Once, while renovating a big old house in Detroit, I subsisted on pizza, Pringles, peanut butter and jelly, and M&Ms. (And bourbon.) My body did not thank me. Which is why, looking ahead to my next project—a kitchen refresh in my new place in Louisville, Kentucky—I turned to Jess Dang, a professional Bay Area meal planner who recently completed a major kitchen reno herself, for tips on not only surviving, but thriving.
Go, go gadget kitchen!
According to Dang, who moved culinary operations to her garage, even the snobbiest of food snobs can get by with an arsenal of small appliances. Her lineup included an induction burner, toaster oven, slow cooker, air fryer, rice cooker, and her personal favorite, an induction hot plate. “Anything you can cook on a stovetop you can cook on a hot plate,” she says. “You’re paying a lot of money for a kitchen. It’s worth the $50.” Use yours to whip up a shortcut take on Bon Appetit's tortilla soup, using leftover rotisserie chicken and store-bought tortilla chips.
Dang also loved her air fryer, though. It’s a device that sounds too good to be true, except it’s totally legit. This gadget fries basically anything, minus the buckets of oil (you only need a teaspoon, or less). Forget mushy microwaved frozen cauliflower. Throw it in the air fryer and watch perfectly cooked, golden brown—and healthy!—florets emerge. Then toss those crisp beauties with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and you’ve got garage kitchen perfection. (Also amazing in here: Trader Joe’s crinkle-cut squash and shaved Brussels sprouts.)
The Dang family's standby meal was salmon marinated in balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and seasonings, air-fried whole while asparagus roasted in the toaster oven and farro simmered in the rice cooker. Steal this template (fried protein + toaster-oven roasted vegetable + grain) for infinite possibilities, using Dang’s handy infographic of whole grains you can throw in a rice cooker.
As far as pots and pans go, Dang says the ideal edit is one non-stick pan (so you can make eggs for breakfast) and a pot or wok big enough to make soups or simple pastas.
Curate your "pantry"
True story: You don’t need the entire contents of your kitchen to serve up a stellar dinner. Grab just your go-to condiments—think vinegar, olive oil, hot sauce, and soy sauce—and your most beloved spices (Dang’s all-purpose essentials were Italian seasoning, curry powder, and paprika) and add them to everything from roasted veggies to soups, stir-fries, and marinades.
And don’t be afraid to outsource. Dang would often buy “the best salsa ever” from her favorite local taqueria, mix it with sour cream, and add to chicken. “All of a sudden it’s like a different dish,” she says, “not like something that came out of a garage kitchen!”
Learn to love leftovers
Dang used her slow cooker to make meals that weren’t elaborate, but abundant. With a big chunk of, say, pork shoulder, she and her family could have dinner one night and sandwiches or tacos the next. A vegetable soup made post-farmer’s market trip lasts for days. A grocery rotisserie chicken, meanwhile, could start as a main course served with toaster oven–roasted zucchini, then go into chicken salad or that chicken tortilla soup. Double duty meals not only mean you’re cooking less frequently, but you’re washing up less—a boon when you’re doing dishes in a bathtub.
And when it’s 5 o’clock in renovation world . . .
Isaac Fox of Louisville hotspot La Chasse suggests a dead-simple libation for the temporarily kitchen-less—because sometimes you want to pour a proper drink and remember life before the walls came down.
Classic Old Fashioned
No need for simple syrup; granulated sugar and warm tap water will do the trick.
- 2 oz. bourbon or rye
- 1 scant tsp. sugar
- Splash warm water
- 2-3 dashes Angostura bitters
Stir sugar and water until dissolved. Add bitters, whiskey, and ice and stir until chilled.
Easier still, Anything-and-Ginger Beer
Fox suggests keeping around a six-pack of better ginger beer, like Reed’s or Fever Tree, to mix with bourbon, vodka, or whatever’s on hand. The Dark and Stormy is a no-fail classic. A Mexican Mule is a surprisingly tasty version of the same, calling on, you guessed it, tequila.
- 4-6 ounces ginger beer
- Ice cubes
- Wedge of lime
Build two ounces good dark rum with ginger beer, ice, and lime, if you have it.