Kelly Liken didn't win Top Chef DC, but she's at the top of her game

Categories: Chef and Tell

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This is part one of Juliet Wittman's interview with Kelly Liken of Restaurant Kelly Liken. Read part two of the Kelly Liken interview here.

Kelly Liken
Restaurant Kelly Liken
12 Vail Road, Vail

One of Kelly Liken's finest moments on Top Chef D.C. came when the contestants were challenged to make healthful school lunches that children would love eating. She created pork carnitas tacos with pickled onion and cilantro, and won the challenge. This was fitting: Liken, who graduated first in her class from the Culinary Institute of America, owns Restaurant Kelly Liken in Vail, and in a project that Jamie Oliver would love, she and her husband, Rick Colomitz, have been working on a greenhouse program with Creek Elementary School in Eagle called Sowing Seeds and funded by the Vail Valley Foundation.

Another one of her reality-TV triumphs came with the Quickfire in which the chefs were to use exotic meats -- and then told to switch the proteins halfway through the process. She inherited a huge emu egg that another contestant had whacked open and turned it into a creamy omelet. With the added kick of a harissa vinaigrette, sided by a fennel salad and scattered with olives and almonds, this dish perfectly exemplified Liken's style: comforting food, prepared with meticulous technique, and providing a hint of adventure and surprise. Then there was Eric Ripert's lavish praise for Liken's halibut with artichoke and fennel barigoule, which filled her with pleasure because, she says, "He's the best seafood chef in the world."

But there was also a time when she found herself standing in front of the judges, having come out on the bottom of a challenge. The contest was Restaurant Wars, and, as a restaurant owner, Liken had been asked by her team to serve at the front of the house. This meant she had less time to prepare her own food: a soup the judges found too watery and -- despite all -- a delicious chocolate ganache enhanced with salt crystals. For her turn as maître d', she received a strange compliment from former New York Times dining critic Frank Bruni: "It was a clumsy charisma that you had," he told her, "but it was a charisma."

Although Liken didn't repeat the triumph of another Colorado chef, Hosea Rosenberg, who actually took home the Top Chef title in the fifth season, she won the respect of judges and fellow contestants (winner Kevin Sbraga said he'd considered Liken his strongest competition all along), made it to the final four, and competed in Singapore for the finale. There she managed to cook a fine meal despite the blood pulsing into her plastic glove from a badly cut finger.

I caught up with Liken at the end of this seventh season of Top Chef:

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