By Matthew Ritchie, AFRO Intern

It’s been a long journey for one Baltimore-based wine manager.

Kristen Starks, a 32-year-old bar-director at Cosima, arguably one of Baltimore’s best new restaurants, is set to travel to Italy to train to become a world-class sommelier. It’s a long way from her humble beginnings at her first job as a barista at the age of 14. While this may have just been a first job for others, it served as a pivotal start for Starks’ future career.

Kristen Starks, who beat breast cancer, is embarking on becoming a world-class sommelier in Italy. (Courtesy photo)

“I worked at Bun Penny for three years,” Starks told the AFRO. “It kind of provided the experience that I would need to get my job at Cosima.”

When Judith Golding opened Cosima, Starks was asked to direct the bar program.

After working as a barista throughout high school, she moved to New York. Her time in New York served as her stepping stone to the restaurant industry.

“It was probably 2005, soon after the movie ‘Crash’ came out, and Matt Dillon lived across the street from the Starbucks I worked at on the Upper West Side,” said Starks. “He was a regular there and over time we struck up a friendship.” Funnily enough, he opened a door for her restaurant career. “One day he was like, ‘Why are you working here? My friend owns a restaurant down the street, come work for him.’ And that was my indoctrination into the industry.”

She later returned back to Baltimore, going on to attend Towson University. Once there, she was a part of the music school studying classical guitar. Towson had a familiar atmosphere for Starks, as she had grown up in Baltimore.

Once back in Baltimore, Starks understood that she would have to secure a job to help with finances in college. She made her way into Donna’s Cafe in The Village of Cross Keys. During her tenure there, she built up the bar program from scratch. “I worked at Donna’s for 9 years. When I got there, they were serving Coronas and simple craft beers,” said Starks. “I was able to bring the prestige of the bar program up through a mix of cocktails and wine.”

Her skill and tact as a bar manager served her well, turning the bar into something great. It also set her career up well for its next step. When the owner of Donna’s, Donna Crivello, opened up another restaurant, Cosima, she asked Starks to direct the bar program.

It represented an important next step in her career: being in control of the bar allowed her to grow and take ownership of an important aspect of a rising restaurant.

It opened up the opportunity of a lifetime. As a member of the bar staff, she was a part of session with their wine supplier, Gaetano Marangelli of the Menhir Salento winery. After the two hour discussion, he decided that he wanted to work with her in Italy.

This was in 2017. She was all prepared to go: she informed Gaetano that she planned on coming. However, as she was preparing for her trip, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Starks was primarily focused on beating the cancer. She still wanted to pursue the amazing opportunity she was given. “They were very understanding, they wanted me to focus all my energy on beating the cancer,” she said of the people at the winery. She made such an impact on Gaetano that he and the rest of the winery staff were willing to wait until whenever for her.

After multiple rounds of chemotherapy and treatment earlier this year, Kristen Starks beat breast cancer.

Now, she is ready to be on her way to Italy. Starting August 13th, Kristen will be at Menhir Salento winery training to be a sommelier.

Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story stated that Bun Penny was in Columbia, Maryland. it is in Baltimore. In addition, Donna Crivello does not own Cosima, it is owned by Judith Golding. The AFRO regrets the error.