Katherine Donnelly | 08.15.2018

As part of Outdoor Project's Women In the Wild series this summer, I have had the honor of working with outdoor women from all over the industry to dig a bit deeper into who they are, how they got to where they are now, how they approach the outdoors, and more. These women are all rad in their own right, regardless of where they come from, what they look like, or how "badass" they might be. Whether they're mothers, daughters, sisters, professional athletes, beginners, weekend warriors, "instafamous," or anywhere in-between, their unique stories, journeys, opinions, and perspectives are incredibly valuable and insightful as Outdoor Project - and the industry as a whole - progresses and evolves to become more inclusive to every type of outdoors person. 

Through in-depth and often thought-provoking interviews, I hope to highlight these women's stories, their work, their adventures, and so much more with an eye toward giving them their well-deserved share of the spotlight while inspiring and empowering even more women to get outside!

In this feature we talk to Mai-Yan Kwan.

Graphic designer turned camp-cook and co-founder, this Woman In The Wild - along with two of her best friends - have created something incredible in Dirty Gourmet. She's also lived all over the continent and goes by many names, and currently you can find her and the DG ladies on a book tour for their new cookbook! Get the full scoop below.

Photo by Sarah Connette.

OP: Give us the skinny on who Mai-Yan Katherine Kwan is.

Mai-Yan Kwan: I was born and raised in Quebec City, Canada. I have a younger brother and three older half-siblings. I’m half-Chinese and was educated in English in a predominantly Caucasian French-speaking town. I go by many names, each associated with different chapters of my life, including Mai-Yan, Kat, Mayhem, Mike, and more recently, Mai (pronounced like the month). If we haven’t met yet, feel free to pick your fav, I respond to all.

OP: When did you first know that you were going to spend your life in the outdoors?

Mai-Yan Kwan: There’s not a definitive moment in my mind. It was something that I grew up with and took for granted. I have fond memories of foraging wild raspberries with my grandpa on afternoon walks in the woods and spending entire days on my bike on the hunt for undiscovered corners of my city. 

I lost touch with nature when I first moved to Los Angeles. The climate, culture, and geography were unfamiliar. I focused on assimilating and surviving design school. When I finally graduated, I felt a strong urge to get active and go outdoors again. I was introduced to rock climbing and backpacking, rediscovered camping and cycling, and began my outdoors woman life in earnest. 

OP: What does it mean to you to be a woman in the outdoor industry?

Mai-Yan Kwan: I feel like it should mean a lot, especially when questions like this pop up. I often forget the public facing side of Dirty Gourmet. Occasionally I am reminded that what I do as an individual, what we do as three female business partners and best friends, does reach outside our little sphere. I’m so humbled and grateful for the people that take the time to share their experiences with us. Sometimes it’s about a recipe, sometimes it’s to share an outdoor tale, and other times someone will write to say how we have inspired them. That is the best gift and motivates me to continue in a more conscientious way.

OP: What has the outdoors done for you, and how to do you pay it back?

Mai-Yan Kwan: The outdoors provides the total reset I need to put my mind and body back to a very elemental state. I internalize a lot of thoughts and emotions to the point where I get completely overwhelmed. Getting outside forces me out of my head so that I can then look at everything with a fresh perspective.

I don’t know if I do a good enough job of paying it back. I pay it back with small gestures like observing Leave No Trace principles, buying parks passes, and fundraising merchandise annually so that I can support the organizations working hard to help protect and preserve our outdoor spaces. I preach the benefits of getting outside to anyone that will listen, especially those who are uninitiated. I too want them to love it as much as I do. I can do more.

OP: Conservation and protection of our public lands are central themes in today’s outdoor recreation narrative. As someone who spends a significant amount of time outdoors and on public lands, what role do you think outdoor enthusiasts should play in this evolving conversation and landscape?

