An ICE Alum's Journey to Sous Chef at Michelin-Starred Kali
How a chance encounter led him to the opportunity of a lifetime.
While pursuing a dual-diploma, Michael Kerner (Management/Culinary, ‘20) went for a meal at one of his favorite restaurants in Los Angeles, Michelin-starred Kali. A chance encounter with the restaurant's co-owners set him off on his culinary career path.
Dallas native Michael Kerner fell in love with food at a young age while cooking with his parents, especially his dad. Thinking it was more of a hobby, Michael studied real estate finance at Southern Methodist University. However, he quickly realized he was on the wrong path and ultimately dropped out at the ripe age of 21 years old.
Eventually, Michael made his way to The Golden State, where he focused on his life goals, self-improvement and, ultimately, his sobriety. “When I got sober I decided to pursue cooking as a career," he says. "[It was] something I always loved doing as a kid growing up.”
His family encouraged him to pursue culinary arts, thinking it would be an essential resource to develop and grow before entering professional kitchens.
“I wanted to stay in California, and ICE had an incredible reputation,” says Michael, who went on to seek a double diploma in Culinary Arts and Restaurant & Culinary Management.
See if you are eligible for discounted tuition when pursuing a double diploma at ICE.
While at school, Michael realized that he wanted to pursue fine dining, noting it was something that piqued his interest, leading him on a tasting adventure throughout the City of Angels to learn more. He visited notable restaurants like Osteria Mozza, Orsa & Winston and Kali. Though he loved all three, it was Kali that stood out to him the most.
Kali, which earned its first Michelin star in the inaugural Michelin Guide California in 2019, is a small neighborhood restaurant located between Hollywood and Larchmont Village. Co-owned by chef Kevin Meehan (of L'Orangerie, Paris) and Drew Langley (two-Michelin-starred Providence, L.A.), the restaurant focuses on California-style cuisine with a contemporary twist and celebrates local and hyper-seasonal farmers market ingredients.
Michael formed his first connection with his future employer while casually sipping a kombucha at the bar and waiting for his table. Drew approached Michael and asked if he worked in the industry. Michael, feeling equal parts shocked and pleasantly surprised, said he was a student at ICE.
Later while enjoying his meal, Michael was coincidentally seated between actor-singer Donald Glover and one of chef Kevin’s close friends. That night, Kevin spent a lot of time on the floor checking on his special guests.
As the night drew to a close, Drew let Kevin know that Michael was a culinary student, which sparked a fruitful conversation that led to an invitation for Michael to stage at the duo’s restaurant. “I jumped on that opportunity and began staging at Kali three days later,” Michael says.
Near the end of his programs at ICE, Michael was offered a full-time position at Kali. He says the opportunity to work at his dream restaurant, while learning directly from industry professionals, helped him grow tremendously.
“I’m one of those people that comes into work early, leaves late and always asks questions," he says. "I want to learn as much as possible, and I come in happy and ready to work. I want to be here.”
After finishing his stage at Kali, the ICE alum worked at the garde manger station for nearly three months. From there he moved to the sauté station and helped fulfill takeout meals during pandemic closures. In April 2021, Michael was appointed as the sous chef, managing the kitchen alongside the head chef.
“We really love when people ask questions and want to know why something is the way it is or [how it] works the way it does, as opposed to learning the technique and just moving on,” he says of his new role. “At that point, you’re learning the respect for the ingredients, the process and tradition behind it."
As a sous chef, Michael helps prep the kitchen, receives orders from vendors, oversees service, visits farmers markets and breaks down fish deliveries for the team. On top of that, the restaurant’s hyper-seasonal tasting menu changes all of the time based on the products available. “It’s a fun surprise that keeps me on my toes,” he says.
Michael also contributes his creativity and well-developed palate when helping design the menu for the week. The team prioritizes always serving the customers the best products and ingredients from quality farmers and vendors on their à la carte and tasting menus. “Things change quite a bit, and we adjust accordingly," he says. "If we find a better product than what's on hand and we can offer it to our customers, then we do.”
With the recent release of the 2021 Michelin Guide California, restaurants like Kali are staying positive, motivated and hopeful of receiving hard-earned accolades. “It’s important. It can make or break a business. However, at the end of the day, it’s not why I cook — I cook because I really love it," Michael says. "If it happens — which I really hope it does — then that’s great, and if it doesn’t, then I just need to work harder." (Kali retained its Michelin star in the 2021 guide.)
Michael thanks his teachers at ICE, including Chef-Instructor Cyril Kabaoglu, who left a lasting impression and taught him to, most importantly, “work hard, work clean and crack a smile along the way.”
Learn more about the Culinary Arts & Management Associate Degree Program at ICE LA.