High in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, Vail holds a rightful place as a global ski capitol for its artful pairings of powdery pistes with world-renowned restaurants, bars and boutiques. Top chef Kelly Liken dishes with Alex Pasquariello on her restaurant’s sumptuous cuisine and the best spots to eat, drink and play in Vail
It’s always been about Colorado for chef Kelly Liken. A decade after debuting a bold locavore menu at her eponymous Vail restaurant, the James Beard-nominated toque is plating more local fare than ever before – quite an accomplishment for a kitchen perched high in the Rocky Mountains.
To procure the best produce and meat Liken takes the “chef-driven” concept out of the kitchen and into the community where her restaurant’s patronage has fostered a thriving collective of Colorado farmers, ranchers, artisans and students.
“It’s the realization of my dream,” the 38-year-old chef says of her restaurant. “From the beginning here in Vail I just wanted to cook Colorado food.”
As Vail prepares to host the 2015 FIS World Alpine Ski Racing Championships in February, Liken is perfecting her seasonal menu to feed the best of Colorado’s bounty to an exclusive global audience.
Liken’s culinary jaunt through Colorado starts with thin ribbons of Rocky Mountain-raised elk carpaccio crowned with a house made whole grain mustard aioli. Potatoes grow plentifully on these mountainsides, bestowing a thin scalloped crust on the rainbow trout fillet with a tasty mountain terroir. Winter vegetables and herbs including acorn squash, beets and rutabaga grown in community greenhouses are integrated into the seasonal menu amid staples like lamb sausage crepinette and pan-roasted pheasant.
“It’s incredibly rewarding to be part of this food community and to be a part of its growth,” Liken says. When the restaurant opened, she tracked down most of the local products herself, cruising the mountains in her old Subaru on the hunt for farm stands and ranches. “I was literally knocking on barn doors.”
Today, many of the purveyors she discovered have banded together to form cooperatives including Growers Organic, improving their access to local markets. Other veggies and herbs are grown in school greenhouses and gardens as part of the Vail Valley Foundation’s Sowing Seeds program teaching agriculture, nutrition and business. Hogs, chickens and foul are often sourced from a community barn maintained by 4-H students who are interested in agriculture but don’t live on family farms.
“It’s rewarding to cook these ingredients, knowing exactly where everything on the plate comes from,” Liken says. “And it’s rewarding to serve meals that connects visitors from around the world to our Vail community.”
Jetting in to Vail for some powder turns? Here are the chef’s tips to getting the best of this global ski capital.
Photo by Jack Affleck
Ski the Beave
Together Vail and sister resort Beaver Creek access more than 7,000 acres of skiable terrain. While Vail offers an array of spectacular terrain, the expertly cut trails at Beaver Creek are among the most exclusive—and steep—on the planet. Bomb the resort’s Birds of Prey trail to get a taste of the World Cup downhill course – just don’t expect to see Liken passing you. “I love Beaver Creek – my family has skied there for years going back to my childhood” Liken says. “These days I’m selective picking my days on the mountain, and I don’t think I’ll try the race course…I love to cruise Rose Bowl on bluebird days after big snowfalls.”
The Colorado’s craft distilleries are churning out amazing local spirits across the Rocky Mountains. The craft cocktails poured by Restaurant Kelly Liken’s Ian Tulk include Woody Creek organic potato vodka, house-infused Breckenridge Bourbon, and CapRock organic gin in from the North Fork Valley. The latest sip on the scene is Vail’s own 10th Mountain Whiskey. Their first batch is a charred oak-barrel rye with hints of caramel. You can pick up a mason jar of their organic corn moonshine at their new Vail Village tasting room.
Pepi Gramshammer showed up in the Vail in 1962 as an Austrian ski racer and instantly fell for the Rockies. He and his wife opened a chalet-style inn on a sunny corner, and it’s Pepi’s Bar has been a village stalwart for more than 50 years. “It’s an institution,” Liken says. Pop in at Pepi’s for the best Austrian beers in the West and steaming plates of bratwurst and Wiener schnitzel.
Let the Good Times Roll
I love Bol -- you’ve never seen a bowling alley like this, Liken says. The mod space includes a 60-foot bar, dining area and 10 lanes with full service lounges. They serve excellent wood fire pizzas and a juicy bacon cheeseburger featuring local Eaton Ranch beef. The beer list is top notch, with craft selections from the country’s best microbreweries.
This is the best sushi in the mountains, Liken says of Osaki Vail, an intimate spot helmed by third-generation sushi chef Takeshi Osaki. Locavore fare this is not: Chef Osaki’s grandfather’s original outpost in Osaka, Japan, is legendary, and the chef taps his family’s empire to import the country’s best short grain rice, tuna, wagyu beef and sake. Meanwhile, the chef still makes his family’s ancient soy sauce recipe in house. The house Osaki Roll is a masterpiece with tuna over shiso and spicy tuna tempura with house made eel sauce and wasabi mayo.