Cafe Society

Rachel Kesley, exec chef of WaterCourse Foods, on produce-driven menus, vegetarianism and her fascination with figs

Rachel Kesley WaterCourse Foods 837 East 17th Avenue 303-832-7313

This is part one of Lori Midson's interview with Rachel Kesley, executive chef of WaterCourse Foods. In part two of that interview, Kesley dishes on umeboshi vinegar, the traveling food cart and eating a buzz button.

The best advice from Rachel Kesley? Listen to your body.

The 29-year-old executive chef of WaterCourse Foods, Denver's most popular spot for vegetarian food (along with City, O' City, its sister restaurant in Capitol Hill), became a vegetarian in 1997 after dissecting a fetal pig during biology class as a freshman in high school. "It was really the first time that I'd physically equated the animal to food, and it just totally grossed me out," recalls Kesley, who later became a full-fledged vegan after watching the documentary Baraka, which includes disturbing scenes depicting the injustices of factory farming. "There was this whole part about chicken and poultry plants and the inhumanity of it all, and it really hit home for me, so I became a vegan," says Kesley, who maintained a vegan lifestyle for three years while living in the People's Republic of Boulder, prime feeding ground for earth-muffin diets. But her body eventually balked. "I was living in a city where you hike and run, and my body could never keep up -- I was tired -- so I listened to my body, and started incorporating fish into my diet, starting with a small piece of halibut," she remembers, "and, boom, just like that, my energy level surged and I felt like I was bouncing off the walls."

After graduating with a degree in history from the University of Colorado, she bumped around Boulder, eventually enrolling in the culinary program at the School of Natural Cookery, working the line and waiting tables at Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery, becoming a personal chef for a few years and, in 2006, the executive chef of Leaf Vegetarian restaurant, where she stayed for two years until she decided to take a bite out of the Big Apple. "As a food person, you want to move to New York, and I landed a great job as a sous chef at a mostly vegetarian farm-to-table restaurant, where I was working eighty hours a week," she remembers. When her hours were slashed, she got a gig at Bites, a big-name New York catering company with notable celebrity-chef clients like Mario Batali. "We did almost all of the cooking on-site, and I learned a tremendous amount from that job," she says, but in the end, New York wasn't her cup of fruit: "It wore me down, and I really missed the outdoors and just popping into my car and going to the mountains. Ultimately, it was just too much for me."

She headed back to Colorado and sent a random e-mail to WaterCourse, which, it turned out, was hiring a sous chef. "I didn't want a lot of responsibility; I just wanted to cook really good food, and I wasn't sure I wanted to handle meat," admits Kesley, who got the job -- and, two months later, the executive-chef position. "I work with some of the best and brightest people in the business," she adds, noting that her eating habits are still not strictly vegetarian. "I eat fish and eggs, and I'll take a bite of someone's lamb if it's local and sustainable, but I won't eat veal or anything with feathers -- I don't like feathers."

But you might be surprised to learn what Kesley wants for her last meal before she kicks the bucket. Here's a hint: It's not tofu.

Culinary inspirations: First and foremost, I'd have to say my grandmothers -- both of them. I'm from the South, where "grandma" is synonymous with down-home good cookin' and good company. They both had farms and cooked with all the things that they grew. My summers were filled with shucking corn, shelling beans and weighing bell peppers to sell off the front porch. They taught me that food and laughter go hand in hand. When Grandma was cooking, everyone came over. Whether it was chicken-fried steak or banana pudding, food was the center of all of our family and social gatherings, and that, to me, was pretty spectacular.

Six words to describe your food: Seasonal, colorful, non-traditional, comforting, layered and balanced.

Ten words to describe you: Passionate, focused, competitive, caring, teacher, spontaneous, energetic, fun-loving, intentional and adventurous.

Favorite ingredient: Because I work with a menu that's driven by seasonal vegetables, my favorite ingredient tends to be what's available at the time. Right now I'm loving Brussels sprouts, blood oranges and mushrooms. Six months ago, I couldn't get enough watermelon -- mostly grilled -- and I'm currently moving into an asparagus and fig phase. Actually, if I could cook with figs every day of my life, I probably would. Figs are so versatile and delicious in both savory and sweet dishes; the possibilities are endless.

Best recent food find: Persimmons. I'm a little embarrassed to say that I had never had one until a month and a half ago. One of my purveyors, who's always turning me on to great things, talked me into buying a case. I was like yeah, sure, why not? This should be interesting. I cut into it and was totally blown away by its sweetness while still holding a tomato-like quality. I made some samosas with peas, potatoes and persimmons that I was really excited about.