Mai-Yan Kwan: Enthusiasts need to play an active role. People that are curious about the outdoors will try new experiences. Some of them will inevitably do a bad job at protecting the surroundings they are discovering by leaving trash or not following trail etiquette. Instead of bashing them, it falls on those in the know to gently educate them so that they can grow into seasoned outdoors people. 

OP: Who has inspired you along the way?

Mai-Yan Kwan: I am inspired by kind and gentle people. Negativity and anger come easy, but kindness requires practice, patience and a fundamental goodness that can’t be taught. 

When Dirty Gourmet was transforming from a hobby into a business, we were hired by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy (GGNPC) to head up two kitchen teams cooking and feeding their LINC youth program participants. Two groups of high schoolers hiked for three days finally meeting up at Crissy Field for a big celebration of “Packing the Parks” and the National Park Service centennial.  

Aimee and I worked apart with teams of total strangers and had little to no communication for the duration of the event. It was by far one of the wildest events we’ve done in terms of logistics and planning - also because were were sooo green. Even amidst the intensity of it all, what we came away with was pure admiration for the team of people running GGNPC. There was a certain magic in the way they all handled themselves that was undeniable - calm, patient, generous, extremely hard working, and very aligned toward a common goal. It made me reconsider myself as a person and think: “I want to be like that.”

OP: What does adventure mean to you?

Mai-Yan Kwan: Adventure is getting out of my comfort zone. I’m terrified of complacency, so I try hard to actively direct my life in all its aspects (hopefully, without compromising spontaneity and serendipity!)

OP: What does the term "badass" mean to you?

Mai-Yan Kwan: Badass to me means someone who is very dedicated and excels in a particular arena. It’s a title put on someone that is a notch above the average Jane, someone with “big dick energy.” I don’t relate to to that term at all. I see myself as a Jane of all Trades. My whole life’s basis is seeking new experiences, which means I’ve done lots of things but I don’t particularly excel at any of them. Dirty Gourmet and my design career are the two things I’ve really committed to for the longest at this point. 

OP: How have you managed to align your career with your passion for the outdoors? And do you have any advice for someone who is looking to do the same?

Mai-Yan Kwan: It’s taken some time to do that. I started out as an environmental graphic designer working on commercial developments overseas and all over the U.S. The base skills I acquired as a designer are problem solving and attention to detail, and I’ve definitely been able to use those with Dirty Gourmet. Along the way, I’ve also had to learn a lot of new things, things I never thought I’d do! 

My advice for someone is to keep putting active energy into your passions and stay open minded about opportunities. It’s often impossible to tell what your end goal actually looks or feels like, so it’s important to stay malleable. Say yes to seemingly random opportunities that will allow you to discover new aspects of yourself that you can then tap into to better steer you toward your end goal. All energy invested with purpose is worth it.

OP: We are seeing a shift in what the term woman or female might bring to mind (LGBTQ), both in the outdoor community and throughout the world. What does being a woman mean to you? Femininity?

Mai-Yan Kwan: When I finally got my period at 15, I was devastated. To me it meant my childhood was over and that, as a woman, I’d now have to get married, bear children and be an adult along with all the responsibilities that came with the title. I wanted none of it. Twenty-two years later, I know that view was very narrow, and I can chuckle at my melodramatic self. I still don’t have kids, nor am I married, but I can now embrace myself as a woman.

Being a woman gives me the ability to be delicate and soft in one moment and a hard ass in another. I get to be both, and that is awesome. It bothers me that being a female is generally associated with societally-accepted handicaps like weakness and emotional instability which lead to lower-pay and standing in the workforce. Even with the increased current awareness, these stereotypes are very ingrained, so as females we have to work extra hard to prove ourselves. It’s frustrating, but our resolve is also a super power at the same time. 

OP: What mantra or set of words do you live by?

Mai-Yan Kwan: "Try everything at least once." New ones that I’m still working on so they can eventually become second nature:  i. Empathy first, ii. Be excellent to each other (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) .

OP: In a perfect world, what does the outdoors (the people, the places, the community as a whole, etc.) look like to you? And what can outdoor brands and media companies, such as Outdoor Project, do better to help get us there?

