Cooking with Chef Kate Rench

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She's the starving artist who ended up in a kitchen. She's the chubby ice-cream-eating Buddha child who matured into a tall, skinny biker babe. And she can dance around the tiny kitchen of Cafe Diva as comfortably as she danced for an audience of 20,000 people at the Pepsi Center during a Prince concert.

Executive Chef Kate Rench has never had a problem speaking up except when confronted with a microphone on stage at a Prince concert in Denver during her bachelorette party. That was only because Prince asked her to lip synch the words to a song she didn't know.

"Prince got mad at her because she didn't know the words and took the microphone back from her," said Rench's sister, Schuyler Roach. "But she loves to get on the dance floor and dance. It comes from her time in New York City when she was into the night scene and going out."

Rench, who now uses her dance moves to maneuver around the kitchen of Cafe Diva, graduated with a degree in ceramics from Colby-Sawyer College in Connecticut. After college she moved to Steamboat Springs to do the ski-bum thing until the opportunity arose to attend an art teacher program in Boulder.

Canceled because of low enrollment, Rench took a job at the Mountain Sun Brewery and Pub, which required employees to rotate between the front and back of the house. When Rench found herself continually trading shifts to be in the kitchen -- and soon thereafter became the kitchen manager -- Rench made the first of many phone calls to her mother.

"I called my mom and said, 'What do you think of me going to culinary school?'" Rench said. "I thought she was going to flip out."

Rench's self-proclaimed mid-life crisis at age 25 led her to The French Culinary Institute in New York City where she was a natural. Rench graduated with the Jacques Pepin award and soon moved up to Chef de Partie at Jean-Georges Vongerichten's signature four-star restaurant in Trump Tower. Rench worked for Vongerichten for three years.

"He was a great chef, but he was French," Rench said. "I knew if he was yelling at me, he had a reason."

In New York City, Rench worked very long hours. She would baby-sit from 8 a.m. to noon and then work in the kitchen from noon to midnight.

"I was very tired," Rench said. "It was the New York rat race, and I was sick of being in it. So I was walking across Central Park one day and called my mom and said I was going to quit my job."

Hay Day Country Market then hired Rench. The market was previously owned by her aunt and uncle but had merged with Balducci's when Rench joined it. She was hired to bring back the gourmet food store's family recipes and to be the head chef at one of the new stores.

She pulled cooking all-nighters and worked harder than she ever had for the chain.

"I did the corporate rat race, and after one and a half years I went home very tired," Rench said. "Every job I'd end up working more and more."

Rench called her sister, hoping to find help getting a job in Steamboat. "If I am going to work 80 hours a week, I'd rather walk out my back door and enjoy where I live on my time off," Rench said.

Rench was hired at Cafe Diva six years ago when it was expanding from a restaurant with only four tables, that cooked gourmet food off of hot plates.

Now when Rench isn't at Cafe Diva slicing carrots, sauteing scallops or decorating plates the way she would a canvas -- she is hiking, mountain biking, skiing, telemarking, snowboarding or walking her two black labs -- Mason and Milena.

"She is just super active and really ambitious," her friend Susan Geeslin said. "She has an energy level like no one I've seen before. She doesn't sleep much and is never tired."

People who know Rench describe her as a workaholic who excels at everything she does. It is her passion for her work, dogs, family, husband and her desire to keep learning that sets her apart.

When Rench turns on the TV, she puts on the Cooking Channel. When she goes on the Internet, she goes to the Food Network Web site. And when she cuts vegetables, she's the Iron Chef.

Rench's favorite foods are almonds and peas, but not necessarily together.

"She eats kind of like a chipmunk," Geeslin said. "She could live off of nuts and water."

Roach said even on her days off, Rench likes to be creative in the kitchen and that the sisters do a lot of cooking together. "I still think I can tell her what to do in the kitchen because I'm the big sister," Roach said. "Kate always asks for my opinion and accepts constructive criticism."

Rench's pet peeve? The Atkins Diet and people who rearrange her menu.

"The joke here is 'Welcome to Cafe Diva where the menu is merely a suggestion,'" Rench said. "Have some willpower and don't eat the mashed potatoes."

As a child, Rench had visions of becoming Julia Child or Olivia Newton-John. Today, she is comfortable with the stage she is on.

"I just want to cook good food," she said, "not become a world famous chef." '

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