By Graham Key, Staff Writer
Chef Karen Kujawa is fearless because she has to be.
“You can’t be afraid. When you’re on the [food] line, you can’t hesitate. That’s when you make mistakes,” she said.
Kujawa, known to the Kalamazoo College breakfast crowd as “Chef Karen,” may be spotted flipping cooked-to-order omelets before lines of up to 16 students each morning in Welles Dining Hall. Most mornings Chef Karen rules over her domain, running the griddles by herself.
“I’m out there by myself. That’s my station, that’s my prep. I don’t have to worry about the guy next to me and whether or not he has his toast ready. It’s just me sailing my boat,” Karen said.
Passing through her line, students generally choose among ten ingredients, which differ from day to day. Some of her most common ingredients include sausage, onions, ham, peppers, turkey, and potatoes. Although most of the line ingredients are omelet staples, Karen welcomes suggestions.
“If there’s a request for ingredients, I do my best to get it out there,” she said. “Anything can go inside of an egg.”
Entering into Seventh Week, Karen has already fielded a variety of ingredient ideas. These recommendations range from ingredients like spinach and turkey sausage to those less commonly associated with the breakfast dish.
“Some people ask for blue cheese, which I think is a really weird ingredient, because it has such a bitter taste to it,” Karen said.
According to Karen, the most unusual ingredient request came from a hungry football player.
“A young football player asked me if he could have a donut inside of his omelet. I’m not sure if he was serious, or not, because we did not have any donuts to put inside of his omelet,” she said. “If we had one, I would’ve put it in there for him.”
Karen attributes her gastronomic flexibility to her many years of culinary experience, which were born beside her grandmother’s kitchen on Sunday nights growing up.
“When I was very young I cooked with my grandma. My mother passed away from cancer when I was five and I spent a lot of time with my grandmother as she cooked. And I really loved my grandma, so I cooked like my grandma,” Karen said.
Once she left her grandmother’s kitchen, Karen hit the books, receiving her BA in Culinary Arts from the Chicago Culinary School, part of the Illinois Institute of Arts.
According to Karen, out of all of the dishes she has prepared over the years, eggs are by far the most challenging.
“They’re so very delicate. It’s not like a burger where you can throw it up on the char grill and leave it for a little while and push it around,” Karen said.
Karen’s secret? “It’s all about the flip.”