FIRST COURSE: ‘Tell me about your chicken’
It’s not just a salad, and it’s not just tossed together. It starts with a heaping mound of lettuce and shredded carrots placed on a curved chrome platter shaped like a leaf.
Then cheese, shaved directly onto the greens. Then shredded radish, shredded cabbage. Strawberries. Blueberries. Vinegar infused with a host of herbs. Oil. Honey. Sunflower seeds. Parmesan.
“My daughter isn’t here. This is her thing,” said Chef Kern Chiasson, AKA Chef Kern, AKA Chef.
About this article
- This article was originally published as the cover story of the June 2017 issue of 400-The Life, a publication of the Forsyth County News. To read the entire magazine, click here.
Mastermind behind and conductor of the 300-person white-linen buffet he and his team is preparing to cater in Gainesville.
“I haven’t done salads in …,” he can’t come up with a number off the top of his tanned, silver-streaked head, so he trails off and gets back to the salad, building it like lasagna.
Lettuce. Vinegar. Oil. Honey.
“She’d probably say, ‘You missed a layer.’”
Chef Kern is not just a chef.
Not just a caterer. A healthy eater. He may have a surgical focus on that salad, the way he is leaned over it, picking out and replacing individual pieces of cheese on the final top layer to make the prettiest presentation possible, but he has ears on the three hot dishes being plated – by the buffet trough – behind him and on the front of the house, thanks to his wife, Denise, who helps him run the Forsyth-based Chef Kern’s Onsite Catering.
“Hey Chef, it jumped. We went from 320 to 365 real quick,” she announces to him, never coming to a full stop before turning around to the next task.
My inspiration every day is my faith in God and my attraction to family and making sure that fits into any of my dreams. Because I am a dreamer. I don’t know that’ll ever stop.Chef Kern Chiasson
Goat cheese-dipped endives and 60 pounds of fried catfish (550 pieces) with a ketchup and horseradish dipping sauce had already been passed out as guests arrived to the Northeast Georgia Health System annual banquet for longtime employees, and now that they had all been seated and are commencing the pre-meal prayer, Chef Kern and his staff are approaching deadline.
“Brooks, tell me about your chicken,” he implores toward his executive chef, his “right-hand man,” who is finishing up all the hot dishes with the staff at hand.
He answers. Something along the lines of it’s going great, sir.
“How’s your bread, Brooks?”
“Bread’s looking delicious, sir.”
Chef Kern may seem like one thing at one moment. You may think you’ve figured him out, but he is a culmination of it all. He is detailed enough to pick lint off Brooks’ shirt, to clean his own when he finds two sauce splatters on his sleeve.
He is stern when needed, playful once things slow down. When one tray of bread goes out without garlic sauce, he moves on to what’s next. He doesn’t revel in what could have been in that moment – there’s still food to put out. It’s continue, keep going.
“We operate at 150 percent so we have probably a 50 percent chance of a margin of error there. I make them feel, hey man, no matter what you do it’s gonna be OK.”
400 IN MOTION - Ep. 3 - Business in the Kitchen
SECOND COURSE: Faith, family, food
The bayou-turned-metro-Atlantan asks a lot of his staff – and often – but he does it by name each time. It’s “Can you help me?” instead of issuing orders. It’s asking how things are going instead of reminding them of the time.
“My daughter [Ashley] in there, she’s a big part of what we do,” he says a couple weeks before the hospital luncheon – and later a plated dinner for 250 people from the same hospital who have worked there even longer – at his kitchen in north Forsyth where they also prepare and sell his food product line. “People can taste the love that we put in the cuisine. It’s not hard to make a meatball. But if you love what you do, I believe it really shows.”
So the precision and the detail are out of a care, a passion, a love for both the food and the people around him. It’s something he learned early on that sets his success apart.
“I seek advice from a lot of people … My inspiration every day is my faith in God and my attraction to family and making sure that fits into any of my dreams. Because I am a dreamer. I don’t know that’ll ever stop … I want to work until I’m 90, ya know, and I just believe I love being surrounded by people, creative people, ya know. I love sweet, beautiful people. I have no room for arrogance.”
Raised by a father who worked tirelessly in the oil industry and a devoutly Catholic mother in “the middle of Bayou Country,” faith and hard work are ingrained in his roots.
“My mother is Italian from the New Orleans area, my dad Cajun from Lafayette. I think what interested me most about food were the aromas that came from the kitchens and the backyards in south Louisiana. My mom cookin’ a gumbo, I just remember the excitement where I was playing whiffle ball in the backyard and I could smell the pot roast cooking, and the windows open.”
