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Funkstown 'Chef' is still at home in the kitchen

September 10, 2002|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

FUNKSTOWN - Sixty years in the kitchen have boiled Ken Kern's identity down to one word - "Chef," he said.

"People don't call me Ken," said Kern, 82, of Funkstown. "I haven't heard that in years."

For many, he is known as Beaver Creek Country Club's longtime cook. Kern has prepared meals and banquets at the club for two decades. He's pared his schedule back to part time in recent years, but has no plans to retire, he said.

"At Beaver Creek, it's just like being at home," Kern said. "The people I work with are good. The customers are nice. I like it there."

To others, Kern is Funkstown's most famous culinary artist.

He has cooked for U.S. presidents and movie stars since excelling in a job he never expected to become his life's work.

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Kern was a star baseball player from Pittsburgh - playing for the Boston Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates for several seasons before joining the U.S. Navy during World War II. The Navy wanted Kern to play ball for the Atlantic Fleet team, so he was assigned a job that would allow time for sports - cooking.

Kern worked in aircraft carrier kitchens aboard the USS Hornet and USS Wright while receiving top-notch culinary training - learning skills ranging from pastry preparation to ice sculpture, he said.

No one was more surprised than Kern when he shone behind the stove - and loved it, he said.

"I never dreamed I'd be a cook, but I still love it," Kern said. "It's a natural thing for me. I can taste something in a restaurant and know exactly what ingredients are in it and go home and make it without a recipe."

After the war, Kern worked alongside experienced chefs in Europe before taking his culinary talents back to Pittsburgh, where he launched a catering business that eventually became the biggest in the city, he said.

He fed the Pittsburgh Steelers football team and such visiting entertainers as the late Jack Benny and Liberace. Kern remembers unloading a tractor-trailer load of dishware to feed 3,500 people at the Benny gala, he said.

Most people today are more interested in hearing about the parties he catered for movie stars such as Elizabeth Taylor when she was married to Sen. John Warner of Virginia than the meals he prepared for the nation's top leaders, Kern said.

He planned dinner parties for presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon while working as an executive chef for Marriott Corp., he said. That job involved setting up kitchens at businesses, hospitals and educational institutions around the country, Kern said.

He has supervised dining halls at Harvard and Duquesne universities, and taught culinary classes at Penn State University, Lynchburg (Va.) College and Montgomery Community College in Maryland.

Kern still loves to teach people how to cook, giving demonstrations for civic groups and others whenever asked to do so, he said.

"I like the spotlight," he said.

Kern taught his 13 children how to cook but didn't encourage them to enter a profession that demands long hours. Still, he's proud of the fact that daughter Karen Vollenger manages the Texas Roadhouse restaurant in Hagerstown, and that the 14-year-old girl he hired nearly a decade ago to run the hot dog stand at Beaver Creek Country Club, Kelli Kline, is now his boss, he said.

Kern's culinary reputation - his prime rib and she-crab soup draws a crowd to the country club - still garners him requests to cater private parties, but he politely declines, he said.

His favorite diet of bologna and beer keeps him strong enough to play golf and softball, but he doesn't have the strength to lug around all the equipment and food that catering jobs require, Kern said.

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