Executive Chef & Restaurateur Kelly Liken’s 4 tips for culinary leadership success
For Executive Chef, Kelly Liken, creating simple, seasonal, local American cuisine and blowing away customers are the most rewarding fruits (and veggies) of her labor.
“There’s nothing better than when you talk to a customer and they’re just thrilled that you’ve created this experience for them. It’s really special,” says Liken, executive chef and co-owner of Harvest by Kelly Liken, which opened its doors two months back in Edwards Colorado -- the heart of Vail Valley.
The multi-generational, community-oriented restaurant’s décor is “elegant farmhouse,” says Liken, with painted millwork, exposed wood beams and a giant patio overlooking Beaver Creek mountain. But beyond the Rocky Mountain ambiance, it’s the food, served up for three meals daily, that will undoubtedly draw locals here.Aiming to stay, “super-reasonably priced” here, Liken says small plates range from $5 - $12 and entrees run $20 - $26. One of the most popular dishes on the menu so far is the grilled Octopus, she says.
“We also have a great roasted beet, quinoa and kale salad, a roasted pork shoulder with creamy grits, pot-roasted chicken thighs with spicy peppers and homemade sausage,” says Liken, whose reputation as a critically-lauded and influential chef precedes her.
The Pittsburgh native recalls her mom’s early passion for food, which inspired her own.
“She put us on to homework and made homemade dinners every night – it was her own time, her solace as a busy mom,” says Liken. “I grew up in a house where such care was taken in feeding the family. My mom poured through cooking magazines and tried new recipes. As my younger sister and I got older, my parents started taking us to great restaurants and we’d eat normal food – not kid food. It garnered my love for cooking.”
A math and science lover, Liken initially majored in Physics and had just twenty-credits left to graduate, when she decided to switch career directions -- toward culinary arts.
“I’d worked as a “barista” as a University of Boulder college student, at a local coffee shop making cappuccinos. I loved making sandwiches for people and working with my hands,” says Liken, who later took a job at Cheesecake Factory, making salads.
“I learned to be a line cook, which isn’t creative, but we followed a strict, standard of quality and training, which was invaluable,” says Liken. At The Med, a nearby Greek restaurant, Liken learned to create her own recipes – not just corporate ones – and met a memorable, tapas chef and mentor.
“He took me under his wing and pushed me. He said there was nowhere to go in Boulder, and that I should go to culinary school,” says Liken, who took the advice and enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
“I don’t think you have to go to culinary school by any stretch to be a great chef, but in the mid-90’s in Colorado, I couldn’t get to the level I wanted to be without it,” says Liken, who graduated first in her class in 2001.
“It took a lot of hard work and determination. At 24-years old, my sole purpose was to become a great chef. I had that head space. The college dorm stuff was out of my system and I’d had three or four years of culinary work experience already. I could dig in with the chefs and professors and take it to the next level,” says Liken.
As for lessons learned there, “I learned such great basics. Young culinary folks need the mechanics – a great foundation to build on,” says Liken.
For those considering this route, “Before going to culinary school, work for a couple of years first to decide whether it will be worth your time and money,” she says.
An internship at The Inn at Little Washington, near D.C. proved to be very impactful as well.
“The Inn is legendary. That year, Patrick O’Connell won best chef there and received a James Beard award, so the pressure was on. There was incredible attention to detail – from the music that played in the kitchen, to sifting through every chive we cut. You train your ear and eye and realize that such details mattered –it is the difference between good and great. This I’ve carried with me in all aspects of my life,” says Liken.
While offered jobs at The Inn at Little Washington and with Daniel Boulud upon graduation, “I was craving community and a place to settle down, so I moved to vail, where my parents live half of the year,” says Liken. After working at French restaurant, Splendido, in Beaver Creek, where she met her husband, Rick, a front-of-house captain, “It became obvious that if I was going to stay in Colorado, I should open my own restaurant,” she says, and in 2004, she opened Restaurant Kelly Liken.
“We found a little old, tiny buffet restaurant in the worst part of Vail. The guy was willing to sell the space. Through the plans, we learned that a Four Seasons was going up next door, so we jumped in,” says Liken. However, the famed hotel didn’t open for five years, so, “We had to entice people off the main village and create a destination restaurant,” says Liken.
To fulfill this tall order, “My husband and I stayed true to our passion for seasonal, local cuisine, but through fine dining,” says Liken. As much as possible, “Everything was sourced locally,” says Liken. “We didn’t serve tomatoes at all unless they were from here.”
The warm, intimate, 65-seat establishment was serving farm-to-table style food, two years before this movement began trending throughout America, says Liken. On its menu, the most popular dish was potato-crusted, trout fillet, served with caramelized Brussel sprouts, golden raisins, and brandy, says the restaurateur. For her creativity in the kitchen and dedication to her craft, Liken was a James Beard nominee, has been featured in Food & Wine and Bon Appetit, as an emerging female to watch, and has appeared on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America, NBC TODAY Show and was a contestant on Bravo’s Season 7 of Top Chef D.C., according to her professional bio.
After ten years in business, Liken was made an offer to sell her space, which was too good to refuse.
“We thought about it for a while. It was never my intention to sell it, but I thought about what I wanted to do the next fifteen years of my career. We said, let’s take another leap of faith.
Since opening Harvest, set on the grounds of the prestigious Sonnenalp Club, a semi-private golf venue with a state-of-the-art fitness facility, Liken and her husband are adjusting to operating the three-meals-a-day dining destination.
“We’re serving food for eighteen hours a day, as our café opens at 6:30 a.m., with lunch at 11:00 a.m. and dinner beginning at 5 p.m. It’s more frenetic, with different meal periods and a staff that’s twice as big,” says Liken.
Read on for Liken’s 4 tips for culinary leadership success:
Respect is earned. “A lot of my time is spent coaching and teaching new staff. You have to look at what you want a team to look like as a whole puzzle. You don’t want everyone to have the same strengths and weaknesses,” says Liken. “It’s better to be present and calmly coach than to push, teach and walk away,” she adds. “No one wants to be micro-managed, but people also don’t want to be left alone. Employees crave leadership and management. You have to strike that balance,” says Liken.
Stay calm. “A lot of chefs yell in the kitchen – they let stress and intensity get the better of them. But not everything is the end of the world,” says Liken. “I don’t yell and I don’t put up with too much of it either It’s not good for the team, for the food or us. We want to be doing this for the next twenty years, so we have to take care of ourselves, our team and our restaurant. It’s important to learn how to give correction in a way that’s effective, but respectful.”
Have thick skin.“You have to be committed. Not everyone likes your food and not everyone will be nice to you – customers, too. You have to see the goal line and push through to it, in order to be successful. As soon as you get complacent, things start to head south. Once people talk about your restaurant that way, it’s all over,” says Liken.
Keep your passion alive. To stay at the top of her culinary game, Liken and her husband spend a lot of time in Central America and Mexico, since, she says, “Traveling is inspirational to any creative outlet.” Even in and about her hometown, “We enjoy restaurants – Asian food, sushi or barbecue,” says Liken. “Food isn’t just our job, but our hobby.”