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!
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 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.
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 ≠ complexI 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.
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!
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
Space-optimized kitchen organizers and smart storage solutions
Tidyboard Meal Prep System
TOMbag reusable garbage bag
Reusable Silicone Storage Bags
DIY Fruit hammock tutorial (free)
Indoor & outdoor dinnerware
Well-designed tableware and kitchenware to cover all your kitchen needs — without sacrificing your precious space
Reusable Utensil Set (8 colors)
Enamelware Dining Collection
Collapsible silicon bowl with lid
Hand-painted enamel camp mug
Because nothing beats a fire-cooked meal on a cozy camp night
All-in-one Cast Iron Grill
Classic Dutch Oven
Fire Pit Grill Grate
MORE COOKBOOKS FOR THE ROAD
Cookbooks from nomadic chefs inspired by the outdoors
Travel Cook Double Pack | The Small Kitchen Cook + Fire to Fork
The New Camp Cookbook - Linda Ly and Will Taylor
Trail Meals Cookbook - Wander Edition
Cooking Tiny: A vegan cookbook for nomadic souls - Alexandra Tsuneta