April 19, 2024

When it comes to road tripping, adventurers are going beyond trail mix and jerky to fuel up.

Ayana Otteman and A.J. Forget enjoy homemade sushi on a cliff edge outside Bishop, Calif. in April 2021. (A.J. Forget/Courtesy photo)

Life on America’s highways and backroads offers satisfying views and equally fulfilling homemade meals, if you know your way around an abbreviated version of a home kitchen.

Boulder couple A.J. Forget and Ayana Otteman embarked on a journey in April 2020 and have since been posting up at national parks, campgrounds and the occasional Cracker Barrel parking lot.

Forgoing fast food and freeze-dried fare, Forget took advantage of the three burners in the duo’s refurbished, short school bus — named Sweet Bea — that they outfitted themselves.

Under pastel desert skies and by salty coasts, he crafts everything from refreshing watermelon gazpacho to stovetop nachos in less than 100 square feet of living space.

Forget fused his love of the open road and flavorful eats with a cookbook entitled, “The Buslife Kitchen.” Funded by an extremely successful Kickstarter campaign, the project gained speed rather quickly with the goal of $10,000 being surpassed.

While recipes are designed to be crafted while on wheels, they truly can be enjoyed on the grid as well. Offering a mix of super-easy dishes to throw together post-hike and more elaborate ones to dive into when energy and time allow, the book offers the perfect mix of mouthwatering fare.

The e-book  ($17) is currently available at TheBuslifeKitchen.com. Folks can also pre-order a paperback copy ($22), which is expected to be released in July. Also on the site is an array of “Buslife Kitchen” swag from tanks and T-shirts to enamel camping mugs.

A.J. Forget roasts a turkey breast on the stovetop for the couple’s first Thanksgiving in the bus, in Joshua Tree, Calif., in November 2020. (Ayana Otteman/Courtesy photo)

Forget previously worked as a wildland firefighter for the National Park Service, based mostly out of Rocky Mountain National Park. During that time, he put away money that has acted as a bit of a nest egg — allowing him to devote time to this book venture.

Otteman, a jeweler, currently works as a nanny for the Venardos Circus — a troupe of acrobats and magic-makers that are set to roll into Longmont in late April. After Otteman got the unique job offer from a magician friend, she and Forget decided to follow the big top to various locales and have been doing so for the past seven months.

We caught up with the roving couple to find out more about what inspired Forget’s love of cooking, how traveling has brought about a slew of untapped ingredients and the underrated significance of sharing a meal with strangers and friends in the great outdoors.

Kalene McCort: Love the diversity of recipes this cookbook offers. What would you say sparked your interest in the culinary arts?

A.J. Forget: I have enjoyed cooking for about as long as I was able to reach the stovetop. My father and my older brothers were all great cooks, so I grew up in a household where good food was something that was really valued. Back when I could barely see the stovetop, and the only thing I knew how to cook was bacon and eggs, I was always eager to cook up a meal for whatever friends were over. For me, there is little in life as wonderful as sitting down to a really excellent meal with people I love, and it is doubly wonderful if I prepared it. But another part of why I learned to cook is that being broke is a lot more enjoyable if you have some skill in the kitchen. We love to eat, and to eat really good food, but restaurants are expensive.

Back in college, when I was really broke, I realized that it doesn’t take a lot of money to eat really well if you are willing to do the work yourself. A lot of the best dishes out there are made with simple, cheap ingredients, and all you need to make them is a willingness to play around and learn a few things. I am thankfully not as broke as I was back then, but the kitchen skills I picked up over the years still serve me well.

Living in the bus, whenever possible, we like to be way out there camping somewhere beautiful. In those settings — be it the heart of the desert or high up in the mountains — there aren’t a lot of good food options aside from what we make ourselves. Fortunately, with a bit of planning ahead of time and the recipes that I’ve put together in this book, just about anything we want to eat we can make in our tiny kitchen.

Ayana Otteman holds out an ahi shoyu poke bowl at Fossil Falls, Inyo County, Calif., in March 2021. (A.J. Forget/Courtesy photo)

KM: Do you guys find yourselves hitting up local farmers markets and buying organic produce, meat and other goods from local purveyors and, does what’s in season play a role in what is plated up?

Ayana Otteman: As much as I love the romantic notion of hitting up a local farmers market and ogling over fresh produce…I actually hate grocery shopping. I am certainly a little embarrassed to admit this, but I find the whole process dull and overwhelming. Most times I accompany Andy to a local market or to the grocery store, I end up perusing the hot sauces, the pickles and the booze, while he does the heavy lifting.

AF: We love to shop seasonally and regionally as much as we can. Or, I guess I’m the only one enjoying the shopping part. But we both do enjoy eating regionally and seasonally, at least. Finding new ingredients to work with is my absolute favorite thing, and it is certainly one of the joys of living on the road.

