If you’re a Bravo Top Cheffan(-atic), you know the culinary genius of Kelly Liken. If you are a foodie, you’ve heard about Kelly in Bon Appetit magazine and of renowned James Beard Award fame. But if you’ve never heard of Vail, Colorado’s premier chef, you are in for a treat.
Kelly spoke with HerExchange about food, Top Chef and what she is doing to promote the health and sustainability of her beloved community – and how you can do the same.
Far more than a culinary wizard, Kelly is an inspiration as she encourages women to be their best and never settle for second place!
SG: Kelly, what are your earliest memories in the kitchen?
KL: My earliest memories are of watching my mother take so much pleasure in the act of cooking, she was a wonderful cook. I didn’t help much; the kitchen was really the place that my mom had that was all hers. My family enjoyed dinner together every night. All four of us (Kelly’s mom, dad and brother) sat down every night to enjoy the food she cooked for us, her cooking was a very loving thing, she was giving us a gift every day. I had an appreciation for food and cooking, but I didn’t start cooking until high school and then not seriously until I was in college.
SG: Was college the time that cooking changed from being a hobby to a passion?
KL: Absolutely! I was studying physics at the University of Colorado and I got an after-school job in a kitchen. The very first day I was in a professional kitchen, the very first moment, it was like my hands knew what they were supposed to do. One moment I was a physics student and the next moment I knew I was made for this.
SG: Is it frightening to feel like you just walked into your destiny?
KL: Yes. It was sort of frightening, all of a sudden everything I envisioned for my future changed.
It was also really exciting and I went after it with everything I had! I couldn’t gain enough knowledge. I cooked professionally 4 or 5 years before I went to The Culinary Institute of America.
SG: When you left school, did you feel prepared to step out on your own?
KL: It was the first time in my life I felt there were a lot of options. It was very important to set myself on the right path towards my goals and be somewhere where I could create a community around myself and settle down, set my roots in; that is why I choose Vail, Colorado.
SG: Is the culinary community welcoming to women or is it still a ‘boys club’?
KL: My opinion goes back and forth. It certainly is a different place than 10 years ago, more women-friendly.
I’ve never really felt discriminated against, but you have to put in work. My goal is to be better than anyone else in the kitchen so no one has the ability to make me feel like I don’t belong there.
SG: How do you balance your personal and professional life? A chef’s schedule is so demanding and uncommon.
KL: It’s hard; a chef’s life isn’t conducive to family, particularly for women. Male chefs are often more comfortable in the schedule because, if they have families, they have a spouse at home that either works 9-5, or not at all and the children are wholly their responsibility.
As women, we don’t necessarily want to go to work 12-14 hours a day and leave our child to be raised by someone else, that’s hard. Rick and I haven’t quite figured out how we will make that work. My husband is my business partner and it’s the only way it works in my opinion, we are together at work every day.
SG: Your restaurant, Kelly Liken, was successful before Top Chef, why the decision to audition and go on the show?
KL: The opportunity presented itself to me and there was no reason not to go through the audition process. I didn’t really expect to get picked! Rick and I considered it carefully, because there is great sacrifice and risk involved. That’s the flip side of reality TV that people don’t hear about, it is a sacrifice.
But, ultimately you can’t buy the kind of exposure that Top Chef brings to a small, family-owned restaurant in Middle America. The pro’s outweighed the cons for the exposure for our small restaurant. It proved to be true and worth the sacrifice.
SG: Are there moments you watch back that were ‘cringe-worthy’?
KL: There are so many! I generally think I was portrayed well and my cooking style came across well, and that was the goal. But watching yourself on TV – it’s crazy. There are a thousand moments where you think ‘I wish I hadn’t said that’ or ‘I wish I had cooked that a different way.’
SG: Did the experience make you a better chef, wife, business woman?
It also made me a better manager. Being in a house for 6 weeks with 17 different people, you learn a lot about interpersonal relationships. *laughs*
At home, I’m with my husband 24/7 and during 6 weeks of filming I was only able to speak with him twice. That experience makes you really realize what you’re missing and what you value.
SG: Let’s shift gears and talk holidays! What are your family Christmas traditions?
