Kelly Liken would like to make one thing perfectly clear: The Assembly, a chic neighborhood bistro in Eagle Ranch that has been solidly booked since its August debut, may be her favorite new restaurant, but it is not her restaurant.
“I’m not a silent backer,” says the Vail Valley’s most famous chef, about rumors of her involvement in the project. “In fact, I’m very not silent about it. I’m incredibly proud to be a part of it: I am a very proud coach.”
After opening a trio of restaurants in Vail Village and Edwards in her 20s and 30s that earned her critical acclaim as one of the nation’s most talented young chefs—accolades that netted invitations to cook at the James Beard House in New York City, on an episode of the Food Network’s Iron Chef America, and even the White House—Kelly Liken retired her toque in 2017 and exiled herself to the culinary wilderness that is Eagle Ranch, a bucolic workforce housing development on the banks of Brush Creek 30 miles west of Vail.
“I loved the restaurant business more than anything, but I also love my family,” says Liken of her husband (restaurateur Rick Colomitz) and their six-year-old daughter, Lucy. “I’m really enjoying the season of my life where I get to spend more time with my family and be part of the nonprofit world helping to feed thousands of people every week.”
The one downside?
“We have a lot of great family food—great pizza, great burgers, great Mexican—but there’s not a whole lot when it comes to date night or a girls’ night out,” says Liken, a down-valley resident since 2005. “Eagle’s not fancy but it does need something a little bit more elevated to fill the gap.”
For the past two years, Liken has overseen the Community Market, a Gypsum-based food bank where she replaced the usual cans of Campbell soup and boxes of Kraft mac and cheese with fresh produce from local farms and high-end provisions (and sometimes entire meals) from some of the toniest restaurants in Edwards, Beaver Creek, and Vail. There, last summer, she met Caleb and Jaimie Mackey, passionate foodies with an entrepreneurial bent who had just bought the commercial space vacated by Luigi’s Pastahouse on Eagle Ranch’s Capitol Street. The couple planned to remake the dowdy local rendition of the Old Spaghetti Factory into a contemporary, unpretentious food hall where the community could gather to sample small plates and flavors spanning the globe, paired with selections from boutique family-owned vineyards.
“I lived in New York City for eight years and was used to having Indian and Korean food right outside my door,” explains Jaimie, who worked as an editor at BRIDES magazine in Manhattan before relocating to the Vail Valley in 2015 as a wedding planner. “The further you get from Denver, the harder it is to find internationally inspired cuisine. We wanted to create an opportunity for people to come and try something different. We’re not from the restaurant industry, so we hired Kelly as a consultant to get us over the finish line.”
Liken was intrigued by the Mackeys’ idea. “Caleb and Jaimie are really into food, they’re really into wine, and they had a super-strong concept, a really great passion, and a very clear vision,” says Liken. “I wasn’t interested in concepting another Kelly Liken restaurant. But I did love the idea of coaching and teaching.”
As mentor, Liken helped the Mackeys hone their concept and business plan; navigate construction and Health Department permits; design the open kitchen (a culinary theater with a quartz pass through); and oversee the hiring process, starting with executive chef Chris Aycock, a professional friend who had just settled in as executive sous chef at Vail Village’s Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard after a dozen years opening and operating groundbreaking restaurants in Belize.
“Kelly had eaten at my restaurants in Belize and she told me about what Jaimie and Caleb were doing,” says Aycock, who, like Liken, graduated first in his class at culinary school (he from Portland’s Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, she from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park) and saw in the Mackeys’ vision for the Assembly a reflection of Portland’s chef-driven, quality-obsessed indy food scene. “I loved their philosophy about wanting to bring the community together in an atmosphere that had a positive vibe.”
Once all of the pieces were in place, Liken stepped back and let the Mackeys and Aycock collaborate and put their imprint on everything from the Assembly’s eclectic menu—which Aycock describes as a melting pot of cuisines from South America to Japan to Spain to North Africa to Italy—to the dining room’s minimalist décor. “We wanted it to feel fresh and airy and beautiful,” explains Jaimie. “For us the design and the dining experience go hand in hand.”
Since the Assembly opened to raves and fully booked reservations in August, Liken has dined there four times. “I would be there more, but I can’t get in!” she says. Her favorite dish: the shrimp/halibut/conch ceviche, a recipe cribbed from Aycock’s Blue Water Grill in Belize, which sells out nightly, along with the Maine lobster pappardelle with grilled Olathe corn, which has emerged as the restaurant’s signature dish.
“I think they’ve done an amazing job,” says Liken of the Mackeys and Aycock. “And the benefit of that is I get a really great restaurant less than a mile from my house. I would definitely do this again. It’s fun. It’s a way I can put a tiny part of my signature on a restaurant while allowing people to express their own vision. It really helps expand our culinary scene up here. And there’s something exciting about that.”
If you go: The Assembly is open Monday–Thursday, 5 p.m.–close and Friday–Sunday 4 p.m.–close; 1143 Capitol St. #104, Eagle, 970-328-2828