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One woman’s culinary journey
When Kelsey Kozak was 8 years old, she told her parents she wanted a cow. The young girl wasn’t looking for a pet, though. She wanted to make Brie.
It was the beginning of what would be an incredible culinary journey for the budding chef, who at a young age already felt at home in the kitchen. Now 22, Kozak can often be found working on her family’s small Vashon farm, milking her jersey cow Tess, collecting fresh eggs or tending to her steer.
At first glance Kozak, with cropped brown hair, simple Northwest garb and a sweet smile, seems like the girl next door. But those close to her know better. When those fresh ingredients come into Kozak’s kitchen, she can do amazing things with them.
Recently graduated from the country’s top culinary school, Kozak has earned the acclaim of local farmers and chefs and recently had the chance to work at one of the top restaurants in the country. Now back on the Island to raise money for her next big adventure, Kozak is again offering cheese-making classes to share what she has learned before immersing herself even deeper in homegrown cuisine through a tour of European farms.
Chris Lueck, a professionally trained chef and wine manager at Thriftway who has mentored Kozak, says that the talent and drive he’s seen her display are rare in anyone, especially someone her age.
“I’m passionate about food, but Kelsey is almost to the extreme. … She’s the next big thing,” he said. “I keep telling people in 10 years she’s going to be all over the airwaves.”
Last week Kozak stood in her family’s kitchen on the east side of Vashon, stirring a large pot of what would soon be warm ricotta made from fresh milk. As the cheese began to coagulate, Kozak and her mother, Linda Kozak, reflected on her journey from a young girl who loved to experiment with food to what some have called Vashon’s dairy prodigy.
Kelsey Kozak became interested in cooking when she was 5 years old, and by the time she was 8, she was poring over Fine Cooking magazines and sending her mother to the store with lists of ingredients for her latest experiments.
“I was delighted,” Linda Kozak said of her young daughter’s fixation in the kitchen. “I was tired of doing all the cooking anyway.”
At first, Linda Kozak said, cooking was a mother-daughter activity. But that didn’t last for long.
“One day I came home and there was a cake sitting on the counter, iced and everything, and I had nothing to do with it,” she said. “I was like whoa.”
By the time she was 12, Kozak fixed nearly all of her family’s meals, including holiday ones.
“You know the rule that you never try a new dish on company?” Linda Kozak said. “She would make six new things.”
When Kozak was 14, her parents helped her buy her first cow, a jersey named Iris, and the gallons of milk she produced each day opened up a whole new world of experimentation for the teen cook. From soft mozzarella to blue cheese aged in her mini fridge and, of course, Brie, Kozak fell even deeper in love with cheese.
“I’ve always loved cheese, how it tastes. … but I love that there are so many things you can do with it,” she said, adding that her family and friends have also enjoyed her fresh butter, cream cheese and ice cream.
Though her family had no experience raising animals, Kozak easily fell into the rhythm of farm life and embraced locovorism before it was trendy and before the rise of local farmers such as George Page and Kurt Timmermeister.
Kelsey and her older sister Kristen have raised their own chickens and steer for years, and Kelsey recently invested in a pig at Island Meadow Farm that she plans to help butcher herself. She forages for fresh mushrooms and other edible plants on Vashon, and recently completed a hunter training course so she can take advantage of the Island’s ripe supply of venison.
“Once you’ve had homegrown meat, raw milk and butter, there’s no going back,” Kozak said.
In 2008, Kozak’s cooking talent took her to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in New York — the other CIA — where she honed her cooking skills while earning an associate degree in culinary arts. But before she graduated, her abilities, as well as her nerve, were put to the test during a five-month internship at the highest rated restaurant west of the Mississippi River, Meadowood, located at a luxury resort in Napa Valley, Calif.
Kozak had already completed an internship at a Seattle restaurant before attending the CIA, an experience she described as challenging but enjoyable. But Meadowood, she said, was what she had always imagined a high-end restaurant would be like: hell’s kitchen.
Meadowood’s head chef demanded perfection of his cooks. Courses were prepared to exact specification and finished off by parsley placed with tweezers.
“It was very precise food,” she said. And if the slightest detail was off, Kozak knew she would hear about it.
“I never had plates thrown at me, but they were thrown in response to things I did,” she said.
Not surprisingly, the restaurant had a high turnover, and some wondered how long Kozak would last. Not only did she survive the high-pressure externship, but toward the end of her stay she was put in charge of a station in the kitchen and was paid for her time.
“It was a very difficult atmosphere,” she said. “But I made it, so I was very proud.”
The experience reconfirmed what Kozak had known since she was young: Although she loved to cook, she didn’t want a career in restaurants.
“Even then I realized it’s long hours, and you have to be on your feet 12 hours a day,” she said.
Though Kozak isn’t sure where her love of cheese and passion for cooking will take her, she hopes that a year in Europe will help her decide. Ideally, Kozak said, at this time next year she will be packing for at least four farm stays or internships in Great Britain, France and Italy, where she can learn firsthand about making great cheese and operating a working farm in the place where cheese making has its roots.
“It’s a whole new world over there,” she said. “The artisan cheese movement in America is great, but in Europe they’ve been doing it for so much longer.”
To earn her way there, Kozak is providing the chance for Islanders or visitors to Vashon to take a journey through the cheese making process with her. This summer she is continuing the “Cow to Curd” cheese making classes she began last August. During the one-day classes Kozak leads small groups at her farm through milking the cow and cooking and aging cheese and other dairy products. Students get to sample their creations, as well as other aged cheeses, paired with carefully selected wines.
“It’s like a party by the time it’s done,” Kozak said, smiling, “Everyone is stuffed and they’re so happy.”
Lueck, who also graduated from the CIA, said he was thrilled to see Kelsey sharing her knowledge.
“If you can afford to take a class from her, it’s well worth it. … You’re in for an experience,” he said.
Just as Kozak is humble about what she’s accomplished so far, she’s hesitant to say whether she’s headed to a great career in food. Put simply, she says she just wants to do what she loves.
Lueck says he’s been constantly impressed with Kozak’s thirst for knowledge and strong work ethic, and he believes that doing what she loves will undoubtedly bring Kozak success.
“I think the reason she’s successful is she goes out and works hard toward what she’s passionate about,” he said. “Nothing stops her.”
Kelsey Kozak will teach cheese-making classes throughout the summer and into the fall. The cost is $125. The next one is scheduled for Sunday, June 26. She will also teach a class catered to children. To sign up or find out about future classes, call Kozak at 463-1317.