50 Best Restaurants: Getting to Know Myers + Chang Chef Karen Akunowicz

Meet Karen Akunowicz, M+C's new pink-haired toque. (Photo by Sara Engel/Prism Pixels Photography.)

At Myers + Chang, one of this year’s 50 Best Restaurants, everyone has a dish that they can’t live without: Sometimes (more often than I’d like to admit) I daydream about polishing off half a dozen of the plump, savory Mama Chang’s pork-and-chive dumplings. I’ve had friends wax poetic about the spicy hot and sour soup, while others can’t visit without ordering the crispy scallion pancakes.

This past summer, M+C chef Matthew Barros left for a swanky gig at the helm of the kitchen at Market by Jean-Georges (another 50 best pick), and in late August chef Karen Akunowicz took over the wok. I called up the chef while she was at work, and we discussed her cooking background, the meal that won her the gig, and how she’s changing up the menu (don’t worry, those can’t-live-without-them standards are sticking around).

How did you get involved with the restaurant?
Christopher [Myers] and I have known each other for a long time. I worked at Via Matta as a bartender, and then I went to culinary school and worked in the kitchen there for two-and-a-half years. So he and I have known each other—that was nine years ago now. We kept in touch over time, and he got in touch with me this summer and said “You know, we are looking for someone, we’d love for you to come in and talk to Joanne about this, I think you’d be a really good fit.” And that ended up being the case.

Where else have you worked in Boston?
I cooked at Oleana, I was in Italy and I did stages—I did a pasta-making stage, and and I ended up being a chef at a small enoteca in Modena. And before that I was at Via [Matta] for two years, and before that I was at Ten Tables.

So Via Matta is Italian and Oleana is Middle Eastern—how does that background lend itself to Asian cooking?
I was so interested in working with Ana [Sortun, chef/owner of Oleana] in the same way I was interesting in working with Joanne [Chang]. But my first concern, the first things I sort of voiced with Joanne and I think I responded with Christopher in the same way, is that I don’t make Asian food. And the great conversation that I with Joanne is that she said, “You know, it’s all the same thing. The method of the cooking is the same. There’s still roasting and braising and smoking. You are doing all of the same methods, you are just using a different flavor palate.” I kind of had a similar conversation with Ana. If you can get past the little bit of fear or trepidation about it, you find that you have opened up a whole new world of flavor and a whole new culture of food, which is so exciting.

Did you have to prepare Chris and Joanne a special meal to win them over?
The last time I came in I did a five-course tasting menu for them. I did a three-radish salad with chile, lime and mint; corn-crusted soft-shell crab with pickled watermelon and ginger aioli; duck ramen with a star anise broth and soft egg; a spicy salmon tartare with cured egg yolk, nori and grilled asparagus; and pork and kimchi croquettes.

Have any of these dishes made it onto the menu?
Yeah, the pork and kimchi croquettes—right now I am doing them really small and they are a garnish for the squash soup that we are doing for fall. Christopher laughed and said they were like “Asian arancini.” I made them really small so that they are like little croutons or rice meatballs.

So you mention ‘Asian arancini.’ Have there been any other Italian or Middle Eastern influences on your food?
I think that’s definitely one of them, we always joke about it. You will see a little bit of that in the style of cooking—everything we have done before influences what we do now. I just put a Jasmine tea-smoked duck salad on the menu. Chris and Joanne both love it. It has a fermented black bean vinaigrette. It’s a little prettier and a little more refined. I think you will see a little more of that creeping into the menu.

Do you have an end goal with what you want to do with the menu? Are there certain dishes that can never leave?
Oh, absolutely. It’s a Chinese food restaurant, so there are staples that you will always see on the menu. There all also lots of stories that connect to things that are on the menu. Like Joanne’s mom’s dumplings—they will never come off the menu. The salmon dish [pan roasted soy glazed salmon with ginger, sriracha, and rock sugar] —that will never come off the menu, because that was the inspiration for Christopher and Joanne to start Myers + Chang. The scallion pancakes, where the dough is made at Flour, that won’t come off of the menu. The tea-smoked ribs will always be on the menu. I don’t think people have to worry about the Myers + Chang classics ever leaving. But there’s always room for something new.

Do you think you will bring some more refined dishes to the menu as well?
When I make a dish it’s a little more refined, more put together. But where I have worked—whether it be Via Matta or Oleana—I have made food that is craveable, and a little more rustic. And it’s not necessarily the pretty, super-precious kind of food. I have always really wanted to make food that people really want to eat.

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