Kelly Liken: Travels for the Flavor
Kelly Liken knows her way around the kitchen—and she proved it on season 7 of Bravo’s hit show Top Chef. She was respected both by the judges and her fellow competitors, making it all the way to the final four. Even though she didn’t win, Kelly got some free travel out of the deal: the last two episodes were shot in Singapore.
Read more to hear the celebrated chef sound off on her favorite meal ever, the glories of Mexican street food and the (secret) island that she fell in love with.
My first vivid travel memory is going to Washington D.C. when I was a kid.
My dad did a lot of work there and we’d drive down from Pittsburgh on the weekends to visit him and do tons of sightseeing. I think that was what hooked me because it was the first time my sister and I traveled not to ‘see grandma’ but to see a city. That’s where I got hooked.
Professionally, travel has become something that allows me to get outside of my box and spark my creativity.
My husband and I like to travel a couple times a year really to refresh and recharge that creative spirit.
I like a nice hotel…I’m not a big camper.
But you’ll rarely see us in a Cancun or a Puerto Vallarta. We’re looking more for the small town where we can immerse ourselves in the culture of the place.
My husband and I really like to plan our trips not around work.
Right now I’m traveling a lot for work, and it’s really interesting, but when we take a two week trip it’s something that’s opposite from work so that we can kind of step away from it for a minute.
We’re looking more for the small town where we can immerse ourselves in the culture of the place.
As a chef there’s always a part of you that’s asking, “Where’s the next place that I can try some delicious food?” And that really sparked the idea for a southern trip. Those Southern traditions— the barbecue, the bourbon, the New Orleans food scene— they’re what started the idea. And those are foods you can’t really get anywhere else but in the South, so we wanted to go to the birthplace of those flavors.
The first time I went to France I was in culinary school.
I went with my mom, and at the end of the trip she took me to Alain Ducasse’s restaurant Le Louis XV in Monaco. At the time he was the only chef alive who had won three Michelin stars at three different restaurants— so this was the culinary school kid’s Mecca. Honest to God I was moved to tears three times during the meal. Part of it was because it was a very special trip with my mom, and part of it was this surreal opportunity to be in this amazing restaurant. We ate about ten courses and the chef de cuisine came out and showed me the kitchen— it was probably the best meal of my life.
Travel is definitely connected to how I create dishes and design new menu items.
I think when you step away from what you do in day-to-day life, the creativity starts flowing. Beyond that, seeing different cultures (not just internationally but also different regions of this country) influences my menu items when I return. It’s always fun to go see something totally new and different then come back and start playing with those traditions.
I’ve eaten lots of foods that we as Americans might consider strange.
Most of them have been in Asia. In Hong Kong I ate a Thousand-Year Egg which looks really unappetizing to the American palette. I’ve eaten lamb brains in France, which were absolutely delicious. Recently in Singapore I ate durian (the stinky fruit) on national TV. That one was actually pretty gross.
I love street food! My favorite is probably from Mexico.
I think that people here think that Mexican food is only the tacos or burritos that we eat. But Mexico has so many regions that each have specific flavors and traditions. The food is so vibrant. In the Yucatan you’ll get these beautiful little fried masa boats with glazed meats and tangy pickled onions and spicy sauce— the flavors are so bold, I think it makes the perfect street food.
In fact, Mexico is probably my very favorite place to travel—because there’s so much to explore.
It’s so big and every state is like its own country. You cross a state line and all of a sudden the fashion is different, the food is different, the architecture is different. I just find it really interesting.
In the Yucatan you’ll get these beautiful little fried masa boats with glazed meats and tangy pickled onions and spicy sauce— the flavors are so bold, I think it makes the perfect street food.
As soon as my husband and I get to a place, we usually find a local bar.
Not a hotel bar, but a local one. Finding a friendly bartender is a great way to get your bearings, find out what’s around and what can’t be missed in that town.
With age and economics the way you travel changes a little bit.
We can afford now to go to places a little further afield and do it without having to stay in hostels anymore. To me that’s lovely— I had tons of fun in college traveling on a shoestring, but it is nice when you can stay a little bit more comfortably.
Being married has changed the way I travel— I have a partner in crime now.
We can take a year to plan a trip because we’re here together every day. It adds depth to our experience.
I had tons of fun in college traveling on a shoestring, but it is nice when you can stay a little bit more comfortably.
Connecting with the local environment wherever we’re traveling is very important to us because we tend to want to do more than just the typical tourist stuff.
I think the key to that is being open, friendly, and proactive in starting conversations. You never know what you might learn and when you might learn it. You might be standing in line for a cup of coffee in the morning and strike up a conversation with the person behind you, then the next thing you know your whole day’s plan has changed.
We almost never have an itinerary.
Sometimes it doesn’t work that well, but we’ve found that when we just sort of let it unfold we end up having really great adventures.
Humbling moments are common when you just let you itinerary unfold like that.
We’ve gotten terribly lost. I’ve gotten terribly sick, because I eat just about everything. There are definitely times where my adventurous spirit has gotten the best of me. But generally I feel like we’ve been pretty successful.
I have two perfect dogs, and I’m like the crazy dog lady.
I love to travel, and I don’t feel guilty about leaving them, but by the end of any trip (no matter how long) I’m always ready to come home and lay on the couch with my dogs for an hour.
Recently we’ve really been focused on exploring different regions of the United States
And I think honestly that a lot of people don’t think that’s too exciting.
I prefer to fly.
I’m not a huge road trip person— I’m happy to do it, but it’s not something I would choose to do. I hate the subway. I hate the idea of being underground in a tunnel. I probably wouldn’t take that train that goes underground through the English Channel— what’s it called? The Chunnel? I don’t know because I haven’t been there.
I really love country music.
On the way to the airport I’m listening to Toby Keith and Trace Atkins. That’s a fun “Kelly fact” that always surprises people.
Since I was like seventeen, I’ve always envisioned that someday I would have this place on the beach.
Just a tiny bar on the beach, a little palapa, and there would be swings for chairs. All I would serve would be tequila and beer and it would be a place my friends could go at the end of the day. It was always kind of a joke— this fortress of solitude idea. My husband thought it was funny, and we’d joke about looking for it whenever we traveled. So we’re on this tiny little island off the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula that had been settled by the pirates in the 1800s, and it was just amazing. We go walking up the beach to find the local bar and with the sun setting I walk right upon this place, this little palapa bar with swings for chairs where they only serve tequila and beer. I get tears in my eyes and say “Look! This is it! It’s here!” So of course we sit down and we order a beer and there’s this woman across the bar with a plate of freshly fried fish and walks over and says, “My husband caught this today, this is our bar and every day at sunset we bring fish out for our guests.” Turns out that she’s from Arizona, she met the love of her life while traveling, and we have a bunch of friends in common. She and I have been friends ever since.
I’m hesitant to say the name of the island—but I think the economy there is struggling, so…
it’s called Isla Holbox.
I keep traveling because meeting new people and seeing new cultures is just such an amazing way to widen your world-view and expand the variety of people in your life.
“How I Travel” is a BootsnAll series publishing every Friday in an effort to look at the unique and diverse travel habits of some of the world’s most well known and proficient road warriors.
all photographs provided by Kelly Liken and may not be used without permission