Kena Peay: Limitless Sides to Outside

There are so many ways to enjoy time outside. This is one of many unique stories we’re sharing as part of our effort to highlight the Limitless Sides to Outside.

Why do I love the outdoors? I ask myself that question each weekend while exploring Mother Nature. I think the answer is that it’s the only place where I can exist without any expectations. It’s just me, the giant redwoods, the shy and stealthy wildlife and the fresh outdoor air that beats any luxury perfume I’ve ever owned.  

I discovered my passion for the outdoors when I was a young child. I joke that my parents were my first park rangers—they taught me how to be respectful of animals and leave nature better than I found it. They introduced my siblings and me to many different national and state parks during our childhood. In spring and summer, it was a weekend occurrence. I think they were trying to pique our interest in nature and help us exert any unnecessary and annoying adolescent energy before bedtime.

We grew up a couple of hours from Mount Tahoma (Mount Rainier). My family would pile into the car with homemade sandwiches and head out to the mountain that stands so majestic above the clouds in Washington state. I had a wonderful childhood, being raised in the Pacific Northwest.

I have always hiked to create some thinking space and reconnect with myself. I feel closer to God when I’m on the trail. Give me a trail that intimidates me, and let me conquer it and I feel like I’ve won the day—but only if my knees aren’t cracking by the end. Three years ago, I started hiking every weekend to get away from what I was dealing with at work and some hardships in my personal life. I rarely kept track of how many miles I hiked. I was simply exploring my local trails in California. 

But I found myself getting hungry on all my hikes, so I tried to see what I could cook while on the trail. It never occurred to me to that whipping up a delicious meal that you could recreate in your kitchen was different. All I knew was that after a long hike, I wanted to eat whatever delicious meal I was craving.

My first meal was simple. I took a small MSR PocketRocket up Heart Lake Trail on Mount Shasta. I brought two eggs carefully wrapped in paper towels, a few slices of bacon and one English muffin. I had my breakfast sandwich at sunset, and I was hooked. Cooking outdoors on the trail was so much more enjoyable than in my kitchen at home.

My next meal was a bit more complicated. I fused two of my favorite sandwiches—a shrimp po’ boy and a traditional Vietnamese banh mi. I made a shrimp po’ boy banh mi, another success. After that, I knew with just a bit of prep and planning, I could make anything on the trail. 

In 2014, I won the inaugural season of the Food Network/NBC’s national syndicated show Food Fighters as the home chef contestant, beating out renowned Iron Chef Cat Cora. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience—and one I don’t wish to repeat.  

As an outdoor enthusiast and chef, I’m passionate about diversifying the outdoors and the food we all choose to enjoy outdoors. I hope that by cooking on the trail, I can inspire people to get outside more, try new food and possibly cook a meal in the beauty of Mother Nature. Every culture experiences food unique to their culture, which is beautiful. It’s the love of food that unites us all. There’s something so magical about cooking outside surrounded by fresh mountain air and gorgeous views. It’s truly addictive.

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