The Pacific Northwest is wild and rugged. It has a way of pulling people in. People like Ashley Morford-Haines.
"As soon as you see the mountains and the water you're kind of stuck here for life. So that's why I'm here. I saw what's here and didn't want to leave," said Morford-Haines.
Born in Michigan and trained in New York, Morford-Haines has been a chef for more than 15 years. She's worked in top kitchens all over the country. But when the pandemic hit, she realized it was time for a change, time to leave the four walls of a professional kitchen behind.
"When we face a global pandemic, I think we all turn inward a little bit. Who am I really? And who do I actually want to be? And at the end of the day, how do I want to spend my time?" explained Morford-Haines. "I think it was a pretty obvious answer for me. I don't want to be stuck somewhere. I want to explore what this world has to offer. Just honoring the fact that I'm not a chef who thrives in a controlled environment. I like things to be a little bit wild."
That's why, in 2020, Morford-Haines founded Windward Adventures, an outdoor and backcountry dining service.
"We're part roving dinner series, part private caterer, part private chef. We do lots of things, but it's all focused around being outside and being with people that you really care about," Morford-Haines said.
Windward Adventures offers cooking classes, ticketed dinners and multi-day trips. Often, these aren't just meals. They really are experiences.
"Last year we went up to Camp Muir at 10,000 feet and I made stew and mashed potatoes for people," said Morford-Haines. "This year I'm doing caviar at 10,000 feet. So, we'll be having a caviar lunch if you're intrepid enough to do this. I think it's all about pushing boundaries within yourself and the group of people you want to do it with."
When we visited Morford-Haines, she cooked up a stunning seasonal lunch the Windward Adventures way, over an open fire on a beach on the southern tip of Vashon Island. The menu featured fennel, asparagus and whole grilled trout over rosemary with horseradish salsa verde, sprouted broccoli with smoked oyster cream, flatbreads, even a strawberry rhubarb crisp. While Morford-Haines did some prep ahead of time, all the cooking was done on the fire.
"It's really a peaceful way to cook because there's the sizzling of the fire and the sense aroma in general. Then, typically when you're out here, there's seagulls, that tugboat and the ferry. There's so much to see and enjoy as you're actually doing your work," explained Morford-Haines.
Morford-Haines actually teaches a series of classes on open-fire cooking. While I was awed by both Morford-Haines' ability to manipulate the fire and the setting of her 'kitchen,' she admitted it was "a standard Thursday" for Windward Adventures.
"It is the best part of the gig. There's a lot of pre-planning and anxiety that goes into (executing one of her dinners or classes), but as soon as everyone is here, everyone is enjoying cheese and drinking wine, you're just having a great time. You're hosting a party, basically. I love it," said Morford-Haines with a smile.
We were joined at the table by two of Morford-Haines' friends. It was a smaller group than she typically cooks for, but as the clouds above Puget Sound gave way to blue sky, the experience felt somehow perfect. The setting, food and company all coming together to create an unforgettable meal.
"All we really have in our life is memories. The more intention you have with making sure your life is full of memories, when you look back on it, I think it will be the most rewarding life you can dream up," said Morford-Haines. "I was in a rut in a kitchen. Every day kind of melded into another. With (Windward Adventures) I feel like I'm using my years, my time, my energy and my muscles to make a really lasting memorable life."