Top Chef Recap: Karen and Carl Are Hot

In the California desert, the chefs had to harness the power of the sun. Back here in Boston, you may someday be able to try their dishes.

Top Chef California

The Blue Team, including Karen Akunowicz (third from left) and Carl Dooley (fifth from left), discuss the golf course meal plan atop the San Andreas Fault Line. / Screenshot via Bravo

Boston’s Top Chef contestants Karen Akunowicz and Carl Dooley were hot in Palm Springs last night, but not necessarily because it was a dry, 100-plus degrees.

In a rocky desert on the San Andreas Fault Line, Dooley created a bacon-wrapped date with chorizo and pistachios using a solar cooktop brought along by certifiable superstar José Andrés. The Spanish-American chef, leader on food science and sociology issues, and occasional Harvard lecturer said Dooley’s use of bacon and dates was one of his mother’s favorite flavor combinations, but both Dooley and Akunowicz moved onto the Group Challenge without being singled out either way.

Next, they rolled propane-powered refreshment carts onto the PGA West golf course (swank!) to make a progressive meal for teams of golfing judges. Akuknowicz and chef Jeremy Ford, a beach bro from Miami, Florida, created the ultimate dish of the day, a chilled halibut crudo with fresh, citrus flavors. It was the Myers + Chang chef’s citrus marinade, cilantro-loaded avocado cream, and ginger-pickled vegetables the judges loved, but she was happy to give Ford credit for the ingenious ice plating, which ultimately won over the most-certainly dehydrated panel.

Akunowicz and Dooley share their thoughts on the episode, as well as what they’re up to in the unseasonably comfortable Boston clime.

(Note: Top Chef is taking the next two weeks off, so Boston will talk to them again on January 8.)


You mentioned the clean energy challenge was close to your heart. When were you and your wife, Angela, in Nicaragua, and what did you do there?

In 2009-2010, we spent six months in Nicaragua volunteering for a small cooperative doing clean cookstoves and biosand filters for drinking water, through the Newton-San Juan del Sur Sister City Project. A lot of the houses—which might be a generous word—had charcoal-burning stoves, and there was so much fumes from the cooking process that there were so many respiratory issues. We were working with what we think of an exhaust pipe, to vent the smoke outside their house. It was another case of low technology having a huge impact. But something like this where it’s solar, with no smoke whatsoever, would be really impactful in that part of the world, where there’s plenty of sunshine.

Chef Andrés really went in depth talking about the cookstoves and what he saw in Haiti. The thing that struck me: We were all trying to make, like, chef dishes. But you could put a pot of beans on the stove. It has a lot of applications not just in developing world, but for everybody. A lot of times, solar or whatever technology gets knocked because there’s a huge startup expense, or it’s finicky, but this folds up easily, it weighed like 10 pounds, and anyone can use it.

Why did you make a bacon-wrapped date dish? 

We got on those really cool jeeps, before we drove up to the cook site, and we got a tour of the area we were in. There were these huge oases of date palms. When I saw them and learned how they survive on the San Andreas Fault Line with very little water, I was really inspired to do a date dish. Plus, bacon-wrapped dates is very Spanish, so I knew it would have a connection to chef Andrés. And I love the flavors. It’s salty, sweet, creamy with the Greek yogurt, crunchy with pistachios.

Will we see something like that at the Table?

Yeah, absolutely. That dish was a really good representation of my cooking style. It took flavors from a bunch of different regions: Middle Eastern, Southern Spanish; plus using a product grown there in California. It was highly spiced, with nice textures and complexity. It would be awesome to have with a glass of wine at the Table.

How’s menu development going? 

We’re really excited. We had 20 people in last night. The kitchen’s up and running. We’ve been doing some awesome charcuterie. We did a venison terrine last night we’re excited about; and a composed duck dish with foie gras and other parts of the duck showcased on the plate. We’re nerding out on one or two dishes at a time to get the menu ready.

Cool. Back to last night: What was most challenging about golf course environment?

I think the episode captured the spirit of everything, but it didn’t show how much fun [Wesley and I] had that day. Our golf cart is rocking a bit as we chop things, our fires kept going out because of the wind, the wind is blowing half our stuff down the fairway. The circumstance was so ridiculous that there was nothing to do but have a great attitude and work together to make something delicious. That day really stands out to me in the whole Top Chef experience because it was so wacky.

What golf course did you live near? Any fun story?

Fresh Pond Golf Course! At night, there would be enough light from the surrounding apartment buildings, we’d go over there with a trash bag full of balls and whack them all over the place. Senior year of high school, there are a lot of nights we should have been studying where we were making a lot of divots—now I feel bad someone probably had to clean them up. That’s about the extent of my golf game. I’m glad there wasn’t a golf component to last night’s challenge, where a team had to putt to save their life or something. None of us knew how to play golf.



I love José Andrés, and seeing that location in the desert—I just thought this was a super cool episode. What were your thoughts rolling up to that challenge?

We actually got a tour of the area, to learn about geography and the produce. It was a really cool experience. When we walked up to our challenge and saw Padma and chef [Andrés], we were all very excited. A lot of us have looked up to him for a long time. This is one of the reasons I wanted to compete on the show.

What did you make and how did you use your stove?

I had a cast iron pan that basically has a reflective ring around it. You can position the entire mechanism so you’re reflecting the sun at a certain point to heat the pan. If the sun moves, or your pan, you have to readjust the entire stove. I made a sweet-and-sour pork dish. My pan got really hot, so there was a nice crust on the pork chop when I seared it. In the same pan, made a sweet and sour tomato jam.

We saw other chefs struggling with the wind, but what were the big issues for you and Jeremy?

We were really concerned about keeping it cold; our spot was in direct sun with absolutely no shade, of course.

We both really contributed to the dish, but I was happy to give Jeremy credit for the ice. I was really proud of the dish we made. Jeremy and I had a very clear vision, and we were able to execute it very well, especially considering the limited resources we had.

Did you know Kwame was also making a ceviche?

We did. All four teams were kind of head-to-head! You plan your menu totally separate, so we all kind of realized as we were talking and shopping. It was kind of amazing, because it was really ‘may the best dish win.’ And it did.

I’m working on a lot of new dishes at Myers + Chang right now. I love this dish. You may see an iteration of it work its way onto the menu.

Thanks! Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow at Eat Boutique?

It’s going to be fun! I’ve been a really big fan of Eat Boutique for years. It’s like cocktail hour [tomorrow] with Jonathan Soroff [Improper Bostonian], Michael Scelfo [Alden + Harlow], Nookie [aka Steve Postal, Commonwealth], and Patrick Campbell [Cafe ArtScience]. We are going to dish about holiday drama from 4-6 p.m.: Last-minute shopping, disasters in the kitchen, travel plans. Joanne Chang is signing books before that. It’s a nice way to kick off this holiday week!