While it can seem at times like the food of our country is pretty homogenous, there is still a lot of variety in regional ingredients and cuisines. No matter where you are in this country, there is something unique and wonderful to the local food scene, whether we’re talking about a known favorite like Maine lobster or more of a hidden gem like the datil peppers of St. Augustine (Florida). There is always something wonderful to discover if you know where to look.

KM: I understand you recently surpassed your Kickstarter goal that will cover the cost of printing. Congrats. Were you surprised with the level of support that poured in from folks all over?

AF: This Kickstarter campaign has truly been a life-changing experience for me. I have been working on this project for several years, and during that time I received a lot of good feedback, but there was definitely still a part of me that was afraid this crowdfunding campaign would be a complete flop. Instead, we reached our first funding goal in under a week.

By the end of the campaign, we had exceeded that initial goal by 54{b930f8fc61da1f29cba34a8cbe30670691f63878f9c98a2d7d5d6527da1fb8f3}. Around 300 copies of the book have already sold to people in at least 15 different countries. But, most importantly, the personal messages that I’ve received have been just so kind and enthusiastic. I really could not have anticipated this level of support and excitement, and I am completely overwhelmed with gratitude.

The cover of A.J Forget’s cookbook “The Buslife Kitchen.” The publication features over 100 original recipes inspired by international cuisine and more. Forget and his girlfriend Ayana Otteman travel the country in a converted school bus. (Illustration by Philippe Willis of Our Numinous Nature)

KM: I imagine it’s hard to narrow down, but are there a few favorite dishes in “The Buslife Kitchen” that you’d consider stand-outs?

AO: Although I don’t enjoy the shopping process, I definitely enjoy the taste-testing process. Over the last two years I have had the pleasure of tasting all the recipes in “The Buslife Kitchen” — some of them many times over. It is certainly hard to narrow down, but here are a few faves you won’t want to miss. Baking is something that I love, and figuring out how to do it in the bus was a challenge.

When Andy mastered the recipe for this stovetop focaccia, I was so excited. It’s a perfect appetizer or side dish for any meal. Rajas con crema are delightful vegetarian tacos featuring beautifully blistered poblano peppers that pack the perfect punch. I’m such a sucker for a good poke bowl, and the cubed beets in the vegan poke bowl are a perfect stand-in for raw fish. After I ate this for the first time, I said I could eat it for every meal…and although Andy wouldn’t quite sign on to that, it has certainly become a go-to in the bus.

I didn’t know much about Hawaiian cuisine before Andy started testing these recipes out, but that section — and the Huli Huli chicken — quickly became one of my faves. Something about grilled pineapple, sweet-glazed chicken and mac salad creates the perfect dinner plate. We shared this meal while on the road with some buslife friends and everyone was raving about it.

The rajas con crema dish from A.J. Forget’s cookbook “The Buslife Kitchen.” (A.J. Forget/Courtesy photo)

There’s also the pumpkin crème brulée –– how can you not want to blow torch a dessert? Pumpkin pie has been my favorite for a long time, but having the spiced pumpkin flavor in a custard with a caramelized sugar top is next level.

KM: What are you hoping your book brings to the lives of buyers and, can we expect any in-person book signings or cooking demos this year?

AF: One of the greatest joys of travel is sharing a drink or a meal with new friends. Living in the bus and traveling full-time, we have met some really amazing people and have had the joy of inviting them over for dinner or a rooftop happy hour and getting to know them.

My hope is that this book will create an invitation for many more such meals and friendships. There is an ancient altruism to the sharing of food, and it is one of the greatest tools we have for bridging gaps between people.

Whether we’re talking about learning about a new cuisine and culture from visiting an unfamiliar restaurant — or cooking one of their recipes — or just inviting over the new neighbors for a barbecue, the sharing of food is a universally important tradition and one that we could all probably do with a bit more of.

The bus “Sweet Bea,” owned by A.J. Forget and Ayana Otteman, parked near the Kelbaker boulders in Mojave National Preserve, Calif., in January 2021. (A.J. Forget/Courtesy photo)

As far as in-person events, all that I have planned right now are a couple of vanlife/buslife gatherings. We will be at Descend on Bend in Oregon in August and Skooliepalooza in Arizona in January 2023. But the door is certainly open. I would love to do an event at the Boulder Book Store, but nothing is planned yet. And if you happen to find us in the woods somewhere, I’ll be happy to sign a book, give you a cooking demonstration and invite you over for supper. Following us on social media is definitely the best way to keep up with events that we’re planning.

Front Range traveler pens cookbook for the modern nomad with ‘Buslife Kitchen’