Top Chef Exit Interview with Kelly Liken

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Kelly Liken in front of her restaurant in Vail, CO

by Sophia Sparks & Rock ‘n Roll Ghost

Kelly Liken was eliminated in this past week’s episode of Top Chef by the thinnest of margins.  I feel that Kevin should have gone home simply for the fact that he hasn’t proven himself as good of a chef as her and the others, but I’ m not a judge, now am I?

Liken shone early on, but lost her footing here and there throughout the new season of the Emmy award-winning Bravo show.  She fought back and earned her spot among the final four as they trekked from the states to Singapore, home to what is said to be the best street and mall food in the world.  Though she was unsure of a lot of the ingredients and couldn’t read a lick of what was written on bottles and cans (even having issues with a can opener at one point), she made dishes that were well regarded by the judges.  Again, by the thinnest of margins, she fell just outside of what was acceptable to them and was booted.

But Liken, who is the Chef/Owner of a restaurant in Vail, CO (named after her) will surely come out of this well.  She has received many accolades in her time: a 2008 feature in Bon Appetit’s “Women Chefs: The Next Generation”, and was a semi-finalist in 2009 and 2010 for James Beard’s Best Chef Southwest.  In Vail, she cooks seasonal American food with a strong penchant for locally sourced ingredients.  Her favorite recipe, according to Top Chef’s website, is Parmesan-mascarpone tortellini with spring vegetables and crispy artichokes.

Rock ‘n Roll Ghost‘s Sophia Sparks was on the conference call with Liken last Thursday.


Kelly Liken

We’ve only had one female winner in Top Chef history and, between you and Tiffany. it seemed possible for a second.  What are your thoughts?

Kelly Liken: I’ll tell you Tiffany and I shared your hopes (laughs). We were rooting for each other so it was tough.  Top Chef doesn’t have a great track record with female chefs making it to end and I’m not sure why that is.  Probably a coincidence.  It’s really as an individual, they don’t account any build up of what you’ve done.  Any given day it’s anyone’s game.

Being on Top Chef overseas must have been exciting. What was the highlight?

Kelly Liken: Singapore was amazing. I was so privileged (that) I was part of (that) group, but hands down the highlight was the afternoon spent with (KF) Seetoh. We got to taste so many amazing dishes and really see Singapore food culture first hand with an authority. That is an experience that will forever be an amazing memory.

How did you feel about the team competition so late in the challenge?

Kelly Liken: We were all okay with it.  We weren’t dependent on others’ food. For the team portion they expected us to perform as a restaurant team would and put out great restaurant service, just the way we would at home. But I wasn’t dependent on anyone else’s food in the judging process, it was interesting but in the end we thought it was good.

Ed seemed to be the only one prepared for the second dish. Was there some animosity towards him?

Kelly Liken: We were all surprised when Ed blurted out he was planning all along to do a second dish. We were all worried about having one dish but we were allotted one hour.  That’s like a Quickfire for the Finale Elimination, but we were surprised when Ed confidently blurted out he had planned it all along it. It was frustrating.

Kelly Liken at the judges' table

Sophia Sparks: It was really splitting hairs towards the end of the competition. Were you uncomfortable at all preparing Asian food?

Kelly Liken: Nope, you have to do your research and be prepared.  I couldn’t imagine a scenario where they wouldn’t ask that so I familiarized myself with everything that I could.  The cooking technique doesn’t change wherever you go in the world.  It’s the local flavors, traditions and spices that I prepared myself for as I experimented in the kitchen. It’s not what I do every day but I learned a lot from it. Now I have a new found love for those Asian cuisines.

Sophia Sparks: What was the best advice you got from the judges and did you have a favorite judge?

Kelly Liken: You know, honestly I think all the feedback was good.  There was a good side and a bad side to everything, but all of the feedback was really great for me as a chef and growing as a chef.  I just got to look outside of my box and reevaluate myself and my dishes.  As for my favorite judge it was hands down Eric Ripert, solely because he likes my food and said lovely, lovely things about my food.  In his video blog he says lovely things as well.

How did you feel about the Quickfire twist with immunity?

Kelly Liken: Having immunity on the table wouldn’t have made difference in my game but having immunity in the finale is a little ridiculous. They took it off the table after restaurant wars so why bring it back?  Let’s just all compete here. I don’t want to speak for Ed but I believe even he would say that didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

What was your favorite thing you ate in Singapore? Any favorite street foods?

Kelly Liken: I think it was the chili crab—I think they call it mud crab and it looks like a big blue crab. It’s stir fried, cut in half, and cooked in sweet and sour spicy sauce. You tear it apart with your hands and it’s just delicious.

Through most of the challenges the chefs focused on Singaporean cooking rather than using it as an influence.  Did that hamper your ability to express your style?

Kelly Liken: Of course.  I think it was a great challenge to cook Singaporean food. I definitely prepared for it, I expected to have to do it. Having to cook traditional Singaporean food put a halt on my style of food. I cook very simple, produce-driven regional American food so it’s the opposite of what I usually cook. I would like to cook something quintessentially Kelly but still I represented myself and my style.

Kelly Liken shops for ingredients in Singapore

Could you talk more about what you did to prepare for Singapore aspect of show?  Were you surprised that Kevin had never cooked with a wok?

Kelly Liken: It was actually really fun and pushed me out of my day to day routine. I stared researching Singapore and there are so many different cultures that create it. So I researched those cuisines and found what those cuisines are about. I played with spice mixtures I’m not familiar with. I also researched traditional dishes and what goes into them and how I can put my own twist on them; a lot of reading, cooking, playing in the kitchen. It was a great time. As for Kevin not using the wok, I’m not surprised. I don’t think any of us except for Angelo had ever used a commercial wok. It’s an intense piece of equipment most chefs don’t have access to.

There’s been things in the press about this seasons’ chefs not having as much personality.  What is your reaction to that?

Kelly Liken: I have to say I don’t really agree with it. We all had great personalities but as this competition gets stiffer and as producers up the ante, you get less clown, less people interested in the face on TV and more on competing in the highest level. You only see what ends up on 45 minutes of TV. Each challenge is much longer than 45 minutes but that’s all you see.

When you cut your finger what happened? Was that a contributing factor to not moving forward?

Kelly Liken: Well basically what happened was I was moving fast, slipped, and cut my finger. It was definitely a bleeder, but I lost a little time and I was one handed for most of the time. It made me nervous and threw me off my game. We only started with an hour so losing a few minutes and being nervous maybe I didn’t think everything through.

Did you feel Angelo had an advantage with his Asian cooking experience?

Kelly Liken: I never really thought that.  I think I’m probably the only one. I never thought he was my biggest competitor either. His familiarity of that area of the world could help, but it’s also a disadvantage because everyone expects him to excel but we’re all professional chefs and passionate. With a little prep we can cook from any area of the world.

Kelly Liken in Singapore

Official Top Chef Website

Official Kelly Liken Website

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