Most overrated ingredient: Chipotle peppers. Ever since Bobby Flay popped up, smoked jalapeños have been everywhere. I love the food and flavors from the Southwest and south of the border, but I've found so many other amazing chiles and flavors that have so much more depth than the chipotle. I just think their time has come and gone.

Most underrated ingredient: I use cashews in almost everything. In vegan cooking, you have to get innovative, so when certain recipes or methods traditionally call for dairy, cream or even butter, it's time to get creative. Cashews take on the flavor of whatever you're cooking. When you make a cream out of them, either with stock or water and sugar, you can do anything from thickening soups to making a "crème" brûlée or even cheese. It's definitely one of the most amazing and versatile ingredients that I use on a daily basis.

Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I actually have the tremendous fortune to work for an owner who also has a one-acre urban farm, Hazel Rah, out in Lakewood. To have access and direct input on a farm is a dream come true for me. I spent a lot of time in the fall thinking about possible seeds we could plant and what fun and exotic things we could bring in on a regular basis. Last summer I got an amazing crop of corn, Bibb lettuces and some of the most fragrant herbs I've ever worked with.

Favorite spice: Smoked salts. I love the way they can bring out flavor while standing strong in their own role as an important element to any dish. In vegetarian cooking, it's hard to really capture that amazing smoky flavor in the proteins that we use, so using salts that have been smoked is a great way to enhance any dish.

One food you detest: I really, strongly dislike eggplant. It's a texture thing, I guess. I just don't get it. I think the color is amazing, but I just can't get past the sponge-like texture.

One food you can't live without: I love going out for sushi, love everything from the warm towel at the beginning of the meal to the sake, chopsticks and wasabi. Eating sushi is one of my favorite activities.

Biggest kitchen disaster: This actually happened fairly recently. It was a Friday, and I was helping the line during the lunch rush while making the night's special and trying to catch up on some office work -- you know, a typical day. Amid all that madness, I tried to shuffle our twenty-gallon stockpot off the burner, but while taking off the lid with a kitchen spoon -- mistake number one -- I got a second-degree steam burn at the top of my hand and wrist. It was an ugly wound that took me out of the kitchen for four days. The upside was that I got the chance to catch up on some much-needed office work.

What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Late-night tapas bars that serve amazing wine and espresso and well-thought-out small plates.

What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I'd like to see more produce-driven menus. Some of the most amazing fruits and vegetables can be found in and around Denver and Boulder, and they need to be center stage as opposed to just a side dish. We're moving into a time where people are more health-conscious and more sustainably minded, and having meat-heavy menus is neither one of those things.

Favorite restaurant in America: Before taking a food-and-wine trip to Napa, I did my homework and found this great little vegetarian restaurant and yoga studio named Ubuntu. I had no idea what to expect going into it, but they had their own resident gardener, which I thought was amazing. My friends and I basically had everything on their menu, accompanied by some wonderful California pinot. I think it may have been the only meal of my life where I had to unbutton the top button of my pants -- I was so full and so happy.

Best food city in America: New York City. I lived and worked in the city in 2008 and, from a culinary perspective, had the most intense and amazing time of my life. The bar is raised so high in that city that it's daunting. The people pumping out food in New York City bring their best every day -- not that others elsewhere don't, but the competitive spirit in New York is like nothing I've ever experienced. It's that daily effort that's the driving force behind the incredible New York food movement.

Favorite dish to cook at home: Fish tacos. I started cooking fish tacos in college for a friend's birthday. And ever since then, it's the number one most-requested thing I make for my friends. But they're never the same twice: I'm always adding a different salsa, or trying out a different fish, or a new slaw or sauce -- or something.

Favorite dish on your menu: The cheese plate. Our cheese plate is an ever-changing, ever-evolving combination of dairy and vegan cheeses that's come a considerably long way in the past six months. I'm super-proud of the small craft cheeses and housemade vegan cheeses we select. That said, the egg rolls are a close second for me; they're just so colorful and visually stimulating, and they make me really happy when I see them go out.

If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? Deviled eggs. They're a great comfort food, and the possibilities are endless when it comes to what you can do with them, but I think selling them would be a crap shoot, especially if I tried to do something a little more interesting than sprinkle them with paprika.

Last meal before you die: Easy. All food preferences and allergies aside, it would be my grandma's chicken-fried steak, fried okra, creamed corn, a biscuit with honey butter, strawberry cake and banana pudding.

Read the rest of Lori Midson's interview with Rachel Kesley.

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Lori Midson
Contact: Lori Midson