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