Chef Karen Shirley cooks with precision, passion, and a dash of soul. Working her way through a few notably prestigious kitchens, Karen continues to approach every cooking experience determined to excite the palate of every diner. From her humble beginnings as a line cook for Top Chef winner Ilan Hall, to becoming a private Chef for some of Hollywood’s elite the story has been the same; a dash of creativity and a pinch of passion is the beginning of every perfect recipe.
It wasn’t always a life of cooking for the once College Basketball Athlete, but it was a passion birthed in the dorms during her college career. Arizona Western College she began making gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, and paninis with a single butane burner and deluxe George Foreman grill. On the weekends her girlfriend, a bartender at Applebee’s, tended bar while Karen ran the kitchen within her jail cell style dormitory. This planted the seed for a future culinary pursuit that would become the most satisfying career decision to date.
The dream to attend culinary school became a reality in Spring 2011, when her current position working for the City of Los Angeles began to look bleak as she began to see her colleagues experience forced lay-offs, forced retirements, and the introduction of furlough work periods. It was this uncertainty that led her to enroll in culinary school at Los Angeles Trade Tech College. Immediately after enrollment Chef Karen met Chef Manuel Cisneros, the sous chef for Ilan Hall. This meeting led her to accepting an unpaid internship at the famed gastropub, The Gorbals. A few months of back breaking, and tedious work Chef Hall offered Karen a full-time position as one of three cooks, which was a very great achievement so early in her career.
Two years later, Chef Karen took her talents to Fork in the Road under the direction of Chef Drew Adams, and quickly gained the position of Sous Chef. It was at Fork in the Road where Chef Karen began to acquire proper management skills to command a kitchen, and dive deeper into menu development and catering. This position helped to identify possible areas of interest for her next career endeavor which led her to Waterloo and City, one of Los Angeles’s premiere restaurants led by world-renowned Chef Brenden Collins.
Waterloo and City immediately garnered the attention of L.A.’s foodie scene and became a desired dining destination. Here is where Chef Karen found a deep love for pasta and sauces. As the lead saucier chef, Karen worked tirelessly to meet the extreme demand of the daily sold out establishment up until its closing in Jan 2015. After the closing, Chef Karen followed Brenden Collins to assist him as sous chef for the newest Hollywood restaurant Birch. This was Chef Brenden’s first time owning a restaurant so the pressure to make it a success was very present. Birch quickly began to receive great praise from food critics and became one of very few dining destinations in a neighborhood littered with bar food, and nightclubs.
At the height of Chef Karen’s career, she began to seek out knowledge of different cuisines and flavors. She spent the new few years working with notable chefs such as Kevin Meehan of Kali, Nyesha Arrington of Leona, and Kai Chase of KC Catering. Each endeavor helped her to hone her skills, acquire more knowledge of flavors, and perfect many cooking techniques. Shortly after leaving Leona she began working with a nonprofit feeding 200-400 homeless individuals daily. Chef Karen began to focus a large part of her spare time to creating new ways to redistribute and prevent the massive amount of food waste within the restaurant and grocery industries. The Chef and her team began by picking up items near expiration at certain establishments and delivering them to people in need. Chef Karen is currently working on financing a food truck to continue creating flavorful food for people with and without a home, while making sure to stay within the laws placed upon the industry by the Health department of L.A.