Chef News

Kelly Liken didn't win Top Chef DC, but she's at the top of her game

This is part one of Juliet Wittman's interview with Kelly Liken of Restaurant Kelly Liken. Read part two of the Kelly Liken interview here.

Kelly Liken Restaurant Kelly Liken 12 Vail Road, Vail 970-479-0175

One of Kelly Liken's finest moments on Top Chef D.C. came when the contestants were challenged to make healthful school lunches that children would love eating. She created pork carnitas tacos with pickled onion and cilantro, and won the challenge. This was fitting: Liken, who graduated first in her class from the Culinary Institute of America, owns Restaurant Kelly Liken in Vail, and in a project that Jamie Oliver would love, she and her husband, Rick Colomitz, have been working on a greenhouse program with Creek Elementary School in Eagle called Sowing Seeds and funded by the Vail Valley Foundation.

Another one of her reality-TV triumphs came with the Quickfire in which the chefs were to use exotic meats -- and then told to switch the proteins halfway through the process. She inherited a huge emu egg that another contestant had whacked open and turned it into a creamy omelet. With the added kick of a harissa vinaigrette, sided by a fennel salad and scattered with olives and almonds, this dish perfectly exemplified Liken's style: comforting food, prepared with meticulous technique, and providing a hint of adventure and surprise. Then there was Eric Ripert's lavish praise for Liken's halibut with artichoke and fennel barigoule, which filled her with pleasure because, she says, "He's the best seafood chef in the world."

But there was also a time when she found herself standing in front of the judges, having come out on the bottom of a challenge. The contest was Restaurant Wars, and, as a restaurant owner, Liken had been asked by her team to serve at the front of the house. This meant she had less time to prepare her own food: a soup the judges found too watery and -- despite all -- a delicious chocolate ganache enhanced with salt crystals. For her turn as maître d', she received a strange compliment from former New York Times dining critic Frank Bruni: "It was a clumsy charisma that you had," he told her, "but it was a charisma."

Although Liken didn't repeat the triumph of another Colorado chef, Hosea Rosenberg, who actually took home the Top Chef title in the fifth season, she won the respect of judges and fellow contestants (winner Kevin Sbraga said he'd considered Liken his strongest competition all along), made it to the final four, and competed in Singapore for the finale. There she managed to cook a fine meal despite the blood pulsing into her plastic glove from a badly cut finger.

I caught up with Liken at the end of this seventh season of Top Chef:

What will you do now that Top Chef is over? Do you want to open a group of restaurants or stay with one? My passion lies with Restaurant Kelly Liken in Vail. It's my baby. But I'm interested in looking at all the opportunities that come from this. I look at Colorado in general as a really ripe market. Coloradans not only appreciate great food, but they're aware of where food comes from. Whatever I do, it needs to be something that makes sense and that works and you can keep the quality up, and that's daunting. Maybe there will be other restaurants, more TV work, cookbooks.

Do you think the judging on Top Chef is fair? I think the judges are really good at trying to judge according to technique and execution and keeping their personal likes and dislikes out of it. I can only imagine how difficult that is. It's impossible for subjectivity not to come into it at some point. If you don't like spicy food and someone serves you a spicy dish, or someone serves eggs and you hate them.... They do a great job trying to go by the rules, but they're human as well.

You clearly got on well with your fellow contestants, but Amanda seemed to really get up your nose. Honestly, she bugged me less than she bugged everyone else, because she drove everyone crazy. It's funny it got edited that way. But it bothered me that everyone underestimated her. I think we'll see a lot out of Amanda. She's young. Her technique is right on. She's a great chef, she really is. I'm not just saying that because I'm talking to a journalist.

Give me six words to describe your food: Fresh. Seasonal. Simple. Exciting. Regional. American.

Ten words to describe you: Creative. Intense. Fun -- at least, I think I'm the funniest person alive. I'm constantly laughing at myself. Leader. Chef. Loyal. Honest. Studious. Perfectionist. Talkative.

What kind of food did you eat growing up? My mother is an amazing cook. It's been a passionate hobby for her my whole life. She cooked dinner for the family every night; she got every food magazine and all the new cookbooks, and really had fun with cooking. We spent a lot of time at the farmers' market shopping fresh for that day's meal, and I grew up with an appreciation of fresh, local, and what it means to cook for people -- not with one specific style of food, but with an appreciation of how meaningful food could be. My absolute favorite -- and she still makes it for me when I come home -- is her barbecue back ribs. She braises them all day, and serves them with almost a ratatouille -- summer squash, peppers, tomatoes, onions, a little parmesan cheese on top. She makes amazing potatoes. She can make potatoes a thousand different ways. That stems from being a mom who has to feed a family every single day on a budget. She makes the best potato gratin, baked fry wedges, baby new potatoes with chives and butter. When I was competing on Top Chef, she was beside herself and so nervous. But it surprised her that I grew up to be a chef. I didn't help that much in the kitchen. It was her space; she wanted to be there alone.

Tell us about your education: I was a physics major at CU, but I earned my way cooking at the Med under Tony Hessel. I learned an enormous amount from him. We had a motley crew of chefs who were very passionate about cooking; we'd sit around and talk about food after work. I learned the ins and outs of restaurant cooking, how to be a line cook, fast and accurate. It was Tony who encouraged me to go on to the Culinary Institute of America. Though Boulder's restaurant scene today is amazing, there were not a whole lot of upscale restaurants then, and he knew how thirsty I was for knowledge. The beauty of the CIA program is that they're not teaching creativity and innovation; they really are teaching you the nuts and bolts of how to cook, and there's a lot of practice involved. You come out pretty skillful. I feel passionate about Colorado food, but my technique is very classical, which does stem from the French.

Does your physics background influence your cooking? There's not much overlap, except that I understand the science of what's happening in a way that many cooks don't. And you have to be really good at math to study physics, so the math helps in business a lot.

What did you learn from participating on Top Chef? Since the trip to Singapore, I find myself using a lot more spices and playing with different mixtures. The best part was collaborating with all these other amazing chefs that all had very different points of view, and bouncing ideas off each other.

Read the rest of the interview, where Liken explains her project, Sowing Seeds, and says why she can't live without ketchup.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman