IIs there anything more quaint in 2020 than touring the UK in a self-refurbished van, looking for or wasting your food everywhere and cooking it together over an open fire (or more specifically, a two-burner gas hob)? It’s the dream of every full-time worker in the city.
Well, chefs Danny Jack and Hailee Kukura did it, and they’ve also written a handy pocket-sized guide so you can too, filled with “imaginative recipes for life on the go.”
What started as a search for more meaningful ways to spend their free time between busy careers has grown into a decade-long DIY project that finally came to fruition in the summer of 2020 — conveniently just as all the other pandemic prisoners were turning their attention to the long-forgotten staycation.
Now staycations are back in fashion, you’ll want to get your hands on them too Vanlife Cookbookin which Jack and Kukura have distilled their many trips across the country – and even the US – into more than 80 RV-friendly recipes as well as tips, tricks, and kitchen hacks and every possible list you need.
Comforting breakfasts, quick lunches, and fireside feasts (think tahini porridge and Turkish one-pan eggs, wintergreen minestrone, grilled fish packets, and homemade trail mixes), van life is a celebration of the unexpected possibilities that modest spaces and smaller budgets can offer.
Before the busy school holiday season, we catch five minutes with the van virtuosos as they rediscover the simple pleasures of life in the great outdoors.
How did van life start?
Danni: Having lived and worked in London since 2011, I started looking for more meaningful ways to spend my free time and was inspired by campervan videos I made myself and people’s stories on Youtube. These offered a new home improvement challenge as well as an economical alternative to buying a purpose built RV or RV.
The appeal of an impromptu city escape vehicle grew quickly and in early 2018, after purchasing a 2011 Renault Master, van building began. What started as a part-time evenings and weekends project grew into a two-year on-and-off program, adapting to work commitments, eventually making it across the finish line in 2020.
Haile: The idea of Vanlife Cookbook came into being in the summer of 2020 when we both needed a creative project to hold on to. Danny finished the build; I painted a mural inside and we gave the van a name Jean Claude van Dan (JC short). JC came into its own later that year, giving us an essential space to breathe a little, get away from nature and catch up with friends and family when we could.
It was that summer, when travel restrictions were eased, that really ignited our passion for exploring and embracing the principles of van living: eat well, appreciate nature more deeply, live simply and frugally, and celebrate “the good life” that to the idea led to the book.
The pandemic has created a new, simpler way of life, with an emphasis on staying and shopping locally. Do you think this mindset will stay?
Of course we hope so. Van life and small space living are great for that. We see people from all walks of life finding inspiration to bake, grow their own veggies, start foraging, consume differently, and generally feel more connected to the food they eat and nature. We particularly like @_spicymoustache_, who is doing amazing things in his humble garden in London, and @lagomchef, who is campaigning against food waste – another mindset that is thankfully gaining momentum.
What are some of your favorite places or routes in the UK?
Ashdown Forest is a regular favourite. It is close to where we live in South East London and has beautiful views with a mix of expansive fields and woodland. Ideal for bike rides and picnics with friends.
Wiltshire is a hidden gem with its pagan sites and rolling hills (lots of wild bathing spots too).
And if you have time, the North Coast 500 route in the Scottish Highlands is one of the best. The Right to Roam Act, which gives everyone the freedom to move anywhere, is something very special.
Let’s get practical. Can you share with us your top three tips, your top three ingredients, and your top three gear?
1. Danny taught me the importance of always putting a tea towel or damp paper under the cutting board. Makes a big difference when preparing ingredients.
2. Download the Park4Nite app.
3. Invest in a small, sturdy coffee maker or teapot. It’s often a lot nicer than tea bags, you can make your own blends and it saves packaging and money in the long run.
The three most important ingredients must be:
1. Soy sauce for instant umami flavor at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
2. Citrus fruits for their versatility.
3. Date Syrup for a rich, flavorful alternative to refined sugar.
The top 3 must have equipment items:
1. A portable camp stove or grill is key – we always cook outside of the van on long summer evenings. Check out JoyStoves on @joystoveuk.
