Out There: Chef Lee Kalpakis's New Cookbook is a Pocket Guide for Gourmet Outdoor Living | Features | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
click to enlarge Out There: Chef Lee Kalpakis's New Cookbook is a Pocket Guide for Gourmet Outdoor Living
Two whole chickens with dipping sauce

In her new book, Hudson Valley chef, recipe developer, and author Lee Kalpakis shares her minimalist approach to creating gourmet delights gleaned from two years of Catskills camper living.

There’s a romance to the idea of leaving it all behind: setting up a camper in the woods, cooking on an open fire under the stars, and taking in the calm and quiet countryside. In practice, however, it’s less precious of a lifestyle. The mosquitos alone are enough to throw in the towel after a week or two. But Lee Kalpakis and her partner, Sean Cynamon, gave it a go in 2022 while building a house together on the outskirts of the Catskills.

click to enlarge Out There: Chef Lee Kalpakis's New Cookbook is a Pocket Guide for Gourmet Outdoor Living
Kalpakis's first cookbook, Out There: A Camper Cookbook (Weldon Owen), is now for sale.

Kalpakis, a food stylist, recipe developer, and chef, and Cynamon, a builder, documented the good, the bad, and the buggy on social media. Eventually, the niche gourmet-gone-minimalist recipes Kalpakis would cook in their tiny kitchen or over an open campfire appealed to scores of followers and caught the attention of a cookbook publisher. Two years later, Kalpakis’ first book, Out There: A Camper Cookbook: Recipes from the Wild (Weldon Owen), is now available for purchase.

Out There is a book of recipes for small-kitchen cooking and open-fire cooking,” Kalpakis explains. “I see this book as my way of taking what I’ve learned and making it accessible for anyone living in a tiny home, with a small kitchen space, or just who are interested in open-fire cooking. They’re not your typical campfire burgers, s’mores, hotdogs—there’s so much more that can be done with just the basic tools.”

click to enlarge Out There: Chef Lee Kalpakis's New Cookbook is a Pocket Guide for Gourmet Outdoor Living
Bacon, eggs, and beans

The book includes 75 recipes divided among eight categories: breakfast, on the grill, one-pot meals, backpack recipes, salads, sweets, open-fire projects, and canteen cocktails. The breadth of options and gourmet flavors reveals Kalpakis’s extensive experience in the food industry as a cooking show host, recipe developer, culinary producer, assistant food stylist, and private chef, having worked for the likes of Bon Appetit, Epicurious, Delish, Food52, The Kitchn, and other top brands. She is also the culinary director at Camp Kingston.

But, the truly distinctive part is where her recipes are pared down to the simplest prep and cooking methods, as she needed to do to accommodate living in a 22-foot 1976 Fleetwood Prowler—the type of camper often lovingly referred to as a “canned ham.”

You’ll find recipes that sound straight out of a five-star restaurant, like sumac-rubbed chicken wings with charred green onion dipping sauce or raspberry buttermilk breakfast cake; but also easy delights begging to be snacked on a hiking trail, like spiced honey-roasted peanut granola.

click to enlarge Out There: Chef Lee Kalpakis's New Cookbook is a Pocket Guide for Gourmet Outdoor Living
Apple tart with brown butter crust

“My favorite things to cook can be broken down to two categories,” she explains. “One, I love a longer cooking project that takes more time and more care, where you slowly feed the fire, like the five-spice rib recipe in the book. Or, cooking a whole chicken, which takes three to four hours over a campfire, but it’s fun because in the meantime you’re in the woods hanging with buddies, maybe drinking beers, checking the chicken—I love that process. But, on the other hand, sometimes I want something simple and easy. Someone who wants to start small might like recipes that are just little exciting variations on a classic, like hotdogs with fried leeks and sauerkraut or this fun twist on dessert: I’m not personally a huge s’more fan because I find the chocolate too sweet, but if you swap the chocolate with lemon curd, your little s’more suddenly tastes like lemon meringue pie.”

The book wouldn’t be complete without a section on outfitting a tiny kitchen with the essential tools—cast iron, of course, but also consider an easy-to-store immersion blender—and basic pantry necessities—spices, sauces, syrup, and so on—to make country living a little tastier.

“As a food stylist, sometimes you get high-end stuff from set or as gifts, and you’re always learning about these fun luxury appliances, so we had a lot of that extra stuff in the city because we lived in an industrial loft with a lot of space and room for all of these things,” she explains. “In the book, I talk about having to put these tools and appliances in storage while living in the camper, which made me realize that I didn't really need a lot of it. It wasn’t a bummer to live without these things, it was more exciting to take on the challenge of seeing if I could make these really satisfying meals with just a knife, a cutting board, and a fire.”

click to enlarge Out There: Chef Lee Kalpakis's New Cookbook is a Pocket Guide for Gourmet Outdoor Living
Cooler gravlax

So, what sparked the lifestyle change? Both natives of the region—Kalpakis from Olivebridge; Cynamon from Hurley—the couple lived the fast-paced city life for more than a decade until the pandemic forced a breather that was just enough time to make them nostalgic for the open space and quietude found in the Hudson Valley.

“We came up for two weeks during the pandemic and just ended up staying,” she says. “We talked about moving back to the Hudson Valley, but the market had changed drastically, especially since we were kids,” Kalpakis says. But since Cynamon is an experienced carpenter, with experience building sets for HBO as well as houses, the couple decided to purchase a property and build their own home. “We figured we could stay on-site in a camper while building,” she says. “We’ve had some help here or there but it’s been mainly the two of us—and a lot of learning for me. I was really homesick for everything up here and just always felt this pull back to the area, and he wanted it too, so we went for it.”

click to enlarge Out There: Chef Lee Kalpakis's New Cookbook is a Pocket Guide for Gourmet Outdoor Living
Kalpakis cooking in the woods over an open fire.

While sharing Instagram updates on the house, cooking, and country life in general, Kalpakis amassed a following and Food52 reached out to do an interview, which then led to a literary agent asking if she’d be interested in making a cookbook. “I was so excited that people found what I was doing to be fun and interesting. I had no idea it could lead to this, it’s still pretty crazy,” she says. “And even more so, because I tried to keep it real—to show that this lifestyle isn’t always easy.”

Kalpakis had no qualms with highlighting the unpolished side of living in the Catskills woods, where her closest neighbors were often black bears, coyotes, and fishers, among other four-legged creatures. “One morning at 7am I woke up to my dog Mack barking like crazy, and I just thought it was because sometimes the deer sleep openly on the property,” she explains. “I looked outside to see what was probably about a 250-pound feral pig, with hair and everything, lounging and eating our blueberry bushes. It was wild to see. I love being around all this nature, but it means that sometimes you’re dealing with baby raccoons in garbage, or one time a chipmunk got in the camper. And winter can be brutal; we got so much snow one year. It’s a different way of living in harmony with nature that builds character and grit.”

As of publication, the house is nearly finished and the pair are officially living inside. The camper, now closed up, is still on the property until they decide its next purpose. “We’re not sure yet—it might make a fun guest home, but right now, we’re just so excited to have our house,” she says. “The camper served its purpose and allowed us to do incredible things in this pivotal point of our lives. In the Catskills we’ll always have bears, snow, mosquitoes, but it’s all a part of the beauty of the experience of living out here.”

On June 29, Kalpakis will host a three-course dinner featuring locally grown ingredients prepared over an open fire at “Out There: An Open Fire Dinner Party” held at Autocamp Catskills. The event includes snacks and a cocktail before dinner, a selection of natural wine for the table at mealtime, and family-style dining by the property’s pond. Tickets are available online.

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