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Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Laid Off During the Coronavirus, Hannah Kerne Knows Her Future Is in Food

Posted By on Tue, Jun 16, 2020 at 6:52 AM

click to enlarge Hannah Kerne is not letting her passion for food fade during the COVID-19 crisis. - ANDY PAULISSEN
  • Hannah Kerne is not letting her passion for food fade during the COVID-19 crisis.

As someone with a background in U.S.-China crisis public relations related to international trade, Hannah Kerne is used to dealing with constant upheaval. Still, having her professional life turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic has been jarring.

"At the beginning of COVID, I had five jobs," Kerne says. "I was working at Vicia, consulting for the Whittle School & Studios, consulting for another company and teaching cycling at Trufusion and Lifetime Fitness. I lost four jobs at once."

Kerne does not bring up the dramatic changes in her professional life to invoke pity, but rather as a way to illustrate just how varied her work is and her compulsion to keep busy. Though she's made a name for herself in St. Louis as the assistant pastry chef at Vicia (4260 Forest Park Avenue, 314-553-9239), Kerne first came to St. Louis from her native Louisiana as a student at Saint Louis University. There, she studied economics, political science and Mandarin, all of which she put to use after graduation working for Teach for China. Kerne spent three years working in a small village, developing curriculum for the program.

Those experiences led to a job in Washington, D.C. doing public policy and crisis PR in international trade, focused on China. Under the Obama administration, much of her job centered around improving U.S.-China relations, but things changed dramatically when the subsequent administration took over.

Kerne found herself in need of a change, and when a job in Chicago failed to come through, she felt like it was a sign that she should take a leap and pursue the one thing that had always given her fulfillment more than anything else: food.

"Food has always been my passion," Kerne explains. "There are home cooks, and there is the type of home cook I was. It was insane. I spent ten years out of my home, running experiments and testing variables. I made 100 different types of chocolate chip cookies in one year because I was obsessed with testing the variability of it. It got to the point where my company was paying me to make desserts for everyone. It was a 100-person firm, and I would have meetings with everyone asking them what their essence was for the year and then bake accordingly."

Kerne made the decision to pursue professional cooking in St. Louis, and reached out to two of the top chefs in town, Michael Gallina and Ben Poremba, to beg for an opportunity. To her surprise, Poremba responded.

"I sent a very passionate note saying that I will do anything," Kerne recalls. "I said that I am extremely hardworking and that they could trust someone with a background in crisis PR to be able to withstand pressure. I took bucket showers and slept on a cot for two years. Try me."

Kerne recalls being shocked at her meeting with Poremba when he told her he would not only give her a chance, he wanted to put her on the line at his restaurant, the Benevolent King, that very night. Anxious but ready for the challenge, she showed up, spent the night frying falafel balls and earned a permanent spot on the kitchen team.

Eventually, Kerne was hired at Vicia, where her passion for pastry became even more evident. She became the restaurant's assistant pastry chef and relished her time in the kitchen up until she was laid off with the rest of the staff due to the COVID-19 outbreak. She hasn't let it get her down, though. In fact, she's been busy consulting for an education program and helped organize the successful Bakers for Black Lives event that raised money for local racial justice organizations as she figures out what happens next.

At this point, Kerne says she has no idea whether she will go back to her old pastry job, because the industry has changed so much. She would love to find something that combines all of her skills — education, food and international relations. She feels like she's building to that, though she doesn't know quite how. One thing she knows is that, no matter what path her professional like takes, it will always lead to food.

"Food is my number one passion," Kerne says. "There is nothing in this world that I do more effortlessly. I never don't want to cook. Even when I was working at Vicia, I'd come home and cook, or cook on my days off. I've never been able to stop. It's everything to me. Two years ago, when I made this change, my commitment to myself was that I am only going to do things I love.  If it doesn't set my soul on fire, I'm going to say no to it."

Kerne took a moment to share what she's been up to during the COVID-19 crisis, how she maintains a sense of normalcy and what gives her hope in such fraught times.

As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
I’m alright, actually. I’m doing remote PR consulting for an amazing Brooklyn-based education startup called Mesh Ed. I started COVID with five jobs (Vicia, teaching cycling at Lifetime and TruFusion, and two PR consulting contracts in DC and NYC), and now I have one. I’m grateful to even have work right now.    
What do you miss most about your job?
Social learning. I’m forever childlike in my curiosity to understand things, and I really miss learning techniques from my colleagues that you can’t learn online or from just reading. Plus, the amazing produce.  

What do you miss least?  
Cleaning. Don’t tell Chef Aaron lol. I’m quite organized in terms of my internal processes (e.g. I’m a master planner), but I have always struggled to stay clean in physical spaces — at home as well. Sometimes, I embarrassingly leave my fridge or cabinets open at home without realizing it and leave.  

What is one thing you make sure you do every day to maintain a sense of normalcy?  
Exercise — recently an obsession with mastering handstands! I’ve worked out daily since I was twelve. I’m quite ADD, so it’s the most efficient way to bring my squirrel brain back to earth. I’ve also always been quite militaristic in my morning routines. I wake up at 6 a.m. (no matter when I go to bed), have two hours of downtime before working, with a banana, peanut butter, blueberry smoothie coupled with reading news and coffee. I will literally go to the store in the morning if I don’t have those ingredients.    

What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?  
Wine. My roommate and platonic lover, Sharon Harter (Polite Society & Bellwether pastry chef), and I cook daily together and have way too many late nights taking down bottles and laughing.  

What are the three things you’ve made sure you don’t want to run out of, other than toilet paper?  
Did I mention bananas, peanut butter and wine?  

You have to be quarantined with three people. Who would you pick? 
I’m so indecisive. For my intellectual self: author Zadie Smith, historian Yuval Harari or author and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee. For my food-loving self: chef Yotam Ottolenghi, chef Nancy Silverton or J. Kenji López Alt from Serious Eats; for my Buddhist self: meditation teacher Tara Brach (go listen to her talks!)  

Once people can safely go back out and about, what’s the first thing you’ll do?  
Hug everyone! I am from Louisiana (big huggers down south!), so not being able to hug makes me feel like the universe is trying to put me in a straitjacket.  

What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people are comfortable returning to normal activity levels?
I imagine there will be a large shift to more informal dining. I think COVID was a reminder of how much eating together fosters intimacy and connection; food is love. I already see restaurants shifting culturally to hold space for that. Less focus on highbrow food; better hospitality.  

What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
A quote comes to mind that I heard recently: “What are you unwilling or afraid to feel or acknowledge?” I think the world, myself included, is taking a good hard look at itself in terms of racism and our broken systems; illusions are dying. If we keep our eyes open and do the work, I think we could see a new paradigm.

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