Mai-Yan Kwan: Prior to dating someone in the outdoor industry, I attempted several times to go camping or visit national parks and failed. No car, no gear, conflicting information for a non-local, fear due lack of preparedness if something did go wrong out there, and all that as a middle-class college student. 

In a perfect world, there’s much more accessibility for everyone to enjoy the outdoors. True, it’s not expensive to go on a local hike, or even visit a national park, but there’s a base level of knowledge and logistics that need to be in place in order for these experiences to happen. I would advocate for more access to guided outdoor experiences in our local mountains, deserts and beaches, basic gear lending/rental libraries to provide hands-on opportunities for novices and low-income families to wet their feet, and more cross pollination across organizations to reduce cliques based on sport, gender or skin color. 

OP: What is one thing that you never leave home without? 

Mai-Yan Kwan: A reusable water bottle. I get really nervous at the thought of not having water to drink, and I hate the idea of getting a drink in a disposable plastic bottle or cup.  

OP: Let’s talk gear - what are your thoughts on women-specific gear? Love it, hate it? Are there any companies out there doing it right? And how so? When does it matter to you most to have gear specific to women versus unisex products?

Mai-Yan Kwan: I used to be in the 100% hate camp for women-specific gear, but there is definitely better looking and functioning gear nowadays. Women-specific gear is needed for sizing, garment cuts, and technical gear that regulates body temperatures like sleeping bags. The major offenses are in styling and design of women’s gear. Companies are finally catching on that the “pink it and shrink it” approach doesn’t work, creating room for innovators like Machines for Freedom, which makes well-designed technical cycling apparel for women in a very male-dominated industry. 

It’s not always obvious why certain products should be made differently for women, which has made me instantly reject a women-specific version of something in the past on the assumption that it’s just marketing BS. There’s a level of consumer education that needs to happen, and perhaps the approach for that needs to be tailored for the intended audience. 

OP: What is the greatest piece of advice or direction that you’ve ever received, and what’s the story behind it? 

Mai-Yan Kwan: “If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.” – Jim Rohn

OP: If you could give one piece of advice to yourself when you were just starting out Dirty Gourmet what would it be? 

Mai-Yan Kwan: Be patient! That’s also the advice I need for my life in general.

OP: In a world seemingly run by online personas, how do you approach social media and how does it play into your lifestyle - both work and play?

Mai-Yan Kwan: I struggle with social media and it’s meaningfulness. I’m currently apathetic toward it, but at the same time feeling guilty about that state because it still is very important for marketing and business in general. I enjoy when people or brands can find an open and vulnerable voice that lets outsiders understand a new perspective. I have a good idea of what kinds of images and words are needed to get the necessary likes and gain more followers, but most times I just can’t get myself to put the effort into what it takes to generate that kind of content. I’d rather focus on staying in the moment than trying to capture and document things for an audience. 

OP: What’s next for you in the coming months and years?

Mai-Yan Kwan: l very much operate on a day to day basis with brief moments of clarity where I plant some seeds for the future. In the coming months, the focus is still on the Dirty Gourmet: Food For Your Outdoor Adventures cookbook tour. There’s a also bigger sense of urgency to figure out how this entity can become more than the three of us. These things are very exciting and satisfying to me professionally, while the escapist in me is yearning to hop on a bike or plane for a good long adventure. It’s all about finding balance.

OP: The title of your autobiography would be...

Mai-Yan Kwan: The Art of Making Life Up As You Go

OP: In your next life, you will come back as...

Mai-Yan Kwan: An opera singer. 

OP: Tell us one thing about yourself that no one knows. 

Mai-Yan Kwan: I still suck my thumb!

OP: If our readers were to take one thing from this interview, what would you like it to be?

Mai-Yan Kwan: Laugh a lot, walk with a light step, and exude positive energy. The rest will fall into place.

Learn more about Mai-Yan by following along on her Instagram adventures and by checking out Dirty Gourmet online and on the 'gram


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