The Business of Making Memories

The Ascend dining experience is something special - three leaders who shape that experience share why.

Article by Bree O'Brien

Photography by Life N Light, except as noted

Originally published in Bellevue Lifestyle

When Ascend Prime Steak & Sushi burst onto the Eastside culinary scene in 2018, it was roundly applauded for the experience it provided - delectable food, incredible views from the 31st floor of Lincoln Square South, and the kind of service that keeps guests coming back for happy hours, brunches, and celebratory dinners alike. With several private dining rooms, beautiful cocktails perfectly mixed, and distinctive decor (like the five styles of tree roots adorning the main dining room), Ascend offers something special to each guest.

As Ascend approaches five years as a fine dining favorite, Bellevue Lifestyle visited the restaurant to hear from Elaina Morris, Founding Partner, President and CEO of Ascend Hospitality Group - of which Ascend Prime is the flagship. We also interviewed Executive Chef Brandon Muehl onsite, and later followed up with co-owner and hospitality expert Jeffrey Frederick.

Elaina Morris

Morris is a dynamo; she grew up poor, “Soccer saved my life,” she says (and it’s why she serves on the board of local nonprofit Rainier Athletes) and career-wise she didn’t come up in the hospitality industry, instead cutting her teeth in technology services. Often tapped to lead new initiatives for big IT and telecom companies, she honed problem-solving skills and decided to become an entrepreneur. Morris founded WiggleWorks -  a soft-play, indoor playground for infants through preschool age kids that became a true community asset. Staff there spoke a total of 14 languages, allowing diverse groups of parents to young children to find connection there. As Morris says, “I’m a community connector. In my businesses, we serve the community that supports us.”

After selling WiggleWorks, Morris became involved with Famous Dave’s, which she recounts had great product and people, but also a traffic problem. She helped them turn it around and bought a Famous Dave’s franchise in the Pacific Northwest. Shortly thereafter she met Jeffrey Frederick, Ascend Prime’s co-founder. Community is an important concept for Morris; both the internal AHG community, and the broader communities in which each of the AHG restaurants is located. 

Now Morris “runs the business of the business,” managing the high-level operations elements necessary to the success of the nine AHG restaurants. She has a passion for developing people professionally, and strives to create space in the hospitality industry for lifelong chosen careers. “People often end up in the restaurant industry by accident,” says Morris, “and I want them to have the skills and opportunities to then choose their paths. I want to help people recognize their own value.” When asked about the type of people she chooses to work with, Morris responds, “Are they entrepreneurial in spirit? In service is humility, are you more inclined to listen and learn than to speak?” In addition, employees can’t be afraid of change - restaurants are unpredictable and one must be prepared to pivot at any time. 

Morris mentions U Ascend, a platform designed to provide training to move employees along the path to their professional goals with management support. Employees can bridge knowledge or experience gaps to move on to the next step in their careers. Morris says enthusiastically, “I get to watch my team develop, grow, and connect. And I’m developing such kick-butt leaders!”

Other development opportunities come through 31 Lives, which the Ascend Prime website describes as “a program designed to fund scholarships and internships for aspiring culinarians, as well as, contribute professional expertise and tools (pro-bono) to elevate culinary education in the Puget Sound.”

“This is a fun industry with great people. We need more people in this industry - we’re in the business of making memories.”

Brandon Muehl

Ascend Prime’s menu is developed by Executive Chef Brandon Muehl, and he always starts with seasonality. He creates different offerings using fruits, vegetables, and grains, then adds a protein that complements the produce. “Anything can be an Ascend dish,” says Muehl, but it depends how it’s plated, garnished, and presented.” As an example, he mentioned chicken and waffles. The concept seems simple, but it’s brought to an Ascend standard with details that take the next step in fully developing the flavor profile. While a lot of hard work goes into being creative, “consistent execution is the real work,” says Muehl.

Favorite dishes to cook include the perfect steak - cooking, seasoning, and resting all flawlessly - and “a nice, crispy-skinned duck.” Muehl enjoys dining out himself, and can be inspired by a wonderful meal. In addition to Muehl, you’ll find an executive sous chef, sushi chef, pastry and banquet chefs, and more sous chefs in the Ascend kitchen. When Muehl is working on creating a new menu, he samples and critiques different dishes with the chef team. Jeffrey Frederick will visit for a major overhaul, and dishes are redeveloped and tweaked until they’re perfect. “I’ve been working with the current team for a while, and they really understand the complexities of flavor well,” says Muehl, “Everybody has a different understanding of the ingredients and flavors we’re working with.” The menu is overhauled four times a year, and collaboration is key. Each new menu takes a lot of devotion, time, and teamwork. 

Jeffrey Frederick

Bellevue Lifestyle spoke to Las Vegas-based Jeffrey Frederick by phone, and he recounted that he and Morris became acquainted while working with a national restaurant group, and Morris clued Frederick into the growing Eastside market. “Having been a restaurant guy all of my career, I did an evaluation and saw national and regional chains, and a few independent restaurants. I felt like Bellevue seemed to be leaning forward while also preserving the past. Steak and sushi seemed like a great opportunity to do something in a contemporary fashion, in an immersive environment.”

“Relaxed fine dining” was the objective for the Ascend Prime experience and there was significant demand for large group and private dining space in Bellevue as the restaurant was getting established. What started out as a very corporate-driven clientele with business lunches and big company events, evolved into more social groups post-pandemic. The fact that Ascend was such a large space allowed for the required six feet of space between tables as restaurants began to open back up, but “The pandemic forced some innovation differently for us because we had such a large footprint and were on the 31st floor,” Frederick recalls. 

When asked how he knows when and how to keep evolving Ascend Prime, Frederick says, “I never take for granted that the voices of our customers are the loudest.” Staff has the autonomy to make decisions about how to serve guests, and nightly reports to go over that day’s happenings and guest and staff feedback are indicators that either validate what Ascend Prime is doing right, or provide insight into needed changes. 

With the type of leadership that Ascend Prime has in place, and the commitment that leadership has to guests and employees, it will surely continue to be a special place for milestone celebrations or brunch with a spectacular view.

“I’m a community connector. In my businesses, we serve the community that supports us.”

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