or at least ask the server about it). And make sure to stop by farmer’s markets when you can to see what fruits and vegetables they enjoy locally that maybe you’ve never seen before.

You might be amazed at how many extra steps are taken and extra dirty dishes are created when recipes are developed in a standard kitchen

Some personal favorites?

It is always really difficult to pick favorite recipes, but I’ll give you three. All can be found, along with 100 others, in my cookbook The Buslife Kitchen — which means they're great for the road. 

↠ Sushi. While it can be difficult to source high-quality fish on the road, it is out there everywhere. And for some reason, eating a sushi feast out in the middle of the desert just hits differently. Ayana loves sushi, but it can be so expensive, and it is really surprisingly easy to make at home. Plus, if you can’t get good raw fish, there are still tons of rolls you can make. Three are listed in the book. 

↠ Mousse. At the end of the French section of the cookbook I have a recipe for mousse three ways, which ideally is served as a three-tiered parfait or strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla. Despite being three flavors, this dessert is incredibly easy to put together, and is a wonderful balance of light and decadent. 

↠ Salsa blanca. This white sauce was a staple at the Mexican restaurants where I grew up, in southeastern Virginia. If you want to run a successful Mexican restaurant in the Hampton Roads area, you have to have it, but no one else has ever heard of it. That said, it is always the favorite sample at events. Everyone who tastes it, loves it. At the last event it was described by one individual as “the best thing I have ever put in my mouth.” So, probably worth a try, right?

THE BUSLIFE KITCHEN

CUISINE FOR THE MODERN NOMAD

The Buslife Kitchen is the culmination of years of work and exploration. Through plenty of travel, many books, and countless hours in the kitchen, AJ taught himself about the foods of the world and how to prepare them. He then set about the task of refining these recipes for use in a tiny kitchen with only a 3-burner propane stove and no oven. And there you have it: cuisine for the modern nomad.

↠ 100+ recipes from 15+ cuisines (French, Mexican, Vietnamese, Italian, Thai, Chinese, and many more), for everyone and every occasion: steak au poivre, mapo tofu, chicken tinga, stovetop nachos, watermelon gazpacho, pumpkin creme brulee and many more.
↠ Stories and pro-tips gathered from converting our bus and learning to cook and live in less than 100 square feet.
↠ Beautiful, full-color photos showcasing the food and our life on the road.

GET THE BOOK

"Cooking on the road doesn’t have to be a choice between ramen or mac and cheese, you can still make some really fantastic food."

Cooking on the road doesn’t have to be a choice between ramen or mac and cheese, you can still make some really fantastic food. And after sharing a few fantastic meals with new friends in beautiful places, you might just find it hard to go back to sitting in a restaurant on the street somewhere. If you've been wanting to improve your tiny cooking game, consider getting the cookbook: you'll find 100 buslife-ready recipes as well as lots of photos, stories, and essays.

Good eating, and see you on the road!


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For your tiny kitchen

Our job is to research the everyday objects best suited for a daily life on the road — so you don't have to. Below is a selection of kitchen goods tested and vetted  by fellow nomads. You can find these and many more in our collections focused on tiny cooking:

Kitchen organization & storage • Tableware & kitchen utensils • Outdoor dinnerware • Glasses, cups & mugs • Outdoor cookware

Kitchen organization & storage

Space-optimized kitchen organizers and smart storage solutions

TIDYBOARD Meal Prep System

Tidyboard Meal Prep System
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TOMbag reusable garbage bag

TOMbag reusable garbage bag
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Porter Bags - Reusable Silicone Storage Bags

Reusable Silicone Storage Bags
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DIY Fruit hammock tutorial (free)

DIY Fruit hammock tutorial (free)
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Indoor & outdoor dinnerware

Well-designed tableware and kitchenware to cover all your kitchen needs — without sacrificing your precious space

Utensil Set

Reusable Utensil Set (8 colors)
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Barebones - Enamelware Dining Collection

Enamelware Dining Collection
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Collapsible silicon bowl with lid

Collapsible silicon bowl with lid
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Hand-painted enamel camp mug

Hand-painted enamel camp mug
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Campfire cookware

Because nothing beats a fire-cooked meal on a cozy camp night

All-in-one Cast Iron Grill

All-in-one Cast Iron Grill
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Campfire Pot

Campfire Pot
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Classic Dutch Oven

Classic Dutch Oven
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Fire Pit Grill Grate

Fire Pit Grill Grate
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MORE COOKBOOKS FOR THE ROAD

Cookbooks from nomadic chefs inspired by the outdoors

Cooking Tiny: A vegan cookbook for nomadic souls - Alexandra Tsuneta, Erik Tsuneta, Tina Lugo

Cooking Tiny: A vegan cookbook for nomadic souls - Alexandra Tsuneta
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The New Camp Cookbook - Linda Ly and Will Taylor

The New Camp Cookbook - Linda Ly and Will Taylor
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Trail Meals Cookbook - Wander Edition

Trail Meals Cookbook - Wander Edition
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LUNCH! - Olivia Mack McCool

LUNCH! - Olivia Mack McCool
View product


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