Rachel Kesley, exec chef of WaterCourse Foods, on produce-driven menus, vegetarianism and her fascination with figs

Rachel Kesley 1.jpg
Lori Midson

Rachel Kesley
WaterCourse Foods
837 East 17th Avenue
303-832-7313
www.watercoursefoods.com

This is part one of Lori Midson's interview with Rachel Kesley, executive chef of WaterCourse Foods. In part two of that interview, Kesley dishes on umeboshi vinegar, the traveling food cart and eating a buzz button.

The best advice from Rachel Kesley? Listen to your body.

The 29-year-old executive chef of WaterCourse Foods, Denver's most popular spot for vegetarian food (along with City, O' City, its sister restaurant in Capitol Hill), became a vegetarian in 1997 after dissecting a fetal pig during biology class as a freshman in high school. "It was really the first time that I'd physically equated the animal to food, and it just totally grossed me out," recalls Kesley, who later became a full-fledged vegan after watching the documentary Baraka, which includes disturbing scenes depicting the injustices of factory farming. "There was this whole part about chicken and poultry plants and the inhumanity of it all, and it really hit home for me, so I became a vegan," says Kesley, who maintained a vegan lifestyle for three years while living in the People's Republic of Boulder, prime feeding ground for earth-muffin diets. But her body eventually balked. "I was living in a city where you hike and run, and my body could never keep up -- I was tired -- so I listened to my body, and started incorporating fish into my diet, starting with a small piece of halibut," she remembers, "and, boom, just like that, my energy level surged and I felt like I was bouncing off the walls."

After graduating with a degree in history from the University of Colorado, she bumped around Boulder, eventually enrolling in the culinary program at the School of Natural Cookery, working the line and waiting tables at Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery, becoming a personal chef for a few years and, in 2006, the executive chef of Leaf Vegetarian restaurant, where she stayed for two years until she decided to take a bite out of the Big Apple. "As a food person, you want to move to New York, and I landed a great job as a sous chef at a mostly vegetarian farm-to-table restaurant, where I was working eighty hours a week," she remembers. When her hours were slashed, she got a gig at Bites, a big-name New York catering company with notable celebrity-chef clients like Mario Batali. "We did almost all of the cooking on-site, and I learned a tremendous amount from that job," she says, but in the end, New York wasn't her cup of fruit: "It wore me down, and I really missed the outdoors and just popping into my car and going to the mountains. Ultimately, it was just too much for me."

She headed back to Colorado and sent a random e-mail to WaterCourse, which, it turned out, was hiring a sous chef. "I didn't want a lot of responsibility; I just wanted to cook really good food, and I wasn't sure I wanted to handle meat," admits Kesley, who got the job -- and, two months later, the executive-chef position. "I work with some of the best and brightest people in the business," she adds, noting that her eating habits are still not strictly vegetarian. "I eat fish and eggs, and I'll take a bite of someone's lamb if it's local and sustainable, but I won't eat veal or anything with feathers -- I don't like feathers."

But you might be surprised to learn what Kesley wants for her last meal before she kicks the bucket. Here's a hint: It's not tofu.


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9 comments
Rogbie
Rogbie

Watercourse is a joke. Rachel is a nice lady, but not a great cook. After spending 3 years in that kitchen under several different "chefs," I am still amazed the management at Watercourse can still claim they use "local" produce. The Shamrock truck delivers to the back door every day at 2:00 PM. The last time I checked the only thing "local" about Shamrock's food services is, their distribution warehouse is located here. As for the bit of food that comes from the owners "farm", it would not be a drop in the bucket of the slop that is served from the kitchen at Watercourse. The statement, that processed foods don't belong in the kitchen at Watercourse is false: imitation maple syrup, vegenaise (processed vegan "mayonnaise"), conventional produce (covered in pesticides/herbicides/petroleum based fertilizers, and GMO crops).

Don't let the facade fool you. Diners may assume that Watercourse serves "local, organic" food, but that is a false presupposition. The owner and management at Watercourse are great at blowing smoke and letting their customers believe their food is something it is not. Deep fried food is deep fried food, whether it is vegetarian or not.

fraggle303
fraggle303

You're a sellout to your principles Rachel. Fish suffer too. You can totally live without raw-fish sushi, the vegetarian sushi is still yummy and very much safer, not full of mercury, blood, parasites and bacteria like the fish is. But it's a moot point: the oceans will be empty in a few more years.

I've heard the "listen to your body" story a million times. This is superstitious claptrap, the justification talk of an addict whose willpower has failed. Your "low energy" crisis was clearly just from having a nutritional (probably B12) and/or calorie deficiency, easily corrected with supplements and/or more food! Not more killing and raping of the oceans...

Try basing your arguments on facts!

Diner
Diner

My respect goes out to Rachel. Well spoken, and not dogmatic. Sounds like she has a good outlook on life in general. I'm not vegetarian, but have eaten at WaterCourse a few times with friends, and enjoyed the food. It's tough to do vegetarian/vegan foood creatively, without relying on vegetarian ethnic standbys. Nice Chef and Tell, I've enjoyed reading them over the last few months. Been in Denver 2 years and Chef and Tell has given me a snapshot of several of the city's best chefs. Look forward to future posts.

Steve Schwartz
Steve Schwartz

Q: What beverage goes best with a vegeterian meal?A: Flat beer.

wahhhhhh
wahhhhhh

How nice for you to live in a country so wealthy that you can afford to be oh-so-holier-than-thou in your food choices. Shut up your over privileged mouth.

I am not a vegetarian, but Rachel's food sounds awesome.

Tom
Tom

Fraggle: Rachel may be a sellout to your principles but it seems she is trying to live in harmony with her own. I admire this.

You are obviously deeply entrenched in your convictions about the eating of animals. I admire your discipline and your desire to get people to see the effect their eating habits have on the planet. The oceans are in trouble and the factory farming model of meat production is environmentally unsustainable and unethical. However chances are very, very good that people are not going to give up eating meat anytime soon (especially if you refer to them as addicts). But, the good thing is, that through the efforts of places like WaterCourse Foods and other vegetarian restaurants people may be more inclined to try meatless entrées and begin to incorporate this change into their lives. This is a great and necessary step.

I've always appreciated that WaterCourse and City, O' City have steered clear of dogma and politics instead focusing on serving good food. Well done Rachel.

Carly
Carly

Fraggle, by acting self-righteous, you're doing more harm than good for vegetarians, pescetarians, vegans, locavores, etc. Rachel is turning meat-eaters onto tofu and seitan and creating locally grown produce driven recipes. All you're doing is turning people off by upholding the unfortunate and somewhat truthful sterotype that vegetarians are sanctimonious and preachy.

Lori Midson
Lori Midson

Thanks, Diner. Happy to hear that you enjoy them.

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