KL: It’s tough; the holidays are the busiest weeks of the whole year at the restaurant. Rick and I have to work, work, and work! But, on Christmas Eve my whole family comes to the restaurant for dinner and then we all go back to my parents and sleepover, like when we were kids. Christmas morning we open presents and make a big breakfast.
After breakfast, Rick and I have to get to work. For us, it’s about making the time we do have free really special.
SG: What are the Kelly Liken Restaurant signature dishes?
When people come to Kelly Liken Restaurant, they want a taste of Colorado. Our Colorado rack of lamb is very popular and people love our Rocky Mountain elk carpaccio, especially around the holidays.
SG: Who are the women you admire in the industry; women you are inspired and motivated by?
KL: I am passionate about local food and Alice Waters was the first chef in the U.S. to cook with a sense of place. Alice Waters is the owner, executive chef and founder of Chez Panisse in Berkley, CA. Alice cooks with what is available around her, she really honors the food. Very simply, Alice started the movement of organics and farmer’s market – before any of us knew what it was in an urban area.
Years ago when people didn’t think about eating locally and Alice started a local school program and took it national. She was the inspiration for Sowing Seeds.
SG: Tell us about Sowing Seeds.
KL: Rick and I created Sowing Seeds by partnering with a local elementary school and creating a greenhouse garden. Sowing Seeds is about creating change and raising a generation of kids where it is normal to eat well, to know where their food comes from and be a part of the process of creating that food. We are achieving that goal through educational initiatives that deal with nutrition and gardening; teaching curriculum through the garden.
SG: What a great mission. Childhood obesity and health is such an important, hot-button, issue. How can people get involved with Sowing Seeds and continue the work in their own community?
KL: People in each community need to work with their local schools to first ascertain what the school’s need are, not every school has the same needs. Some schools need programs that bring families together to get involved in the educational process, some schools need funding for breakfast or more nutritious food. It’s about figuring out what your school and community needs and filing that gap.
SG: What keeps you motivated every day?
KL: I love what I do. I love doing it with my husband. Being a chef is the perfect balance between analytical and this really amazing arena of creativity. Every day is a new day and it never gets boring!
Now you can bring Kelly’s kitchen-brilliance home with her signature Potato Crusted Trout Filets with Carmelized Brussels Sprouts, Plump Golden Raisins and Toasted Pecans…delicious!
8 Rainbow Trout Filets, skinned
10 Fingerling Potatoes, sliced paper thin into disks
1 C All Purpose flour
5 each Eggs, beaten
½ lb Brussels Sprouts, cored and leaves separated
¼ C Toasted Pecan Pieces
¼ C Golden Raisins, soaked in Chardonnay for 1 hour
Butter and Olive Oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Recipe Lemon Beurre Blanc Sauce (to follow)
- Dust the skin side of filets in flour and then dredge through egg wash. Lay filets, egg side up, on a sheet pan. Place potato slices on filets to resemble scales on a fish.
- Cook the Brussels sprout leaves, slowly in a sauté pan in a little butter or olive oil until they are golden brown and wilted and season with salt and pepper. Add the pecans and plump raisins to the hot pan and toss together. Keep warm while you sauté the fish.
- Cover the bottom of a large sauté pan with olive oil. Heat to just smoking, season fish with salt and pepper. Place fish carefully, potato side down, in the pan and cook until potatoes are golden brown and crispy, about 3 minutes. Flip over and remove pan from heat while you place Brussels sprouts on the plates.
- Top the vegetables with the cooked filets and dress the plate with the buerre blanc sauce.
Brandied Beurre Blanc Sauce
1 C French Brandy
2 Shallots, chopped
1 sprig fresh Thyme
10 each black pepper corns
1 each bay leaf
1 lb. cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 each lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
- Put everything but butter and lemon juice in a sauce pan, bring to a simmer and reduce until syrupy.
- Whisk in the butter, 1 piece at a time, off the heat, until all the butter is melted and incorporated.
- Stir in lemon juice and season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Keep in a warm place, off direct heat.
- The sauce will hold in a warm place for about an hour.
Inspired?? Tell us about it!
-Stephanie Goetsch, December 2010