Kelsey Juntwait, Hudson Kitchen’s new Community Coordinator, recently moved to Jersey City from the seacoast of Connecticut with plans of eventually attending Culinary School— before that, she was in Boston, and prior to that, New Hampshire. She jokes that the reason she subconsciously made this southern journey was because her dogs are named after Yankees and, as you can imagine, “that doesn’t go over well in northern states,” she tells me laughing. But in all seriousness, she owes her multiple moves to her parents, who raised her with the determination to follow any dream she felt palpable.
“I moved around a lot as a kid. By the time I was in high school, I think I was living in my tenth or eleventh town,” she explains. “I wasn’t an army brat or anything, although my mom is a former Marine— my dad was just always very determined in his career to succeed, so he was constantly advancing to a new position or company, which typically meant a new town. Not only do I owe every ounce of my tenacity to them, they’re also responsible for my passion.”
She goes on to tell me that living in such different places captured her interest in culture, diversity, community, and food. “I fell in love with it,” she continues, “the way a meal would bring people together. It was the one thing that was ubiquitous. It became my safety net.”
So she decided to study food at its most basic form, receiving a B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems from The University of New Hampshire. “Most people who studied the same thing as me either went home to take over their family farm or they stayed in academia. Well, my family definitely didn’t have a farm. So I went with the latter.” She talks about culinary school at this point and wanting to tie her agricultural background with cooking. “I wanted to get people to understand where their food was coming from.” However, after graduating and spending the summer working on a variety of different research farms, she was offered a Graduate Assistantship to get her Master’s Degree at her alma mater. She couldn’t pass it up.
While Kelsey was in graduate school, her parents continued their own journey and moved across the world to Shanghai, China. “I was lucky enough to visit twice. It kind of reignited my spark for culture and food that I think was being dimmed by grad school.” She describes the bustling Shanghai streets filled with food vendors of all ethnicities, and how she began writing about it. “That was a turning point for me. I began blogging about all these food experiences I was having. It was combining two things I felt really strongly about.”
But one experience stands out to her the most. “For Christmas one year, my sister and I met my parents in Hawaii.” She talks about a day that her dad and her drove the North Shore of Maui. “We drove these narrow, luscious roads that would lead us to the most captivating views. Every mile or so, there’d be a different food truck on the side of the road serving something new— each food truck run by a different yet similar family with a fascinating story. It was such a delight to the senses. It’s one of my favorite memories.” This is the moment she feels changed everything.
“Writing about food experiences quickly became my passion; growing and cooking food became my hobby. But having a passion and a hobby plus working upwards of 80 hours a week for grad school just didn’t mix. By the end of the two years, I was burnt out.” She tells me that she had a full ride to get her PhD at The University of Tennessee lined up next. But she hit a breaking point in between her master’s and her doctorate, and she opted in a new direction. “It was a hard decision. Sometimes I feel like I let people down, not pursuing the path that came with stability and certainty. Sometimes I feel like I let myself down. But then I remind myself that I chose the path that made me happiest.”
She describes the next few years in her story as a whirlwind, diving headfirst into the unknown. She began freelancing, and then nailed down the position of Assistant Media Manager at Formaggio Kitchen, a gourmet food shop in Cambridge, MA. She then started working for a food rescue non profit serving the Greater Boston Area as their Marketing and Community Outreach Coordinator. But culinary school was still very much part of her eventual plan so she decided to move back home to save money. Only a few short weeks ago, she made another move to Jersey City, a diverse food mecca she’s fallen in love with over the past few years.
I asked her how she ended up at Hudson Kitchen. “My girlfriend does the hand lettering for some of the food businesses in Jersey City. That community is so intertwined, so Hudson Kitchen has always been on my radar. I saw the position and practically pounced on it. I knew it would be a perfect fit.”
Kelsey’s life has never been straightforward. There’ve been twists, turns, bumps, and, at times, complete stops, but she kept forging on. “I’m still learning how to accept success while also questioning if I did the right thing a few years ago.” She tells me that leaving her path in academia was the hardest decision she’s made, but then looks around and sees everything that would’ve never happened if she didn’t veer from it.
“The dream of culinary school is still very much there, but finding a community in Jersey was always my main priority, and I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better place for that than Hudson Kitchen. I know this place will inspire me. And hopefully, I can inspire a few others in the process.”