Vail Chef Kelly Liken Sounds off on Valentine’s Day, Sexy Veggies, and PDA

Chef Kelly Liken can make any dish sexy -- except for meatloaf. But only because no one can make meatloaf sexy.

If you’re a true foodie, you’ve probably dined at Kelly Liken restaurant in Vail, Colorado. And, if you’re like us, you’ve probably rooted for her on season 7 of Top Chef. So, we were thrilled when Chef Liken agreed to take the OpenTable R.Q., or Romantic Quotient, Test, and share her insights on sexy and not-so-sexy foods, the dish she made the night she got engaged, and how you can make your next meal at Kelly Liken extra special. 

Do you believe that food and drink can act as aphrodisiacs?

Absolutely! I’m not so sure about the science behind certain foods, but the act of sharing food with a loved one? That is sexy!

Aphrodisiacs aside, what do you consider to be some of sexiest dishes?

I definitely think spicy food can be really sexy! There’s something about the pain and pleasure all at the same time, plus it gets the blood moving. There’s nothing like oysters on the half shell, though I’m not sure exactly why, but they’re fun and interactive. I think also it’s about treating yourself to something expensive, so that‘s why you see a lot of caviar going out the door [on Valentine’s Day]. Because you don’t let yourself have something like that every day. In thinking about the meal as a whole, I don’t find really heavy, fatty foods really sexy. Lighter and brighter is sexier. You don’t want to go home feeling sick to your stomach!

Are there any foods that strike you as particularly unromantic or unsexy?

Well, I hate meatloaf. I’m sure for some people it could be sexy, but I kinda can’t think of a food I like less than meatloaf. Ever since I was a kid, I haven’t liked it. It’s a texture thing. It’s not appealing. It’s not pretty.

Can veggies be sexy?

Everyone calls me the crazy veggie lady! I start my foods with what is growing around me, and I find nothing sexier than a perfectly cooked vegetable. Vegetables are how we bring color, sweetness, texture, and tanginess to a plate. And, when you’re thinking about the whole plate and how to evoke emotion, vegetables are just so much more versatile in helping to achieve that. Also, how many people do you know that order a dish off the menu solely because of what comes with the dish?

Guilty as charged. Have you ever wooed a love interest with a particular dish or drink? What was it?

Oh, sure! Ever since my husband and I met in the restaurant business — He’s the sommelier! — our whole courtship has been centered around food and wine. In fact, he asked me to marry him after a home-cooked meal. It was a simple meal – Italian sausage and broccoli rabe with pasta — on a cold, snowy February night. After we cleared the plates, he got down on one knee and asked me to marry him! And, to this day, we plan our anniversary dinners around food and where we’ll travel to dine and celebrate!

Women everywhere will now be coming into Kelly Liken begging for that recipe! Speaking of your eponymous restaurant, do you have a dish you might recommend to diners seeking to set a very romantic mood? 

We have lots. At the beginning of our menu, we offer oysters and caviar, which is always a fun and interactive way to kick off a date. Moving on, I have a couple of different dishes that evoke emotion that would be great for sharing. The house-made garganelli pasta with wild mushrooms and foie gras butter is a really sexy dish. It’s not too heavy, either!

If someone is coming to Kelly Liken and, beyond the food itself, wants to really impress a date, what are your suggestions?

When you make you reservation here, we ask everyone if they are celebrating a special occasion, because we want to really customize the experience. When you use OpenTable, you can use the “Special Requests to the Maitre D'” field to tell us what you’re celebrating and what you might like. We can have a bottle of Champagne ready, for example. We want every guest to be blown away by a perfect dining experience. Yours might be different than mine, but it’s our job to provide it to you. So, people shouldn’t be afraid to arrange some of those things with the maitre d’.

Is PDA in restaurants okay?

I think that public displays of affection *are* okay. Every now and again, it can get out of hand and it makes for an uncomfortable situation, both for the staff and the diners around them. But, holding hands, kissing, and hugging – it’s wonderful to see people being moved by the experience at your restaurant.

Have you had any proposals in your restaurant? 

We’ve actually been lucky to have quite a few in our restaurant, and it’s always very exciting. People are on vacation here, oftentimes. I’ve had husbands-to-be Fedex me the ring to put in my safe. I’ve had people say yes. I’ve had people say no! It’s always exciting, but, truly, the most exciting part is when people come back a year later to celebrate that memory, and to know that we had a part in that is wonderful!

Speaking of proposals, have you or any of your coworkers met a spouse/partner at your restaurant?

My husband and I actually worked together at a restaurant called Splendido. I honestly can’t imagine being a chef or a full-time restaurant manager and not being with someone in the business. Our schedules are so crazy that if he had a day job, we would never see each other. When you work in a restaurant, it’s like everyone almost becomes family. You get close really fast [in a restaurant work environment]. Now that we’ve had our restaurant for eight years, it’s fun to see other people meet here and go on to having long-term relationships or get married.

As a chef and restaurateur, what are your thoughts on Valentine’s Day?

I know that there are people who say that it’s a commercial holiday, but I really feel at my core that there’s nothing but great things to say about a day in which you appreciate the one you love. Because we provide an experience and not just a meal, we take it very seriously. On Valentine’s day, it’s a challenging day, but we know that people are here to celebrate someone special to them and we do everything we can to make it as special as possible.

If you had Valentine’s Day off, how might you spend it?

We do always take a day off that week and pretend it’s Valentine’s Day.  We try to do something totally different than our normal life. We’ve taken the gondola up to the top of a mountain and had a great dinner by the fire at a lovely restaurant. Last year, we went to the Four Seasons and got the whole spa day!

A well-deserved spa day. Thanks for taking our R.Q. “test.” Happy Valentine’s Day to you and your husband, whenever you celebrate.