Carl Dooley and Karen Akunowicz Break Down Top Chef Premiere
Karen Akunowicz and Carl Dooley both started out strong: In Wednesday night’s episode, Dooley earned the chance to cook for immunity by quickly trimming artichokes. Exuding the positive attitude he hoped would shine through on TV, Dooley played well with others during the subsequent group challenge, where he completed a dish chefs Isaac Toups and Grayson Schmitz had started while he was blindfolded. “[They] set me up pretty well. I’m pretty stoked,” he told the camera.
The next day, Dooley’s Middle Eastern-spiced carrot soup was well-received by returning judges Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, Gail Simmons, and Emeril Lagasse, plus the 200 media attendees of an outdoor festival. It earned him a spot in the Top 3, but it was bested by a clean Pacific snapper crudo by Florida chef Jeremy Ford. Akunowicz created a salmon tartare with texture and flavors that also earned accolades from the all-star cast, though she wasn’t singled out either way.
The next night, the hometown heroes were paired up to create a pop-up somewhere in the sprawling City of Angels. Along with two other executive chefs, Jason Stratton of Mamnoon in Seattle, and L.A. local Giselle Wellman of Mama Shelter, Akunowicz and Dooley were fortuitously stationed in Koreatown to take over Sang Yoon’s Lukshon for the night. Unsurprisingly, the judges declared the woman at the helm in Myers + Chang’s Asian-influenced kitchen creator of the most flavorful and authentic dish on the team: short ribs and nectarine kimchi. In the end, the team behind a Persian pop-up prevailed, but both Dooley and Akunowicz have given Boston homers reason to root hard so far.
Below, Dooley and Akunowicz break it down.
How were you feeling after Wednesday night’s premiere?
It was really exciting. It was fun to see it all come together. Throughout the competition, I was so focused on what I was doing or what my team was doing, [I] had no idea what was going on with everyone else. It was fun to see it all play out. You hear the stories of people’s mistakes, or what people were psyched about.
It was a pretty solid start for you.
Artichokes! It was kind of crazy. I was the last person up to the stand there. Padma yelled, ‘Go!’ but for some reason, I just stood in place. So when I got up there, all that was left was artichokes. I love them, and I’ve always considered it something I’m good at it. But I was nervous: Separating eggs, prepping oranges, I was thinking some things could go a little faster.
You were psyched to meet Emeril Lagasse, who helped judge the first elimination challenge, and then he tried your spiced carrot soup and said he “felt like [he] was eating at your house.” What’s your take on that comment from him?
The pride of Fall Rivah! When I first started getting into cooking, I used to watch him on TV all the time. I was always so into how passionate he was about the food. He describes every detail, and there was always so much love in everything he made. It was really cool to make something I felt was delicious, but I also put a lot of heart in, and for him to pick up on that was really cool. I have a lot of respect for him.
In Thursday night’s episode, not only were you teamed up with a fellow Bostonian, but as a team you took over Lukshon, and Karen makes Korean-inspired flavor bombs for a living. When you rolled into K-Town, did you think you had an advantage?
I knew she felt comfortable with the flavors. During menu planning stage, we all bounced ideas around and she was super helpful giving feedback. She definitely led the team. I was really nervous. You’re paired up with people you’ve never worked with, so I was really excited when we came together, communicated really well, and created a something really unique in four hours. That was the highlight for me.
You were obviously familiar with [Lukshon’s chef/owner] Sang Yoon, from Top Chef Masters. Was his advice that “Korean food is better in L.A.” helpful? What else did he tell you?
I saw him on Top Chef and have followed his food. He was super high-energy, passionate about Korean food, and talking to him fired us all up. He gave us good inspiration. What he said was cook with big flavors: Use that spice, acid, garlic, funk. Create food that has high impact.
They didn’t really show it a lot on TV, but the space we had was so cool. It felt so L.A. You had to walk thru an alley to get to it. I got a lot of energy just being in the space and in the moment.
Going forward, who do you think we should be watching?
In the first episode, I was working next to Chad [White], and the shrimp and scallop cake that he made was one of the best things I tasted all season. Tom gave it a shoutout. Chad is definitely someone to keep an eye on. Same thing with Kwame [Onwuachi]: His food is super well-balanced, really bright flavors, and he cooks with a good perspective.
Tom Colicchio said this is “probably the strongest group we’ve ever brought in.” You’re part of the reason why, as one of several James Beard nominees in the cast. In fact, you missed the awards ceremony to be on the show. What was it like to have to make that decision, and how was it reliving it on Wednesday?
[Laughter] That was a tough decision to make, honestly. I went back and forth on it for a long time. I know it’s just an awards night, but I was so over the moon to be nominated [as Best Chef: Northeast]. It was such a surprise to me to make the long list; it was an even bigger surprise to make the short list, and to not be able to sit and have that moment was disappointing. But reliving it [Wednesday] night, it was just fun. I was surprised it even made it into the episode.
How did LJ feel about their cameo?
Oh my gosh. That was the best part. My spouse LJ is hilarious. They were like, ‘Did you see I was on Top Chef? I think I did a great job in this episode.’ That’s one of my favorite pictures from our wedding. I’ve said a few times, but if there had been any doubt on LJ’s part that [Top Chef] was something I should do, any hesitation at all, I wouldn’t have done it. And they were just solidly, absolutely [supportive] from Day 1. To be able to recognize them in a small way, to talk about them on the episode and show our wedding picture, that meant a lot to me.
In the second episode, you had to rely more on other people, which ended up pretty darn good for you guys. But you were portrayed as definitely concerned about the inexperience Giselle was showing in the first half of the episode. Do you feel that was overdramatized at all?
It’s television, so no one would watch if it wasn’t a little overdramatized. They showed Jason Stratton as well, like, ‘Girl, you have to pull this together.’ She is a great friend and great chef, and she was very, very, very anxious. I was anxious about her being anxious. Remember, that was the second challenge we did. We don’t know each other yet, as chefs. If you asked me today if I would have been that anxious, I would have been like, ‘Nope, I know Giselle, and she’ll pull this off and it will be awesome.’ But in that moment, I was concerned. But her chicken wings were fire.
There have been some choice eyerolls from you so far, which I, personally, have enjoyed. How do you feel about your overall character so far?
I think I’m having as much fun watching the show as everybody else. My friend said, ‘I’m going to make a T-shirt with your face on it, and it’s going to say, ‘The Face of Truth.’ Are there things taken out of context? Probably. Would I roll my eyes that way? Probably, absolutely. [Laughter] But I think it’s fine. My face is very expressive and I’m always very honest. My face probably shows what everybody else might have been thinking.
I saw on Instagram that last night featured was one of your favorite challenges—and that you and Carl watched together.
I loved the ingredients we got to work with, I loved being in K-town, I loved my team. I wish you could get through the TV the energy of that space: It was so bustling, it smelled so great. I wish everybody at home could have been there with us. It wasn’t just making food that has Korean flavors, not four dishes we’re individually doing. It was about bringing a really cohesive snapshot of what it would feel like for one of us, after you’ve worked dinner service, going out and partying and eating this food, and I think we were really able to do that.
[Carl] is one of my favorite people, and one of the chefs I admire most from the show. He came over with his wife and a bunch of his friends, and I’m so happy we got to watch together. His dish on our pop-up challenge, the cuttlefish, was really fantastic.
Note: Both conversations are condensed and edited.