Top Chef Contestant Karen Akunowicz on Who to Watch This Season
The Myers + Chang executive chef is one of two local cheftestants competing on season 13, which premieres this Wednesday and Thursday.
You already know what Karen Akunowicz would recommend as a no-fail first date meal plan, and you know she’d likely be a hairstylist if she wasn’t Myers + Chang’s executive chef. But the New Jersey native was meant to be a kitchen leader—and, apparently, a Top Chef contestant. The show’s producers first approached her about competing while she was still cooking at Oleana, before she joined Myers + Chang in 2011. Akunowicz shared that tidbit and more with us in advance of this week’s Top Chef season 13 premiere.
Carl Dooley, a Cambridge native and the chef behind the Table, opening on Massachusetts Avenue in January, also chatted with us. Read about his experience before the new season starts later this week.
You’re pretty well-established at Myers + Chang. It’s one of the area’s best restaurants, and you’re working with a premier chef in Joanne Chang. What made you want to go for Top Chef?
Well, they called and asked me for the past four years. The first time I got a call I was at Oleana and I was a sous chef there. It’s an honor—it’s super cool to be asked to apply for the show. I’m a very big fan of Top Chef. I’ve watched since season one.
It’s a big commitment to be able to step away from your restaurant to compete on the show. [Myers + Chang owners] Joanne [Chang], Christopher [Myers] and I talked about it, and we thought it was a really great opportunity. At this point, our restaurant is in a good place staff-wise, I have two fantastic sous chefs, and we made this decision together that it would be something I could do.
One of the reasons I chose to do the show was really to push myself out of my comfort zone. It was a chance for me to do something really out of the ordinary, and have a really challenging, fun experience. I am really glad that I chose to compete on the show, it has given me a different perspective on myself, and pushed me in completely new way.
How did you not let it slip that you’d be competing on the upcoming season of Top Chef?
Part of being cast in the show is you sign up for not talking about it until the time the show is released. My spouse knew, my partners Christopher and Joanne knew, but nobody else. We told everybody I was traveling in Southeast Asia, which kind of made sense, and we felt like it was a believable reason for me to be gone from the restaurant for a period of time. You know going into it that’s a really big part of being on the show. It’s incredibly hard [laughter].
But you’re not a stranger to reality television. We wrote about when you were on the first episode of Beat Bobby Flay last year.
It was a great experience and I loved working with Rock Shrimp Productions. But that was pretty different—I flew to New York, filmed the show, I flew back five hours later, and I was back on the line for lunch. I wasn’t taping an entire series.
Do you feel like it prepared you for the Top Chef experience?
One of the things I took away from it that helped me going into Top Chef is that the clock is real. No matter what anyone at home thinks, that clock is that clock, and that’s a really big challenge.
Since the announcement was made that you’d be competing on Top Chef, have things changed at Myers + Chang? Do customers, or your staff, treat you any differently? Has it give the restaurant a boost?
I treat every day as business as usual. I’m in the restaurant five to seven days a week, I still work the line five to six nights a week. I run food, I bus tables, I expedite. Our restaurant is 69 seats big and I’m talking to our guests all the time. Definitely, people have said, ‘We hear you’re on Top Chef, congratulations, we’re rooting for you,’ which is awesome. It’s nice to hear people are on your side and cheering for you. But I just cook food, I’m running the kitchen, and to me, every person who comes through the door is as important as your mom, or as important as a food critic.
No spoilers, of course, but is there anything in the show you feel working at Myers + Chang specifically, or Boston more generally, prepared you for?
Myers + Chang is a fast-paced environment. The food and flavors that I create and work with lend themselves well especially to things like Quickfire Challenges, particularly when you’re trying to pack a lot of flavor into one bite or one dish.
Again, no spoilers, but which of your fellow cheftestants should we be watching?
Oh my God. Every single person was such a rockstar in this cast. Really, truly. I cannot begin to say how impressed I was by everybody, and I think the majority of us felt this way. I would say every single person. I loved working with Carl Dooley, also from Boston. I think he is wildly talented. I loved working and collaborating with him. Carl and I had actually never met before. We work in the same city and know a lot of the same people, but I had never even done an event with him. Kwame Onwuachi, who’s originally from New York but who is opening a restaurant called the Shaw Bijou in DC: It was fantastic to get to know him and talk about food with him. Marjorie Meek-Bradley, who is also from D.C., she and I saw eye to eye on a lot of things. I have to say I was a really big fan of Grayson Schmitz on season nine; she was one of my favorites, so meeting her and getting to compete with her on the show was exciting as well.
What was it like working with the hosts and judges every week?
I have even more respect for Tom Colicchio than I did when I first stepped into Top Chef. He’s very invested in the integrity of the food. He’s invested in the chefs competing on the show learning and growing. You know he’s been a leader in our industry, and then you have the opportunity to learn from him and get feedback on your food. That’s really an incredibly opportunity and I feel very grateful for it.
Padma [Lakshmi]’s vocabulary is fantastic; her palate is amazing. I appreciated, probably more than I thought I would, her feedback. Gail [Simmons] as well. Like I said, watching Top Chef since season 1, just to be a part of it an get their feedback on your food is just fantastic. Emeril was charming and compassionate, and he’s Emeril Lagasse, so that’s just pretty exciting as well.
Was getting back into Myers + Chang’s kitchen an adjustment after filming the show? How so?
Compared to competing on Top Chef, Saturday night at 7 o’clock seems easy. It gives you an awesome perspective, and a good deal of gratitude that you’re back in your station where you know where everything is, with your staff, and seeing all of your guests, whether they’re regulars or new customers. It makes everything seem a little brighter, and a little easier, I will say.
Where are you planning to watch Top Chef this season?
I’m not sure. Everybody’s been saying we need to have viewing parties at Myers + Chang, but we don’t even have a TV! It’s exciting, and I’m a little anxious about it, of course. You don’t really know—[I was] there, competing and filming, I know everything that happens, but watching it on TV is a different story. It will be nice to see us all on TV. I miss everybody that we were shooting with.
Top Chef season 13 premieres Wednesday, December 2, and Thursday, December 3, at 10 p.m. on Bravo.
Note: This interview has been condensed and edited.