Meet Jesse Houston, The Overland Chef: An Experienced Chef’s Guide to Cooking in the Great Outdoors – Everything You Need to Know from Meal Prep to Cooking Tools
So, it’s little surprise that camp cooking is such an important part of the overland experience.
For me, meals in remote and scenic locations are often dreamt about as much if not more than the trail itself.
The time passes quickly when I’m plotting ways to hang trussed chicken or lengthy bone-in cowboy ribeye steaks over a live fire, what rubs and seasonings to use, or whether or not to baste with butter and foraged herbs.
Meet the Cook
I was born in Orange County, California and raised in Texas. My father was the quintessential outdoorsman and surfer dude, having access to Pacific Coast beaches and the bounty of national parks and forests within such close proximity.
When he packed the family and our belongings up and drove to Texas (O.G. overland) to start a more affordable life for us, he had to give a lot of those things up, but his spirit of adventure never left.
As a kid I remember taking quick weekend camping trips to parks in Oklahoma, east Texas and Arkansas in the bed of my dad’s 1990 Toyota single cab, long bed pick-up truck outfitted with a camper shell, roof rack and carpeted bed with built in storage boxes (like I said, my dad was overland and didn’t even know it).
We slept in tents, sometimes cabins, enjoyed fishing on the river, campfire stories, and cans of Dinty Moore beef stew cooked on a classic Coleman stove. To this day, Dinty Moore brings back plenty of comforting memories of these trips.
Fast forward 20 years and I’m a culinary school trained professional chef, working my butt off sun up to sun down in restaurant kitchens that I’ve designed… and I have barely seen a tree that wasn’t landscaped or a mountain that wasn’t a pile of dishes.
I would order in fish from beaches I haven’t walked, truffles and mushrooms from woods I haven’t explored and wild game from lands I’ve never heard of… but I could make them delicious.
Almost another decade passes, before I begin to recognize and put a name to the feeling welling up inside of me as wanderlust. Awards, accolades, and best restaurant titles seem to matter less and less when life doesn’t exist outside of 4 windowless FRP-lined kitchen walls.
I purchased an old 1999 Toyota 4Runner to replace the sporty European cars I’ve been driving for the last 15 years as an excuse, an attempt, to force myself to get out and explore. And although I am married to the restaurant life and long, exhausting hours, I was able to climb into the truck from time to time and disappear. I could escape the burnout of cooking for hundreds of anonymous diners night after night and enjoy the feeling of cooking something slowly, with love, for me.
Learning to Overland
I had no idea how to “overland”, no clue how to use 4×4 or what to prepare for… but I had a cheap pop-up tent, a cast iron skillet and I knew how to get a fire going and how to cook.
I threw what I had in the back of the rig and drove to a nearby campsite to figure it out. Each time I was able to escape the restaurant world and get into nature with my truck, I was able to learn a little bit more about what gear I needed, how to improve my camp cooks, how to get off-road, what to pack, and what worked and didn’t work. Even better, I got to learn more about myself.
Insert record scratching noise now before this gets too emotional.
Enough about me and my history, let’s get into what you are all really here for – A Chef’s Guide to Outdoor Cooking.
We all have to eat at some point on our trips and adventures, so let’s make it fun, easy and delicious!
Planning Your Meals
While planning your next big trip, plan your meals around the time you will spend at the campsite or on the trail.
- How many days and nights will you spend?
- Will you cook every meal or will there be moments where you just need to eat without the hassle of cooking?
- Breakfast, lunch and dinner?
- What will the weather be like?
- Are there farmers’ markets or grocery stores nearby or will you be completely off the grid with only what you take with you?
- How many people are you cooking for?
After answering these important questions, you can plan your meals.
- Are there ingredients that can be shared across several meals?
- Cross-utilization can help save space in your cooler and storage.
- What ingredients need to be refrigerated and what can be stored at room temperature?
Sometimes it’s fun to let the location inspire your cooking.
- Can wild herbs or mushrooms be foraged?
- Will you be fishing or hunting?
- I love to plan out several meals ahead of time, but also enjoy at least one spontaneous cook with what is available locally to help keep me creative. These are often the best meals.
To make things easy on yourself, you can always prep things ahead of time, from basic vegetable chopping, to entire meal prep.
I love the act of doing most of the prep and cooking on site, but sometimes that just isn’t sustainable, especially on long trips. Having several items already prepared can help save space as well, which is always at a premium.
Here are some meal prep ideas:
- Mince your own garlic and have it ready to spoon out of a small container.
- Make braised short ribs or pot roast at home. Cool them down and pack it up in storage containers or even better, vacuum seal them.
- Marinade or rub meats down ahead of time.
- Pickle fruits or vegetables.
- Prep stew or chili or soup. These can be stored in containers or even frozen and vacuum sealed.
- Make your own beef jerky.
- Prepare a large batch of granola.