2. A cast iron skillet. It will last a lifetime and makes cooking over fire so much easier.
3. Tongs for grilling, mixing and serving all kinds of delicious creations.
Cooking with fire can be intimidating. What’s your best advice?
This is where the cast iron skillet comes into play. Start with a dish you’re familiar with and don’t be afraid to place your pan directly on a hot bed of embers (away from the flames) and cook as you normally would on a stovetop. If you’re grilling over charcoal on a grill, allow the coals to turn ash gray before putting anything on top – it takes longer than you think to get to this stage!
Can you share any horror stories/failures and what you learned from them?
Many lessons learned. A few years ago we went on a surf trip to Devon with some friends. We stayed at a beautiful campsite and parked JC at the foot of a steep meadow. We had heavy rain over the weekend and got stuck at the bottom – we had to ask the local farmer to tow us up the hill on his tractor. This taught us to be a little more careful when parking and not to go off-road with our (rear-wheel drive) van.
What’s the best way to find out about local ingredients and suppliers?
We pack essentials for the back pantry—things like rice, pasta, and spices—but make it a point to visit farm shops for our fresh ingredients. There’s always more than you think; even if it’s just a small business that sells freshly laid eggs from the farm or potatoes straight from the field. From our experience it is not more expensive and the ride adds so much more joy to your weekend or holiday than having to spend time in a big supermarket.
How much do you rely on foraging and how might a beginner start?
We never rely solely on foraging for our meals – finding wild ingredients is always a bonus and adds an interesting and flavorful dimension to all types of dishes. Always buy a travel guide and never an app. The Collin Eat for free Book is pocket sized and quite extensive.
We always look forward to March when wild garlic appears. Makes great pestos and soups. Rose hips in the fall are awesome for beginners, too – we have a recipe in our book for making a vitamin C-rich liqueur that’s perfect for the winter months.
What’s your dream road trip if you haven’t done it yet?
Haile: We’ve dreamed of doing a road trip through Europe for a long time. The Portuguese coast and Scandinavia are at the top of our list and an epic 2023 adventure is calling.
Danni: In early April this year, we visited Hailee’s family in the Pacific Northwest and rented a van for a week. We drove through Washington State, Idaho and Oregon in just under a week. It would be wonderful to have a few more months and spend a little longer exploring Utah, Colorado and the Southwest region.
You cook for a crowd during one of your trips. What do you do?
Our campsite breakfasts are a firm favourite. We cooked for 12 friends from our tiny van kitchen a few years ago at the Wilderness Festival. A large one-pan omelette with lots of eggs, leftover veggies, some new potatoes, and a drizzle of chili sauce on the side never fails.
What’s one simple dish that you keep coming back to?
Our tofu scrambled egg recipe in the book. It’s easier than it sounds – just shred up some tofu and stir-fry with some ginger and turmeric. Serve with some leftover brown rice and all the fresh vegetables needed for a satisfying meal any time of the day.
Danny, you come from a kitchen background. How easy it was to adapt to a simpler way of cooking?
I’m still working as a professional chef – being in the van is free time so I don’t want to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. The recipes we prepare along the way are usually the quickest route to a tasty and nutritious meal, but they’re always prepared from scratch using the best ingredients we can get our hands on. That’s the way we usually like to eat, and hopefully that ‘fix-and-fix’ approach to cooking is reflected in our recipes, or for anyone with a modest kitchen who wants to pick up a few tips and tricks.
What can you not do without on one of your trips?
Haile: Must be our large tartan picnic blanket. We bought it from a vintage shop in Edinburgh and it has seen us through many picnics, parties and BBQs in all sorts of places.
Danni: Our 12 volt refrigerator keeps our food and drinks chilled and fresh even on the hottest summer days. And a set of sturdy reusable wine glasses.
Van Life Cookbook: Resourceful Recipes for Life on the Road: From Small Spaces to the Great Outdoors by Danny Jack and Hailee Kukura (Published by Pavilion Books; Photography by Holly Farrier) is available now. Follow the journey @the_vanlifecookbook.