If the name Kelly Liken rings a bell, you’ve probably been following the James Beard Foundation nominations: the Vail-based toque is up for Best Chef Southwest for the third year in a row. Or perhaps you recognize her from “Top Chef.” As a season seven contestant, she made it to the final four. Or maybe you just watch the news: It was at Liken’s eponymous restaurant that Michelle Obama ordered the ancho-braised short rib flogged by Rush Limbaugh last month as a “hypocritical” choice for an anti-obesity advocate.
The Meals That Made Them
An occasional series by Ruth Tobias and Louisa Kasdon about American chefs and the meals that changed their lives.
Ironically, the first lady’s interest in promoting healthy eating among the nation’s youth is precisely what led her to Liken, whose braised tacos de carnitas won the “Outside the Lunch Box” elimination challenge on the “Top Chef” episode guest-judged by none other than White House chef Sam Kass. Liken herself spearheads an initiative with the Vail Valley Foundation, Sowing Seeds, to teach local schoolchildren about sustainability and nutrition through gardening, composting, and cooking programs.
As she works to influence the next generation of chefs, Liken recalls her own moment of inspiration:
“I was 23 or 24, working as a line cook in Boulder and loving every minute of being in a professional kitchen. At the time, Boulder didn’t have all the amazing restaurants that it has now. The farm-to-table thing wasn’t happening yet. But I was studying a lot of cookbooks — ‘The French Laundry Cookbook’ had just come out — and reading about all these amazing things that I didn’t know were possible.
:Meanwhile, I was on my way to the CIA [Culinary Institute of America]. About a month before [school started], my mom took me to France, and we ate at Alain Ducasse’s Le Louis XV. It blew me away. I’d thought that I knew what I wanted to do from doing so much bookwork, but until I actually experienced this — it brought me to tears, twice. I literally cried because my eyes were opened to the fact that people could really cook like this. I understood what it meant.
“We had the tasting menu, eight or nine courses of the most amazing, simple, farm-driven food. The only farm-fresh food we’d ever experienced was at home, because our family had always shopped at farmers markets. … Anyway, the dining room is beautiful, gilded; they have a little stool for your purse [laughs]. But the food wasn’t terribly fancy. It was just cooked and presented so beautifully and was such a true expression of the products. One thing I remember, I think it was an accompaniment to a fish, was called petits farcis — tiny, perfect vegetables hollowed out and stuffed with more vegetables. It just tasted like what it was supposed to taste like. It was what squash tastes like in your dreams. And a rack of lamb carved tableside into tiny little lamb chops that were so succulent. Of course there was a beautiful demiglace. And dessert. They brought by these marshmallows — long cylinders in all colors served in big, heavy, glass apothecary jars — that they cut with these little scissors, so you could try different flavors … one vanilla, one mint. I was so young and new to it all, I didn’t even know that you could make marshmallows [laughs].
“And all different colors of macaroons and madelines — cart after cart of these beautiful, tiny sweets. The whole experience was so surreal. I was overwhelmed that it was actually happening. And when I burst into those tears, it was at that moment that I thought, “This is doable.” I would never claim to be Alain Ducasse, but here was someone who was doing what I dreamed of doing.
“At this point, the maître’d was worried about me, because obviously I had been making a scene for two hours [laughs]. So at the end of the meal he gave me a tour of the kitchen. I got to see this state-of-the-art kitchen, at the highest level, with a brigade of 30 cooks. It was really special.”
Roasted Colorado Rack of Lamb with a Spring Pea Sauté and Pea Emulsion
1 8-bone rack of Colorado lamb, Frenched, scraps reserved
For the rub:
For the sauté and froth:
For the garnish:
- For the sauce: Brown lamb scrap, onions, carrots and celery in a pot on medium-high heat. Once browned, add the tomato, garlic, bouquet garni, and red wine to the pot. Add the veal stock and reduce by half or until flavor desired. Strain and reserve for later.
- For the herb rubbed lamb: Mix together parsley, thyme, garlic, salt, and pepper and rub the lamb with the mixture. Wrap the bones of the lamb with foil. Grill on medium heat, fat side down, for about 6 to 8 minutes. Finish to desired temperature; let rest for at least 3 minutes before cutting.
- For the pea sauté: In a sauté pan on medium heat, combine fava beans, 1½ cups English peas, green onions, and butter. Sauté for about 2 minutes or until thoroughly hot and finish with half of the mint.
- For the mint scented froth: Heat milk to a boil and add remaining English peas and mint. Process in blender until smooth.
- For the plating: Lightly coat pea tendrils with olive oil, salt, and pepper and arrange on four plates. Top with warm fava bean mixture. Next pour a 2-ounce portion of the veal stock reduction around plate. Remove foil from lamb, cut into four portions, and add to plate. Finally, buzz the English pea and milk mixture with an immersion blender to incorporate air, creating froth. Add froth to plate and enjoy.
Zester Daily contributor Ruth Tobias is assistant editor at Sommelier Journal as well as a seasoned food-and-beverage writer for numerous city and national publications; she is also the author of the upcoming “Food Lover’s Guide to Denver & Boulder” from Globe Pequot. Her website is www.ruthtobias.com or follow her @Denveater.