Chef Advocate Highlight: Mike Koerner
Chef Mike Koerner was born and raised in Deerfield, Illinois, and was exposed to a wide array of cultures early on. Culinary excellence was in Mike’s DNA with Swedish, Italian, and Hungarian blood. His Italian grandmother was the first to take Mike under her wing and teach the basics of Italian American cuisine as her mom had passed down to her. Learning most importantly the art of pasta making, bread making, sautéing, and frying.
To make it even more interesting Mike’s parents were foreign language teachers. His father was a French teacher and ran an exchange program. Mike’s father would have French faculty stay at his house during the exchange and then stay with them during the trip to France. On Mike’s first visit to France, he actually slept above an Artisanal bakery, waking up each day to the smell of baguettes and croissants. This is where he learned his first ice cream and sorbet recipes and got to see french bakers for what they really were in the morning, shirtless, and often potbellied food buddhas. He took his first driving lesson (unbeknownst to his parents) in a stick shift car before eating authentic Tarte Flambée (Alsatian pizza) and being told to finish his first glass of red wine as the French don’t waste!
His mother is a German and Spanish teacher. His grandfather on his mom’s side was also a German and Spanish teacher and fluent in several other languages as well. On Mike’s first trip to France, he had layovers in Germany so he was able to experience authentic schnitzel, bratwurst, sauerkraut, and street pretzels.
In his late teens, Mike had the wonderful opportunity to work at Ej’s Place in Skokie, Illinois under Chef EJ Lenzi. He started out here as a dishwasher and worked his way up to salad chef. This was Mike’s first big culinary challenge as the cooks spoke no English and the recipes had no measurements! Mike was able to master a couple of potato dishes there and learned how to shuck oysters, clean and devein shrimp, and how to clean large quantities of lettuce.
Mike would later work for 3 years selling spices and hot sauces in Wisconsin and Chicago farmers’ markets with Let’s Spice it UP out of Highwood, Illinois. This was a great experience for Mike as he learned to make spice blends, how to pick the best spices, and how to maximize the flavor with the use of spices.
Mike would go on to get a degree in geological science at Ohio University. He would later utilize all of these science skills for his cooking. After graduation, Mike worked as a commercial line cook under Chef Joshua Roy before ultimately getting in the door of the job he really wanted, at Farm Artisan Foods in Redlands, California. This farm to table restaurant was exactly the cup of tea Mike needed to finish his fine-dining training. He had eaten there a couple of times and after badgering the chef, Roberto Argentina, for a sit-down he finally got a chance to stag (working for food and experience in a restaurant. After two days of staging, he was hired as a Garde Manger and Pastry Chef. Within a couple of weeks, he was on hot appetizers, followed by entrées, and finally sous chef. At this position, he oversaw production of focaccia, sourdough, homemade pasta, sauces, soups, and co-ran the restaurant’s catering program. On weekends he would oversee the catering of up to 300 people for weddings and graduations while cooking food to order for walk-ins! After a year of back-breaking hours Mike hit a culinary plateau and needed to take a step back from this ever-challenging world of food. During this break is when Mike Koerner started to go back to his roots with food. Remembering what got him into it in the first place…It certainly was not foams or sous vide. In fact, at first, Mike was not a fan of all the extreme gastronomy that came up during the late 2000s and all of that “Fusion food”…Mike started to just cook, going back to old recipes, and reworking them over and over again. His focus was to find the nuances of flavor and how to concentrate his favorite ones. Eventually, Mike would let go of his fear of the new and embrace all of the wonderful technology of our modern times. He just wanted to make sure he was not cheating with it. How embarrassing if you can not make a meal just because you don’t have your Nitrous cartridges or xanthan gum. Ultimately Mike’s style is more on the natural side of life and though he is willing to play with some space-age stuff, he really gets excited by concentrating flavor with traditional methods. Over the course of the last 6 years, Mike has realigned his chi. He has put himself in the shoes of the consumer. He is going places and eating, experiencing new flavors, and then going back home and playing with them like an artist with new colors. He has matured in the right way, not forgetting where he came from not afraid of what the future brings. Knowing that at the end of the day that some things don’t need to be changed at all. Being a chef you have to embrace the new but Mike also makes it very clear that he wants to keep our traditions alive.
Mike’s last two years have been blessed with the addition of his partner, his love, and full-time supporter Diana Kim. Diana being of Korean heritage has exposed Mike to a whole new world of flavors. Mike was extremely excited to start learning about Korean food and is still just tapping the surface of this wonderful culinary gem. He has learned a few recipes that have now been tried and tested by Diana. He is excited to share some of these new recipes and also some of his Korean inspired creations like the Kimchi Burger.
Mike has taken a long, winding road to get to this point and Diana was a catalyst in the creation of this idea. Mike understands now that being a chef is just who he is. No matter what work he does he will always be a chef. When Mike travels and eats other people’s foods he is calculating in his head how he can bring the essence back to his own kitchen so that he can share the same feeling with someone else. Mike loves the nuances of the process and knows that when someone puts love into the food that you can taste the difference.
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