Q+A with Chef Kelly Liken

How did you first get interested in the restaurant business and get started as a chef?

Well, I grew up into a family that was really into food, so I was exposed to it, as someone who loved to eat my mom’s cooking, at an early age. But honestly, I didn’t really cook with her, it was kind of her thing  I certainly learned to appreciate good food from an early age, but it wasn’t until I was in college at CU that I got into cooking professionally, and it was almost by mistake. I just needed a job and I was into restaurants and food and I wanted to learn how to cook! The only jobs I ever had, even in high school, were related to food service and in restaurants, so I probably knew it, but it wasn’t really on my radar until I was in college. But from the time I got into my first professional kitchen, I immediately loved it and felt like I was good at it.  It was like my hands knew what they were doing and it was a revelation, so from that moment on, from when I was about 19 I just cooked and cooked and cooked. I went to culinary school after I went to college at CU. I kind of did it backward.

What made you decide to put down roots in Colorado?

I was in Colorado for about 5 years for college and then headed back East to do my culinary training. After I went to culinary school in New York, I was working at the Inn at Washington. It’s a little Inn and restaurant outside of Washington D.C. and it’s very famous, kind of 5 star dining. But It’s really another September 11th story, like everyone has one. I was living in this little town outside of D.C. and I kind of got freaked out. Even though I was cooking at one of the best restaurants in America, I wanted to be near my family and put down roots. My parents have lived in Colorado part time ever since I was about 25 and I was talking to my dad and told him that I wasn’t happy where I was. He said, “Why don’t you try Vail? You can cook for exactly the same people, but they’ll be on vacation.” So I tried it and I immediately loved it. I already knew that I loved Colorado and it felt like coming back home. I was looking for a community and I felt like I found it here.

Do you feel like the culinary culture and history of Colorado has influenced your cooking?

Oh yes, 100%. It’s been a learning process for the last 15 years, but when I first opened my restaurant I said, “I’m going to cook food that comes from Colorado.” And people literally laughed at me, I was only 27 years old, and people thought, it’s snowing here half the year, you can’t do that. My husband Rick and I weren’t sure we could do it either, but we thought we’d better try since we told people we were going to. This was before farm to table was really a movement, and we would drive around Colorado in our Subaru picking up produce and meat. But it’s been a journey and I’m really proud to say that I’ve been a part of what is now a really thriving culinary culture. It’s not just about the chefs who are being really creative, but it’s about the farmers supporting the chefs and the chefs supporting the farmers and now we have this great, multifaceted culture.

Thinking ahead 10 years, what would you like to see in the culinary community of our state?

There are so many creative chefs working here today and I’d love to see that continue and I’d love to see us continue to show the rest of the country that this is not a fly-over state. We have so much to offer. Between Denver and Colorado Springs, and the college towns, Boulder, Fort Collins and the mountains. We have so many points of view here and it’s very diverse. I think it’s because we have the thriving cities and the mountain culture.

You mentioned that you were only 27 when you first opened your restaurant. What did it feel like to take a big risk like that at a young age?

I would say I was completely naïve, but I’m really glad I was naïve because I think, had I known what I was getting myself into, I might have been too scared to do it, and I’m so glad I did it. I mean, I knew that I could cook the food and I had a point of view that people would enjoy but it was everything else that quickly became overwhelming. I had to have a crash course overnight in the business, and the personnel, and human resources, all of it. I’m lucky enough that my husband and I are business partners and he is a front-of-house master so I was able to depend on him for a lot of that. But it was pretty crazy at first.

As of last year, your restaurant has been open for 10 years. Do you think you’re at the place you thought you’d with your restaurant at 10 years?

I’m pleasantly surprised. I think, at 27 years old, I had a vision and a dream, but we were working so hard that it was hard to see the forest through the trees. But when I look back at myself at 27 now, I think, “Wow, this is what we were talking about. This is what we wanted.”

Do you have any new plans for the restaurant moving ahead?

I think it’s really important to keep things fresh. Thirty years ago, you could design a restaurant that could last until the day you died, but today our customers are constantly growing and changing. Especially in a tourist area, people are coming from different places, so it’s important to keep things fresh and not be too rigid with your original concept. Honor that concept but constantly be thinking about what is fresh and new and on trend.

What would tell home cooks is the most important tool they have in their kitchen?

Their most important tool is their sense of taste of smell and their ability to trust that. I tell people this all the time. They expect me to say, you need a mandolin or a microplane. But I hear all the time people say that recipe just didn’t taste right and I didn’t love it. I tell them you need to trust yourself., you already know what you like so don’t be afraid to play with the flavors you like. If you know that you really don’t like fennel, then let’s think of a vegetable you could use in place of that. Don’t be afraid to try new flavor combinations. You know what flavors you like, you just have to trust that.