If your idea of camping food is canned beans or grilled hot dogs, meet Kena Peay, the 43-year-old celebrated trailside chef from Oakland, Calif.
She’s a social media influencer who whips up delicious recipes amid a backdrop of turquoise alpine lakes, snow-dusted forests and rolling golden hills. One week you may see her in Jasper National Park in Canada, whereas the next, she’s riding a bike through the valley of Yosemite National Park. Her charismatic personality, video posts and trailside recipes have garnered her an incredible following. She has more than 70,000 followers on Instagram and nearly 300,000 fans on TikTok.
But what makes her following more impressive is the fact that it’s not her only gig. Peay works full-time with Google, so her social media work is something she manages to squeeze in when she’s not at work. Plus, she never went to culinary school. When she got let go from her job in the fashion industry almost a decade ago, she tried out for NBC’s Food Fighters on a whim. She made it onto season one’s episode two in 2014, beating celebrity chef Cat Cora. That experience gave her confidence to share her love of cooking and hiking on social media.
“At times school could be challenging for me,” says Peay, who grew up in Washington state. “If I wasn’t interested in a subject, it was hard for me to stay focused. A lot of things didn’t come as naturally as cooking. I would make something, and it would turn out great.”
Her sister, Ebony Peay, agrees that cooking, along with her sister’s electric personality, has always been her gift. Their parents actually gave Kena a stipend to do meal shopping and cooking when she was young because she loved it so much.
“She tortured us with her recipes, not because they were bad, but because she would focus on getting them right, so she kept cooking the same recipe over and over,” Ebony Peay recalls laughing. “She was always strong in cooking.”
Peay’s evolution into a celebrated trailside chef isn’t just about her being in front of a camera, posting pretty videos, however. She’s a woman with a couple of missions. First, Peay thinks sharing her outdoor recipes will not only inspire people to step up their camping menus, but that they’ll gain more confidence to get creative in their own kitchens. She reasons that if you can create shrimp bisque ramen or carne asada french fries in the middle of the woods with just a camping stove and a pan, imagine what you can make in your own kitchen.
“I’m working with limited resources and creating amazing meals,” she says. “People are fearful of the amount of equipment they’ll need to cook in the outdoors. You don’t see me using four different pots. You can definitely do it, too.”
A key to her success is food-prepping before she leaves her house. Her vegetables? Chopped beforehand. Marinade? Made in advance. The meat? Pre-cooked and placed in a small cooler. Spices? Measured out in the kitchen. That way, she can leave behind her knives, cutting boards and extra pans, reducing the weight of her backpack. After she cooks outdoors, she always packs out leftovers, garbage and even her pasta water.
“My dad always said, ‘Leave the park the way you found it or better,’ ” she recalls. “We didn’t know what Leave No Trace was back then,” but her family practiced it.
But Peay also wants the community that follows her to be aware of the differences and challenges around navigating the outdoors as a Black woman. She experiences conflict on the trail with those who are not comfortable seeing Black people enjoying the outdoors.
“Indigenous people, black and brown people have always been explorers of the outdoors,” she says. “My parents took us to national parks and any place where we could be outdoors and learn. Black and brown people haven’t typically been a part of the narrative of outdoor industry marketing, but I do see changes being made and I’m hopeful.”
Racism is one of the hazards of being outdoors as a Black woman. An older white man approaching her on a trail body-checked her and kept walking. People have stopped her to tell her what kind of shoes she should be wearing or to ask why she was even on the trail. A white woman yelled that she hoped Peay would get COVID as Peay walked by her in the Canadian Rockies.
And there are other occupational hazards. There are roads to parks like Crater Lake National Park and Yosemite National Park that are winding and lean up against steep drop offs that terrify her. There’s the vast amount of research Peay does in advance to find trails she wants to hike and what kind of wildlife live there since she doesn’t want to attract animals with her cooking.
But it’s all worth it for Peay whose remarkable ascent to where she is now has allowed her to spend so much time being outside and traveling to new places.
“I never got into this for the partnerships,” Peay says. “It was just for sharing the food and the hiking. I’m doing what I love and people are recognizing that. I truly hope I can inspire more people to get outside and create some peace and joy for themselves because being outdoors really is magical and it’s for everyone.”
Kena Peay’s Recipe for Buffalo Chicken Crunch Wrap
- 1 medium-sized cast iron pan
- Measuring spoons
- Sharp knife
- Cooking oil
- 1 cup of shredded chicken breast
- 1/4 cup of cream cheese (softened)
- 3 tablespoons of hot sauce (you can use more or less)
- 1/2 cup shredded iceberg lettuce
- 1 large red tomato on the vine
- 1 cup of shredded cheddar cheese
- 4 burrito-size flour tortillas
- 2 corn tortillas
- In a medium-sized bowl, combine the pre-cooked shredded chicken, cream cheese and hot sauce. Mix well and set aside.
- In a large skillet add enough cooking oil to cover the bottom of the pan. Place the corn tortilla in the hot oil and fry on both sides to make it a tostada and place on a paper towel to drain excess oil.
- Place one burrito-sized flour tortilla on a plate. Take your tostada and place it on top of the flour tortilla in the center. Take a knife and cut around your tostada to trace a smaller-sized flour tortilla. You will need a small tortilla to help close your crunch wrap properly.
- Take another burrito-sized flour tortilla and lay it on a flat surface. Place your buffalo chicken mixture in the center of it, top with cheese, add your tostada, lettuce, tomato, salt and pepper. Place your smaller tortilla on top of your lettuce.
- Creating a hexagon shape, fold the edges up over the center of the tostada. Make sure everything is folded tight. Repeat for second wrap.
- Place wrap seam-side down and cook for 2-3 minutes. Flip and cook wrap on the other side until golden brown.