Chef News

Part two: Chef and Tell with Kelly Liken of Restaurant Kelly Liken

This is part two of Juliet Wittman's Q&A with Kelly Liken, chef/owner of Restaurant Kelly Liken. To read part one of that interview, click here.

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

Do you turn to food books or cookbooks? I read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle a year and a half ago, and loved it so much that when I closed the book, I flipped it over and started over again. I read so many cookbooks, though I don't follow recipes unless I'm baking. I use them as inspiration. I really love reading about what other people are doing, trends in food, other cultures. I read a lot of ethnic cookbooks. I adore Mexican food because there really is a true regionality there. Cross a state line and the architecture is different, the food is different. And there are ribbons that tie it all together as one.

What's the culture of your kitchen? We're serious about the food that we're cooking, but I truly believe food does not taste as good when there's anger in the kitchen. It's a relatively patient kitchen. We have fun; we help each other out. (She laughs.) It's not like I've never gotten angry in the kitchen.

What is your favorite ingredient? Probably an artichoke. That's my favorite to eat. My favorite in terms of cooking: shallots. I put them in almost everything.

What do you think is the most undervalued ingredient? Vegetables in general. I'm crazy passionate about vegetables. Customers always tend to order dishes around a protein. And chefs, too: I'm gonna make a filet mignon and I'll figure out something to go with it. I think everything else on the plate besides the protein is where the skill and nuance comes in.

Is there a food you hate? I don't like meatloaf. Not even my mom's.

A food you can't live without? Heinz ketchup. Because without it you could never eat a hamburger. You could never have French fries, either.

What's never in your kitchen? Tomatillos. I'm allergic to them.

What is the weirdest customer request you've ever had? I had a customer once ask if I could make him shrimp scampi and pasta, and I didn't have shrimp on the menu. I wanted to ask why he was eating here, because there's a lovely Italian restaurant across the street. Turns out his wife is a foodie and wanted local and organic. So I ran across the street and got him some shrimp scampi.

Who's your favorite celebrity chef? Mario Batali. I love his food. It's very simple and ingredient-driven, and he just has such a jolly attitude. He and his partner have built this amazing company out of respecting people and ingredients, slow and steady. Is there a celebrity chef you wish would shut up? Gordon Ramsay gets himself a little hysterical. I don't watch him, and I don't think you need to treat people that way. But I am also aware that it's television, and for some reason the powers-that-be think that makes for good television.

What's the best culinary tip you have for a home cook? Taste your food a lot. Trust yourself. You know what you like. Trust yourself more than the recipe.

What was your proudest moment as a chef? When I opened my restaurant. It took almost a year and a lot of hard work. Cooking for my guests for the first time was really lovely.

And the most satisfying moment? I designed the menu for my sister's wedding. They wouldn't let me actually cook, because they wanted me to be a guest, but I worked closely with the chef, and we made a wonderful, crazy meal. She and her husband aren't extraordinarily adventurous diners. So we made things like tiny BLTs and mac and cheese -- exactly what they'd want to eat at home, but we elevated it to a level where people were really impressed, and we accomplished something special for her.

What's your take on national trends? It seems like the burger joint has exploded. Everybody's opening a gourmet cheeseburger place. That's really cool, but at the same time I feel we need to find the next thing. Cupcakes might be over, though I've heard the doughnut is the new cupcake.

Explain your project, Sowing Seeds: Our goal is to integrate lessons that can be learned around growing food through the entire curriculum. But to add a whole lot of things to an overworked, underpaid schoolteacher's day is not's challenging. We want the teachers to be interested in this. Our horticulturalist, Sandy, started in March, posting when she was going to be in the greenhouse and the learning-based projects she could do with kids, and the teachers could choose. Some might bring the kids during a science project, or math, or literary. In February and March, the kids planted seeds, then took care of the plants, then harvested them. We continued through the summer because they were so interested, with summer camp every Friday afternoon, when we have the Vail Farmers' Market. We would go down to the greenhouse and pick and wash; the kids would decide how much they wanted to sell the produce for. There are obvious lessons in nutrition, how to cook, how a plant grows, but they're learning so much more: bringing food to market, community, elementary economics, math, business, how to talk to adults because they have to answer questions. We did weekly cooking demos. One week we made salsa, and the kids chose the ingredients. Some used peaches, some tomatoes, some made it really spicy. The school board has been so impressed that they've allocated extra money, so we've hired a chef, and he's cooking in the cafeteria. Instead of cheese sauce in a bag, the kids are eating what they grow.

Our initial thought was to work in impoverished elementary schools. People think of Vail as very affluent. They forget there are people who clean the tourists' rooms and wash cars, and these people's children are in elementary school. Statistically, we are a very hungry county. We hoped over the course of two years to create a pilot program we could tie up in a pretty little bow and hand over to other schools, and we had to start with a school that was supportive -- the PTA as well as the teachers. It's a little higher up on the economic scale; there's not a high level of free and reduced lunches. But we actually have a group of parents who are committed to turning the school green, composting and recycling, and also extending the program to elementary schools with higher needs.

How do you work with local farmers? I buy my produce from the farmers' market. There are also three or four farmers who grow beautiful produce for me from all around the state: Palisade, Grand Junction, the Front Range. There's a farmer in Granby, which is very high-altitude. My menu is ever-changing; I work with the seasons. It's all about honoring what Colorado produces. Farmers often ask, What can I grow for you?, but my way of creating a menu is opposite from that: I'm inspired by what I see them growing. Who are your culinary inspirations? The person who really inspired my passion for cooking with a sense of place is Patrick O'Connell, at the Inn at Little Washington. I interned with him out of culinary school. It's right in the middle of Virginia farm country. The corn guy would come in his beat-up pickup to the back of this beautiful restaurant, and the egg lady would deliver eggs once or twice a week.

If you could cook for one person, dead or alive, who would it be? Right now, I would really like to cook for Michelle and Barack Obama because of the work they've been doing with their organic garden and the Let's Move program.

Tomorrow, we'll serve up some of Kelly Liken's recipes from Top Chef.

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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