He asked a lot of questions about food and cooking growing up.
“And I didn’t think it was abnormal because a lot of men cook in Louisiana, and I just took a real liking to it, so by the time I was 15 or 16 years old I was able to develop a lot of those recipes myself.”
After receiving his culinary training in New Orleans – a departure from his more traditional success as a left-handed pitcher in high school – Chef Kern grew wings.
THIRD COURSE: ‘What better than a jambalaya?'
He traveled out west for two months, developing his love for Southwestern cuisine – beaten now only by sushi and Japanese dishes.
“I love raw sashimi, but I love a good taco … I don’t care whether you’re at Sunset Cove on Lake Lanier or you’re at the top of a mountain in Montana. That fish taco, or whatever taco you’re doing, is going to be super popular.”
He began his trek east when he needed access to fresh seafood.
“I landed in Atlanta, and the Atlanta Classic was fixin’ to go on. I hooked up with the general manager of the Atlanta Country Club and helped them that full week. They asked me to cook an employee meal, and I said, shoot, what better than a jambalaya? Well, little did I know that was kind of the start of Chef Kern.”
Two weeks later, he began leasing himself as a chef to country clubs, corporate and sporting events, hotels. He realized Atlanta was the place to be on a June 6.
Within a year, he had worked in 30 venues. After three more years, his caravanning catering company was traveling throughout the Southeast.
In 2009, 12 years after that June 6 day, he opened the kitchen he sat in just weeks ago, where his daughter prepared Caprese salads to stock the refrigerator and his wife kept up with the business side of the company.
He’s done a lot since moving to Atlanta. He is almost booked for 2018. He no longer takes the summer off to travel, like he did with Denise for 15 years. He does 17-day-long shifts in May, sometimes two events a day, like the one with the salad built like lasagna. He’s done the Kentucky Derby. The Master’s for 21 years. He has forayed into selling bulk frozen boil-in-a-bag meals to the military for training camps and combat troops overseas. He may even make a deal to place his products in Costco.
There is one thing he will never explore: opening a restaurant.
“I knew right away, leasing myself and seeing kind of the misery and the Velcro-on-the-back, stuck-in-a-corner for restaurant owners … You have to love it, love it way too much, and it’s that involvement that affects the family. I would see that in some restaurants. They would fire their executive chef – I would fill in and keep the menu rolling, keep the stock coming in the back door. But I would also hear all the complaints from family members and stuff … like wow, man, this is family destruction … Being in hospitality and not having, ya know, every night being away from the family, it’s huge for me … Money is not what I’m after. I’m after the process.”
FOURTH COURSE: ‘It’s always a fun time’
The process has led him to develop a knack for not just making tasty, beautifully presented dishes.
“The more I studied food and became familiar with preservatives and all the additives, and that was probably 15-20 years ago … I was mortified at what I saw.”
His meals are about as healthy as you can get for good-quality Cajun, Italian and Southern cuisine. His bases are vegan, to which the chicken or the meatball or any other kind of protein is added on top, allowing special requests to be easily accommodated.
The process has not gotten away from him. The bread may have gone out without garlic sauce, but the Northeast Georgia Health System CEO took the time to walk back to the kitchen after lunch and thank him.
Chef Kern is a mix of all of that – his family, his love of food, his predisposition to host, entertain, cater, his healthy lifestyle, his passion, his drive.
He cooks for his family almost every night. Maybe it’s classic Southern. Chicken pot pie, smothered pork tenderloin medallions. Maybe it’s his favorite: seafood gumbo. Maybe it’s their favorite.
“They love my spaghettis.”
There’s no shortage of people to entertain once the catering is done, the store closed.
“We eat out just to say I’ve taken the wife out to eat, but we really have a good time at the house … Every night, whether it’s the grandkids, my mother- and father-in-law, it’s always a fun time. And my cooking’s really simple. It’s a really nice salad. It’s probably a fish or a protein and a nice fruit dessert. It never takes me more than 20 minutes to put dinner on the table.”
Chef Kern is not just any one of the things that makes him whole. Maybe, above all, he is a storyteller. A smorgasbord of experience infused in every menu, every pontoon boat party, every meatball.
He’s even too much for one story. Maybe you’ll just have to have a meal, meet the man. He’ll certainly have something to serve you, and something to tell you.