- Batch several jars of yogurt with fruit.
- Pre-cook a homemade mac & cheese. Package it in a foil pan to throw on the grill.
- Sandwiches, sandwiches, sandwiches – from the ordinary to the gourmet, from breakfast to grilled cheese.
Keep a well-stocked pantry.
I always have a basic pantry pre-packed in storage boxes, ingredients that can keep at room temperature and are the building blocks of great cooking.
Here are a handful of must-have ingredients:
- Kosher salt
- A peppermill
- Olive oil
- Apple cider vinegar
- Hot sauce
- Worcestershire sauce
- Dried herbs, spices, and rubs
Whether you have a fancy mobile fridge or a simple cooler with ice, these basic ingredients have a long shelf life on them as long as they are kept refrigerated.
- Lard or Tallow
- Fresh Herbs (I can’t leave home without fresh thyme and bay leaves)
Fresh produce is always essential to good cooking, and most of it can be left with your room temperature pantry supplies if your cooler or fridge is full of perishables.
You’ll never catch me without fresh…
- Garlic (use fresh and skip the minced stuff in a jar if you can help it)
- Any kind of potato (russets, sweet potatoes, new or fingerling potatoes)
Tools of the Cooking Trade
Mise en place is a French culinary term for having everything you need in its proper place, ready to go, so that you can execute your cooking efficiently and effectively.
It’s exactly the same as your road trip checklist – gas in the tank, air in the tires, the recovery gear you pack and pray you never have to use. Mise en place can be your tongs, spatula and chef’s knife, the ingredients you plan to cook with, your kitchen towels to handle hot objects and to clean up after yourself.
I always pack the following tools:
- A chef’s knife (Messermeister)
- A solid wood cutting board (Kong Boards)
- A food-safe plastic cutting board for raw meat
- Wooden spoons
- Tongs (Oxo)
- A fish spatula (high heat)
- A rubber spatula
- A whisk
- A ladle
- A basting brush
- Butcher twine
- A thermometer
- Kitchen towels
- Sanitizing wipes
- Nylon gloves
- Cast iron pans and Dutch oven (Stargazer and Lodge)
- A grill grate (Barebones)
- Charcoal (Jealous Devil)
- A charcoal starter
- A propane torch
The last thing you want on the trail or out in the wilderness is a preventable food-borne illness.
Getting sick could ruin weeks or months of planning and preparation, so why even chance it. In my restaurants, I have a strict health code to abide by and you can absolutely apply it to your camp cooking.
Here are some tips for safe cooking outside:
- Always wash your hands before and after handling your food. I bring along a portable water container with a spigot as well as hand soap and sanitizer. It’s always a good practice to wash your hands and “running” water is easy to obtain with a RotopaX, jerry can or WaterPort.
- Avoid cross-contamination of raw proteins on anything in your cooler that is ready to eat such as an apple, a sandwich or even bottled water or beer. Ice is also considered ready-to-eat food, so make sure the ice that might be keeping those marinated chicken wings cold isn’t going to wind up in your cocktail. Store raw meats on the bottom and if you can, use dividers to help keep things separate.
- Take temperatures of your food, hot AND cold. I always pack a thermometer with me. Sometimes I use it to make sure I’ve cooked my chicken to the right temperature (165 degrees), that my roast is medium rare (125 degrees) that my pre-cooked mac & cheese has been reheated to the proper temperature to kill bacteria (165 degrees) or that things in my cooler or fridge are cold enough that they won’t breed anything harmful (41 degrees or colder). Just always make sure to sanitize your thermometer in between uses.
Tips for safe cooking continued…
- Time and temperature can be dangerous when abused. Don’t leave any food out for longer than 4 hours or it can begin to breed bacteria, let alone attract flies or other unwanted creatures (trash pandas and big ole bear types). Another way to abuse time and temperature is by putting a lid on something hot when you are trying to put it away, or by putting hot leftovers in your cooler. Adding a lid to cover up something hot will slow down its ability to cool down, and placing hot food into your cooler or fridge could cause everything else in the cooler to warm up. Let it cool to at least “room temp” before storing it.
- Use a separate cutting board for raw meats. I always pack two cutting boards, one heavy-duty wooden board for chopping vegetables, and one food-safe plastic cutting board for preparing raw meat. The plastic cutting board can easily be washed, cleaned and sanitized afterward.
- Clean up after yourself, sanitize all your surfaces with a spray or wipe and then please, please wash your filthy hands again.
- Practicing these very basic food safety tips will help keep you safe and healthy out there.
Everyone has a different style of camping, off-roading and overlanding.
My way works for me and for what I love. As a tenured and educated professional chef I hope that I can help make camp cooking a fun, creative and exciting part of the overall experience for others with this guide and more to come.
Stay tuned as we dive deeper into the gear that I love to bring along, where you can find it, how to use it, and how well it holds up to the rigors of traveling off the beaten path.