Melissa Cozzi, Pastry Sous Chef of Boleo and Vol. 39 in Chicago, credits her grandmother for sparking her love of baking. “I was always watching her and helping her in the kitchen,” she says. “She simply made amazing things not because she had to but because she wanted to.”
That passion put Chef Cozzi on the path to the food world – she graduated with a degree in hospitality from Iowa State – and then to Chicago’s Kendall College where she earned a degree in 2015 in applied sciences specializing in baking and pastry art. It was there she met mentor Chef Erika Masuda [of Chicago’s Coco Pazzo] who inspired her to take an artistic approach to pastries and plated desserts, perfecting techniques of incorporating savory into sweet. At 23, she joined the culinary team at Food for Thought, a large scale special events catering group, before moving on to where she is now.
Replicating the home-baked goodness of her grandmother’s kitchen, albeit with modern touches she’s learned along the way, is something Chef Cozzi thinks about every day. At the moment, she’s working on incorporating her grandmother’s pound cake into something unique for Vol. 39 — think a Hennessy three ways dessert. She also has dreams of one day re-creating a kolaczki cookie, another specialty she grew up watching her grandmother bake. “It’s not easy,” she says, “Because a lot of her recipes are very old school Polish and Italian, and very rustic and stapled.”
Kolaczki, also referred to as Polish Foldovers, is a very classic doughy cookie with jam, and Chef Cozzi’s hope is to take its characteristics and turn it into something a bit more sophisticated. “I’d love to take the components of this traditional cookie and incorporate it into a more elevated experience and maybe put a mini kolaczki in there as a small tribute to my gram,” she says.
Like many pastry chefs, she loves experimenting with techniques and ingredients and considers her failures a win because she always learns something in the process. Plus, with her knowledge of ingredient ratios and what works and what doesn’t, she can usually turn a “miss” into something positive.
Her pastry philosophy, she says, is all about considering her options. “I really love incorporating savory into my sweet and that means looking at all my ingredients; this creates a door to incorporating alternative ways of expanding flavor profiles in a more complete and rounded way. I don’t want to just limit myself to hazelnut, chocolate, vanilla and cinnamon, for example. I like looking at cardamom, balsamic or foie gras.”
Her signature dish at the moment is a chocolate pot de creme that’s served at Boleo. It’s a Peruvian (dark) chocolate and pot de creme that’s been molded like an ice cream popsicle, then dipped in a chocolate coating and sprayed with chocolate velvet spray giving it a smooth texture on the inside with a nice crisp velvet crunch on outside. That’s then complemented with a habanero coulis, lime powder, and a piso sour foam.
She got the inspiration for the dessert after speaking at length with Boleo’s Chef Alexis Hernandez about the fundamentals of Peruvian cuisine and his process for complementing flavors. “I took that and ran in the direction of something that was a little more modern and a little untraditional – people aren’t going to put habanero sauce on chocolate -- but once they taste it, they find it amazing,” she says. “I really enjoy bringing new experiences to people and surprising them with different flavor profiles.”
Chef Cozzi says she gets her inspiration from reading and research. She also follows the work of Chef Dana Cree at Chicago’s Publican “The way she synergizes flavors, textures and applications really resonates with me,” she says. “She does really interesting flavor combinations and the application is so clean and unique; she pushes me to work harder and continually push the limits.” And, she’s a big fan of Janice Wong, founder of 2am:dessert bar in Singapore and her book, Perfection In Imperfection. “I love the way she utilizes both savory, sweet and art in how she composes each dish.”
Chef Cozzi, who’s also big on artful displays and handcrafting confections with an elevated slant, says keeping things fresh and different is always a fun challenge. While she’s known for her mousses — the Boleo menu features a cherimoya mousse with yogurt sponge cake, pineapple pearls, and white chocolate powder — she’s mainly about the sweet/savory combination. To that end, she has a signature beer ice cream – the beer depends on seasonality and often on her bartenders’ suggestions. “They have an extensive knowledge and I love asking them about their favorite beers or something new they’ve heard of.” Talking to her kitchen colleagues is another way she’ll get inspired, hearing their favorites or what they’ve heard of that’s new. On her agenda now: developing a foie gras macaroon.
If she had to pick one favorite ingredient it would be chocolate. “There are so many different combinations out there — floral, fruity, woodsy — and each one has its own unique characterizes that complement different things so the possibilities are almost endless.”
As for an ingredient that’s under appreciated or underutilized in the pastry world, she says she’d love to see more use of fresh herbs like chives, tarragon, and thyme. “Thyme and lemon, for example, are a phenomenal combination but you don’t see it often. So is tarragon and rhubarb.”
The pastry world, she says, can also be a little under appreciated, which is why her advice for young pastry chefs is to get their voices out there. “Do things that other people aren’t doing,” she advises. “Never compromise your creative personality. Even if people don’t understand what you’re doing is valuable, show them why it is and how it can make a difference.”
She admits that in five years, she’d love to be a pastry chef or executive pastry chef of a restaurant or hotel and have the ability to create artisanal chocolates, unique ice creams and plated desserts. She says she’s honestly happy doing what she loves and pleasing her guests. “I don’t necessarily think of being somewhere specific in five years. Wherever my profession takes me is where I want to go.”