Surrounded by 40-some friends and family members, Kelly Liken watched herself compete on "Iron Chef America" Sunday evening at her parent's home in Pittsburgh. Though Liken lost to Iron Chef Jose Garces in "Battle Blue Cheese," she did so by only five points.
"I've been traveling for five weeks and I'm just heading home right now," said Liken as she prepared to board a plane to Pennsylvania a few hours prior to the show on Sunday.
The Food Network announced Liken would compete on the show last month, and ever since the chef has been fielding lots of questions.
"Everyone wants to know if I won and what the secret ingredient was," Liken said.
But the Vail chef's lips were sealed thanks to a high-dollar non-disclosure contract she signed along with her sous chefs Hunter Smith and Matt Limbaugh, who also competed on the show.
"But I also think it's so much more fun to learn what happens by watching it anyway," she said. "I don't want to ruin the surprise for anyone."
Even Jenna Johansen, the executive chef/co-owner of Dish restaurant in Edwards and one of Likens closest friends, had no idea the outcome of the show. But either way, she said it was good exposure for Vail's culinary scene.
"We are so fortunate to be represented by Kelly," Johansen said. "Her focus on fresh and local products helps to highlight the outstanding products and fantastic chefs we have here. I'm so proud of her."
Despite the large Iron Chef celebration at her parents' house, Liken wasn't the least bit nervous about watching herself on television, she said.
"We taped it in October, so at this point, I'm just excited for everyone to get to see it," Liken said. "There has been so much anticipation and I'm really excited that it'll finally be on TV.
During the hour-long competition, a very focused Liken calmly chopped, seared, mixed and plated. While Garces had to wipe beads of sweat off his forehead a few times, Liken's face was dry, her make-up perfect.
For the competition, the chefs used four types of blue cheese from around the world to create five dishes.
Liken explained her philosophy to the three judges before setting down her first course.
"I really wanted to weave the cheese in and out throughout the meal, instead of bombard you with that intense flavor all at once," she said.
First up, Liken served a thinly sliced beef carpaccio with an olive and Cabrales blue cheese tapenade, which one judge called "fantastic." The second course, a butternut squash soup topped with a pecan-crusted Roquefort cheese croquette, was also a hit with all three judges. The third dish was a tempura-fried prawn over a micro green salad topped with Maytag blue cheese and herb vinaigrette and blood orange segments. The judges liked the dish and said that while blue cheese is hard to pair with seafood, Liken did it well.
The fourth course - a spiced pork tenderloin with a port reduction was flanked by cranberry chutney, thin slices of Cabrales cheese and gorgonzola dulce froth - didn't impress the judges, who said the cranberries overwhelmed the rest of the dish.
For dessert, Liken served a pear and fig crisp topped with balsamic frozen yogurt. In place of butter, she used Roquefort cheese to make the streusel topping.
While one judge called the combination "amazing," another said the blue cheese overpowered the dish.
In the end, Garces won the competition with 53 points to Liken's 48. Even so, it's highly unlikely this is the last we'll see of Liken on the national culinary scene. In fact, she's been gone for five weeks on a top-secret mission. But Liken promised that when she's finally allowed to talk about her adventure, the Vail Daily will be the first to know.
High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at email@example.com or 970-748-2984.
When Restaurant Kelly Liken reopens June 1, foodies will have a chance to sample dishes inspired by the items Liken made on "Iron Chef America," which, of course, means they all will include blue cheese.
Visit www.kellyliken.com to learn more.