A chef’s life, interrupted | VailDaily.com

A chef’s life, interrupted

Ruth Moon
file photo by Preston UtleyExecutive Chef Kyle Cowan is shown preparing his lamb burgers at this year's Taste of Vail lamb cook-off event in April.

A local chef who poured his life into his kitchen will have to take a forced vacation from cooking to keep that life.

Kyle Cowan, 31, was the chef at Up the Creek restaurant in Vail for the last two years, but moved back to Texas to be with his family three weeks ago after discovering a cancerous lump in his kidney.

Cowan, who spent time experimenting with and changing the menu at Up the Creek, was seldom out of the kitchen when he was in Vail, Up the Creek owner Peter Stadler said.

“He was very intense in his work – his interest was food,” Stadler said. “I told him ‘why don’t you go skiing, why don’t you do this,’ and he said ‘No, I’m here.’ His whole life is food.”

That life of food has paid off, at least in Vail, where local opinion is that Cowan’s arrival changed Up the Creek ” an American-style restaurant that has been in the valley for 20 years ” for the better. Candice Wilhelmsen, 30, works with her parents at Axel’s Clothing next door to Up the Creek and has been going to the restaurant with her parents most of her life. She said Cowan’s arrival made a difference at the restaurant.

“We’ve always loved going there, but we definitely thought that the food just became even more exceptional since he started,” she said. “It was always good, but then it became really good.”

Cowan changed the menu at Up the Creek away from fish and game towards more beef dishes, Stadler said. Now that the chef is gone, former sous-chef Matt Wadding will take on the responsibilities of the kitchen. Stadler and Wadding are both firm that the restaurant menu will not change significantly from the one Cowan put in place, although Wadding balked at the title “chef.”

“Chef is a title you don’t just walk into – it’s something you earn,” he said. “I’m still learning new things every day.”

Cowan said he got his love of food and cooking from his ranching family in Texas, where his father, grandparents and great uncles were all chefs.

“It’s something I wanted to do since I was small – be a chef,” Cowan said. “After high school I went to New York to (cooking) school and haven’t looked back since.”

His cooking career in Vail was cut short by the kidney tumor, which was discovered “miraculously,” Cowan said. He went in to the emergency room for unrelated kidney pain and came out knowing he had cancer.

“I felt a lot of fear, a lot of apprehension and nervousness,” Cowan said. “You never prepare yourself for the sacrifices you might have to make.”

The lump in Cowan’s kidney could be malignant, with the possibility of spreading through his body, or benign, and confined to one location; doctors, and Cowan, won’t know until he has surgery later in July.

Either way, he will have a six- to 12-week recovery period, during which he will be taking an enforced break from professional cooking and spending time with his family.

As soon as he has recovered, Cowan plans on returning to food, with plans for some wine-tasting trips and new job ideas, including working at a winery.

“It would be an incredible opportunity as a chef because everybody helps everybody,” he said, referring to the cooperation between local growers and chefs. “One of my more ideal chef jobs would be to work in a situation like that.”

Cowan also plans on opening his own restaurant in the future, and said he wants to start small with a natural menu that changes with the seasons. He has helped start four restaurants but didn’t want to stick around for a partnership, he said.

“Food is my life and my passion, and part of the decision is what do you trade in for … your own health,” Cowan said. “At this point I have to trade in food for health, but it will all fix itself in the near future.”

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