By Jenni Sheppard
As the chilly nights draw in, Metro Vancouver still has plenty of warm and welcoming foodie hubs to keep you filled up this winter—including the inimitable Kozak Eatery & Bakery.
This Ukrainian bakery, run by Irina Karpenko and her husband Sergiy Kuznietsov, serves up homemade breakfast, lunch, dinner, and baked goods just like grandma used to make.
The couple originally began serving their tasty treats at farmers markets under the name Solodko Bakery, but soon became popular enough to open their first eatery.
Renamed Kozak Bakery, their business has gone from strength to strength, and now boasts two locations, in New Westminster and East Vancouver, with a third coming to Gastown.
To find out more, we spoke to Irina about the family history of this delicious bakery, where she and Sergiy get their inspiration, and what makes Ukrainian food so good.
How did you first become interested in cooking?
Baking and cooking has always been my passion, and since I was a child, I dreamed about having my own restaurant. This was after my first dream, which was to become a fireman, but my Dido/grandfather told me that wasn’t for girls!
This second dream was more realistic, so I got my Masters in restaurant management back in Kyiv, Ukraine. I worked in different restaurants and bakeries, until we moved to Canada in 2013. Then, with great support from my husband, we started to sell our baked goods at farmers markets. That was the beginning of the Kozak Eatery & Bakery story.
Sergiy had never dreamed about being a chef. He is a business development guy. That’s why he got his MBA in Canada. But during my maternity leave, Sergiy took over the whole production side of our business and he became an MBA-chef-baker master!
Thanks to his intensive learning and searching, he fell in love with sourdough bread. That’s how we started to make real sourdough. This uses no commercial yeast, undergoes a slow fermentation, and is a high-hydration bread. It is crazy healthy and very delicious.
What is the first Ukrainian dish you remember cooking?
It’s hard to tell! The first time I helped put jam on rogaliki/rugelashes (hand-rolled pastries with strawberry filling) and tort wafers, I definitely licked the whisk! It was only later I became curious about making borsch and cabbage rolls.
What do you love about Ukrainian food?
I love that it uses very simple ingredients, although the cooking methods are complicated and long! Many Ukrainian dishes are already vegan, that’s why we have a great vegan menu. But for me, it was always about family gathering and making lots of food together.
I believe that Ukrainian food is some of the healthiest, thanks to all the veggies and cooking methods. The sweets are never overly sweet. The savoury dishes are very kid-friendly. We even feed one of our local daycares. And believe me, those kids are very picky customers!
Ukrainian food also means comfort food, like borsch, cabbage rolls, varenyky/pierogies, crepes, and pyrizhky. In a couple of words, Ukrainian food is a combination of healthy and yummy food.
What are the staple ingredients of Ukrainian food?
Beets, poppy seeds, sunflower seeds, buckwheat, and rye. It’s all about adding sour cream and caramelized onions to everything you eat.
What are your favourite things to cook at Kozak?
Everything. It is all so different and interesting, due to the cooking methods and flavours. One of my personal favourites is the 100% dark rye sourdough bread, because it’s alive. It can even sense your mood, so a smile and positive vibes are must-haves for all our bakers. My favourites from our sweets are strudel and dark chocolate babka, and from our lunch options, borsch and Kozak crepe.
What is the most popular menu item at Kozak?
We don’t keep products that don’t sell well, so the list of our top items is long: borsch, chicken soup, vegan and meat cabbage rolls, white and dark rye sourdough, apple strudel, dark chocolate babka, and definitely cinnamon rolls.
We also launched a new all-day breakfast menu that has become very popular, especially the homemade Liege waffles and latkes/deruny with potato or zucchini.
How do you use local ingredients from BC in traditional Ukrainian recipes?
Whenever possible, we always go for local ingredients, especially veggies. Moreover, we use antibiotic-free meat from local farmers who treat their animals right. The same with eggs— we use free range eggs for all of our lunches.
Sometimes we have no choice, for example, with poppy seeds. Canada doesn’t grow these in big amounts, so we have to buy them from New Zealand.
But with our new location opening in Vancouver, we will start milling our own flour from locally-grown wheat and rye. So soon our baked products will be even healthier and better quality. We are very excited about that.
What is different between Ukrainian food here and Ukrainian food in Kyiv?
Many families means many recipes! We cook and bake the way we know, but it might be slightly different in another region of Ukraine. Moreover, thanks to many requests from our customers, we already offer many Eastern European products that are not necessarily typically Ukrainian. We make our food the way my grandma used to make it — that’s the main goal for us.
What’s the best thing about running Kozak?
We are proud of our team and we have the best customers. With their support, we became who we are. We now have 20 team members—excellent cooks, bakers, and customer service superstars—in the Kozak family. We are expecting to at least double that number with our new location.
Everything is connected. Our ideas and passion inspire a great team that brings our vision to life in the form of products and services. This creates positive customers who share their experiences with other great people, who in turn inspire us to get better and grow bigger with a new ideas.
What are your hopes for the future of Kozak?
We like to keep quiet until our hopes are ready to be brought to life. But we do want to grow bigger, have more fun, and challenge ourselves with new goals and plans.
If you could cook Ukrainian food for anyone, who would it be?
Elon Musk, Joe Rogan, Georges St-Pierre, Vitali Klychko, and Ukrainian band DakhaBrakha.
Kozak Bakery has locations at 444 Sixth Street in New Westminster (a 20 min. walk from Columbia SkyTrain Station) and 5077 Victoria Drive in East Vancouver. Both are open from 9 am to 9 pm every day, including stat holidays.