VAIL - Alton Brown calls Kitchen Stadium the world's largest pressure cooker, but to Kelly Liken it's simply the biggest, most well-appointed kitchen she's ever worked in - for under an hour. The chef-proprietor of Vail's Restaurant Kelly Liken was the first challenger to try the culinary wits of the newest Iron Chef, Jose Garces, in the Food Network's "Iron Chef America." The episode will air Sunday night at 8 p.m MST on the Food Network.
"I just wanted to follow the rules and showcase a specific ingredient," Liken said.
"Iron Chef America" pits chefs against each other, one a guest contender and the other a resident "Iron Chef," in an hour-long cook-off that revolves around a secret, theme ingredient. Both chefs present at least five dishes to a panel of three judges, who award the points that determine the winner.
When Liken received the first e-mail about appearing on the show, she thought it was a joke. Thousands of chefs would like to be invited on the show. And competitive by nature, it's a natural fit for the chef. She soon figured out it was the real deal.
"We had two weeks to practice," Liken said. "In terms of training, I wanted recipes that could be done lots of different ways so we could just plug in the secret ingredient and go."
And how does one practice when a menu's theme is unknown?
"Think about it: it's going to be red meat, fish, cheese, vegetables or fruit," she said, ticking them off on her fingers. And so she created dishes where those ingredients could be swapped in and out. (This is why she's the chef.)
"We'd set up all our dream ingredients and go," Liken said. "By the time we got there, I felt like we were ready."
Her kitchen team consisted of sous chefs Hunter Smith and Matt Limbaugh. Her husband, wine director Rick Colomitz, helped intensely with the training and preparation.
"You only get one chance, so we had to do it right," Smith said.
"During practice, we tried to stay focused on time," Limbaugh said. "We had to use it wisely. Sometimes I'd do the same things in a different order, and I'd be 5 minutes faster."
They went over it again and again.
"But what do you do with all this food? We'd give it away to people in the building," Colomitz said, referring to the other businesses in the Gateway Building.
Secrecy was paramount.
"We told them we were working on our new menu," Liken added.
"There were ingredients I really hoped we'd get," Liken said. "I'm a vegetable person, so I was hoping for a seasonal vegetable."
In addition to the secret ingredient and the existing kitchen staples, chefs are given the opportunity to stock their kitchen with a few ingredients they depend upon.
Some people feel naked without their clothes; chefs feel naked without their knives, or "hand tools," as Liken calls them. To that end, she brought her knives and her spoons. She also brought along her silicone baking molds.
"It's a roll of the dice because you don't know what you'll need."
And the kitchen is well stocked on its own.
"They had every piece of equipment you can think of," Limbaugh said. "I went to Kitchen Collage the day before we left so I could buy a vegetable peeler. When we got there, I saw that they had four brand new vegetable peelers."
In addition to the stocked kitchen and pantry, there are kitchen assistants, the roving floor reporter Kevin Brauch and the king bee, Alton Brown.
"One of the most fascinating things to me was Alton Brown's role," Liken said. "He's sitting there with three TV screens, and each has four views of the kitchen. He throws in a little history, makes comments."
They shoot the guest chef's entrance several times in order to get it from every possible angle. The fog machines are blowing, and the cameras are rolling. Finally, the secret ingredient is revealed and whabam - game on.
"You grab it and run," Liken said.
And the Kelly Liken crew was no deer in the headlights. The actual competition part is just cooking with strict time limits, and cooking is what they do.
"We had it so down," Liken admitted. "We each had our own tasks."
At this point, the only one who was nervous was Colomitz, sitting in the stands with Liken's parents and Smith's mother and sister. And that was because there was nothing he could do except watch.
"I believe in Kelly's ability, but I was nervous," Colomitz admitted. "She wasn't nervous. The whole thing about cooking is mise en place and being ready. She's a natural."
All the while, Brauch roamed from Liken's side to Garces' kitchen, asking questions and making comments.
"You'd be doing something and he'd sneak around a corner and ask you a question," Smith said.
"It wasn't like working in a real kitchen, because the cameras might be six inches away from your pan," Limbaugh said. "And it's a rush, knowing that your friends are going to watch. My mom's going to think anything I do is good, but my friends, they're going to ask why I did this or that."
But none of that bothered Liken.
"We went in there, and I wanted to stay true to what I do here (at Kelly Liken)," Liken said. "And we did that."
She presented her five dishes as a full meal, not unlike a tasting menu, going from lightest to heaviest.
"You don't have to do it that way," she said. "I just wanted to. Plus, a large portion of the points go to presentation."
Liken is known for her tasting menus. Not only does she have a nightly chef's tasting menu, but also summertime Sundays are one big tasting menu at the restaurant. She spends the morning combing the farmers' market right outside her door, and creates a menu based solely on that.
"Competing on 'Iron Chef' is a one-shot deal," Liken said. "But the minute it was over, I wanted to do it again."
What she will be able to do is revisit the experience by recreating the menu. At the restaurant, she'll feature a prix fixe "Iron Chef Tasting Menu." Each item will be inspired by the dishes Liken created on the show - and they'll all include the "secret ingredient."
"And I get to pair wines with it," exclaimed Colomitz.
It will be the summer of Iron Chef Vail.