Local chef Peter Rudolph packed up his knives and took the family on the open highway.
Kristie Rudolph was camping in Yosemite with her son Logan when she got a fateful call from her husband Peter.
A longtime Bay Area chef, Peter Rudolph was ready to do something his wife had long been fantasizing about: to pack up their life in San Francisco and travel the country as a family in a camper van.
At the time, Peter was the executive chef for Madera Restaurant at The Rosewood Sand Hill in Menlo Park. He had been there for nine years, leading the kitchen from its opening through the gain, loss and recapture of one Michelin star.
“When you’re in a restaurant like that you give up everything,” Peter said in a recent phone interview from the road. “I wanted to go out and see America, to hang out with my family. It was just time to go and explore what else I wanted to do.”
Peter spent the last decade-plus in the kitchen. Trained at the California Culinary Academy, he cooked at the Ritz Carltons in Marina Del Rey and Half Moon Bay, as well as the Campton Place Hotel in San Francisco before Madera.
Kristie said she and Logan, now 13, simply got used to life as the wife and son of a chef. They celebrated holidays the day after. They cherished Sundays and Mondays, when Peter was off work. Mother and son (who is home-schooled) would go camping together or take road trips without Peter.
“You get kind of locked into a type of a life or get locked into a schedule or a system,” Peter said. “We just want to break that apart and have some fun and go out and discover and see things.”
In an exercise of letting go and getting off the grid, the Rudolph family sold or gave away most of their belongings, converted a modest white Springer van into a camper and set off this past February. The trip illustrates one family’s response to the demands of working in the restaurant industry.
Peter’s LinkedIn occupation now reads: “Husband, Father, Traveling Chef, Rock Climber, Mountain Biker, Fisherman, Vagabond.” His employer? “My family.”
In the past 11 months, they drove across the United States and back in a “U” shape, passing through dozens of states. The trip has been free-wheeling, with no set plan or schedule. They’re more interested in seeing the small towns than big cities of America, Peter said. If they meet someone who tells them to visit somewhere, they go.
They also visited Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario before heading back down through Minnesota. For the recent holidays, they settled in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where they were house-sitting a friend’s farm and Peter helped a friend build a distillery with a tasting room.
The parents’ Instagram feeds are full of natural beauty: fishing expeditions, sweeping views, wildlife, the van and—of course—plenty of food. Kristie’s photos regularly include hashtags like #vanlife and #homeiswhereyouparkit, the digital rallying cries of an increasingly popular lifestyle trend dubbed “Van Life.” The New Yorker magazine recently profiled the couple that coined the term and have ironically made a business on the back of their own #vanlife, which is meant to celebrate life on the road and freedom from typical 9 to 5 reality.
For the Rudolphs, living in a van required a significant downsizing on kitchen tools, but Peter brought his “arsenal”: one 10-inch cast iron pan, a Le Crueset pot and one saucepan. They also brought an immersion blender, six spatulas, his chef knives and a pour-over coffee system.
They cook on a two-burner propane stove, mostly vegetables with legumes and rice. Meat creates grease-laden messes that they try to avoid in their confined space. Peter said they’ve been inspired by vegan and vegetarian cooking “as we experiment with our limited resources in keeping the food interesting and non-repetitive.” Except when they stopped in New Orleans, where beignets and muffalettas were consumed (and captured on Instagram—see above).
They pick up produce at local farmers markets — a quality market is often the “marker” of an interesting town worth spending time in, Peter said — and cook fresh-caught fish. He recalled a particularly memorable breakfast made from Spanish Mackerel Logan had caught early one morning in Florida.
“We brought it back, butchered it, salted it, made some rice and had sashimi handrolls for breakfast,” Peter recalled.
Not every meal is as glorious, the Rudolphs said. Sometimes they make tacos from canned beans or have leftovers for breakfast.
Transitioning to spending all of their time together in a confined space hasn’t been easy. To find time to themselves, each parent will wake up early to go on hikes by his or herself, Kristie said. The whole family likes libraries, and when they stop at one, everyone finds their own nook to hang out.
It was difficult, at first, for Peter to let go of the things that tied him to life at home. He said he misses the relationships and creative element of being in a kitchen.
“The harder I tried (to let go) the more frustrated I became, the more futile the exercise,” he said. “That obviously had an impact on all of us, so there are a lot of ups and downs.
“I think that I have realized that at this time, in this space, for me letting go is not really as important as just being open to what each day is going to bring,” he said.
But being on the road together, often without cell-phone service, has been “liberating,” Kristie said.
“When you don’t have service and you’re in the middle of nowhere and you have time — it took us awhile to realize we have time now — to really dive into our interests and our hobbies, it’s a beautiful thing,” she said.
Peter has had time to think about what he wants to do next, which, down the line, he said, will be to open a restaurant that’s reflective of his time on the road.
In an Instagram post last spring, Peter wrote a lengthy series of tributes to those who have made the trip possible. The first went to the van itself, deeming it “dependable and cautious … carrying a great load both physically and emotionally that would otherwise rest on my body” and to Logan, “a free spirit carving his space in this world.”
And finally, to Kristie, without whom “we would still be sitting in #SanFrancisco and wondering why.”