At her eponymous restaurant in Vail, Kelly Liken dishes out multi-course dinners for hundreds of people every evening. But when she's home in Eagle Ranch, she moves around her open kitchen preparing food for four: two humans and two dogs.
The Top Chef contender is known for her Colorado-centric menus that feature local farmers and suppliers. And when she's home, that doesn't change. An enormous bag of beans from Vail Mountain Coffee Roasters is in the cupboard above the fancy coffee maker, her freezer (too small and skinny for her taste) is filled with part of the steer she bought at the local 4-H auction, and her fridge is stocked with seasonal veggies — beets, squash and greens at the moment. Every week she takes some meat — ground beef, duck, elk scraps or whatever else is handy — cooks it up with a pile of veggies, and throws it all into her trusty Cuisinart food processor. Voila! Top Chef dog food.
"My dogs eat organic meat and a variety of vegetables. It's kind of a problem in the summer, because it's hard to keep them out of the garden. They want the lettuces and carrots," Liken says. "In the winter, they love squash and beets, and the little one likes anything sweet. It just goes to show that we're supposed to eat seasonally."
Making it Home
Liken and her husband-slash-business-partner Rick Colomitz, moved to Eagle Ranch a few years ago. They bought one of the models and got to make exactly two decisions in regards to the kitchen: paint color (red) and countertops (granite). It's not their dream kitchen, but it is a big step up from the tiny condo kitchen they had before, so they're headed in the right direction.
Clearly, Liken knows about kitchens, running a nationally renowned operation out of Vail. But her home kitchen remains humble, unaffected, which just goes to show that it's not extravagant design or fancy gimmicks that make a great chef. It's the passion for being in the kitchen that matters most.
She does have feng shui working for her. In feng shui philosophy, specific maps identify different areas of a building; the career center helps one become more successful in business or stimulate a new vocation. Liken's career center lands in the kitchen where, tucked into a corner next to a hodgepodge of spirits that is the couple's informal bar, sits a cookbook by her culinary hero Mario Batali.
"He became famous by cooking simple, gimmick-free food," Liken says. "He never felt the need to be the next trend. He's also really down to earth, the way he's able to balance his restaurant career and his personal life."
Whether it was the feng shui or a perfect storm of Liken's dedication, talent and personality, there's no question that her own career is rocking as well.
Sharing the Spotlight
It is a well-known fact that ordinary folks are apprehensive when asking a professional chef over for dinner. Of course it happens, but there's always a bit of trepidation in the process. For her part, Liken deflects the focus from food to the people involved.
"I don't think cooking is the most important part of a dinner party," she says. "It's more about bringing people together, making them comfortable, making sure they have a good time."
She and Colomitz host dinner parties on a regular basis, often capping the night at eight guests who are always welcome to pitch in and help with the preparations. They keep the parties simple, and like to build around a theme: Mexican fiesta or Southern night, for instance.
"My mom taught me that," she says. "She's a really good cook, and is a believer in keeping things simple. That way, if your guests want to be involved in the process, they can be."
The couple's emphasis on friends — over food — again demonstrates that it's not the space you work in or the spice you work with, it's the people and the camaraderie in the kitchen that count most.
A die-hard country music fan (with the cowboy boot collection to prove it), Liken prefers to put on a little country and let the evening roll. "But not everyone likes country music," Liken says, with the tone of someone who knows it's true, but still doesn't quite believe it. "So sometimes we just put on a Pandora station."
Liken and Colomitz didn't have much say on their indoor kitchen, but they made up for it with their outdoor one. It is a thing of beauty and function and scope.
Two years after they moved into the house, the couple built a deck over a good deal of their lawn — valuable partying real estate — and let loose with the set-up. An extensive wet bar with kegerator, stove, tables and chairs, and a fridge make up the outdoor space. But the piece de resistance is an enormous grill — perhaps the pride of this celebrity chef's home cooking arsenal.
"It took me a year to pick that grill out," Liken says. "It's got huge BTUs, five burners, a rotisserie and two levels. It's sweet." Not to mention the expansive views of Castle Peak and beyond that the driver of the grill gets to admire. "The way it faces, the cook has the best view of the entire place."
Has she ever used the rotisserie?
"No, but I might," she deadpans.
Until last summer, Liken was always the one tending the grill — her grill. "It's sort of weird, because husbands — men — are always the ones cooking with fire," she says. "But the grill has always been my domain ... until Rick grabbed the tongs last summer."
It's obvious she's proud of him, but she just can't help feeling territorial. Luckily, she's got an even larger grill in her even larger restaurant kitchen.
And that's all hers.
Favorite tools: Her hands, chef's knife, cookbooks, coffeemaker, blender and Cuisinart.
Newest appliance: Pressure cooker, bought for the Top Chef finals in Singapore.
In the wine cellar: Row upon row of wine, including some white wine they helped make with Willem Johnson in Wolcott. There's also a row of dill pickles she puts up every year, which she doles out monthly. In the center of the room is a solid, antique table that's been in her family since she was a child.
What you'd change in your kitchen: Make it lighter and brighter, with a basin sink. "And I'd add an oven. It's really hard to cook with just one. Can you imagine how easy Thanksgiving would be?"