Top Chef Recap: Love Is Love, But Not All Food Is Love

The episode 'Big Gay Wedding' broadcasted real, live marriage vows, and Boston chefs Karen Akunowicz and Carl Dooley pulled their weight.

Top Chef

Karen Akunowicz (right) and Giselle Wellman toast during the wedding reception. / Screenshot via Bravo

Love was all around on Top Chef last night: There were sweet dates; palpable lust for guest judge Chrissy Teigen; and a mega-wedding—officiated by Padma Lakshmi—for 25 gay and lesbian couples, catered by the 13 remaining chefs.

It was an exciting episode, especially for Karen Akunowicz, who shared that she and her spouse LJ were coming up on their first anniversary that month.

But both of the locals made missteps. During the Quickfire Challenge, Carl Dooley’s date milkshake wasn’t up to snuff. But later, with Marjorie Meek-Bradley’s help, he more than redeemed himself with a stellar dessert during the Big Gay Wedding reception. (That is the episode title; in Massachusetts, we know it’s just called a wedding now.)

Akunowicz’s course suffered from partner Giselle Wellman’s input—or lack of it. Despite the Myers + Chang chef’s ownership of the undercooked, underseasoned asparagus dish, there was no way she would be the one packing her knives. An emotional Judges’ Table saw safe chefs call out one of the bottom-dwellers on his bullshit, but the judges ultimately booted Akunowicz’s unconfident sous chef.

The episode was about more than the food, though.

“Love is love,” toasted guest judge Art Smith, while he cut into a three-tiered, rainbow wedding cake. Smith, chef to celebrities and dignitaries including Oprah and Barack Obama, and his husband Jesus Salguerio renewed their vows during the wedding episode.

“Today was a proud moment in Top Chef history,” said Tom Colicchio, “marrying couples who, five or six years ago, couldn’t even conceive of being married.”

Note: The following conversations have been edited for length and clarity.


As a Top Chef fan, did you ever think you’d see a wedding episode featuring entirely LGBT couples?

No. When we found out [the guest judge] was Art Smith, knowing how much work he has done this year around equality, myself and [also openly gay] Jason Stratton knew right away it was going to be a wedding with same-sex couples. We were so excited. For me, what an amazing opportunity for that to be a part of my Top Chef experience.

You prioritized making a vegetarian dish, because LJ is vegetarian. Why did you choose the charred asparagus dish specifically?

I prioritized it not just because LJ’s a vegetarian, but because, as anybody has been to a wedding before knows, the vegetarian options are often limited. I thought that was an important component of the wedding. The asparagus was looking great, and we wanted it to be a bit substantial, which is why we added [farro] to the dish. 

Giselle said she was comfortable letting you shine, and you said you weren’t comfortable letting her hide. You could have taken her lead and completely dictated what she needed to do—why didn’t you?

Because it was a collaboration. If there’s something that I’ve learned in the years I’ve been cooking, it’s that, usually, we become stronger when we collaborate. ‘How ’bout we do this?’ ‘Sounds great! But instead of that, this ingredient would be beautiful.’ That’s how I work. Instead of me dictating the dish, I’m looking for input.

How did you feel about Giselle calling out Phillip for not recognizing his flaws while you and she were being critiqued?

We all have had a dish, clearly myself included, that hasn’t gone the way we wanted it to, and being able to take feedback and look critically is one thing he really was not able to do. The dish was different than how he posed it to the team, and I think we were all surprised by it, and maybe a little bit tired of hearing him say, ‘That’s exactly what I wanted.’ And maybe [Giselle] felt that way as well.

You said the Korean pop-up was one of your favorite challenges. Where does this one rank?

I loved the pop-up challenge, I loved the golf cart challenge, and I loved this challenge. But this is the episode that I’ve been waiting for. We got to be a part of something that was historic, and although I was in the bottom for the Elimination Challenge, I was so grateful to be a part of it.

[Bonus follow-up:] Is Kwame Onwuachi coming to Myers + Chang next week?

Yes! Kwame is really close to opening the Shaw Bijou in D.C., and we are going to do a pop-up chef’s table here at Myers + Chang on Wednesday [January 13]. It will just be 10 seats, with two seatings. We’ll release the ticket and menu information this weekend. It will be a seven-course tasting menu with a dessert that’s a collaboration between the two of us. We’re getting the band back together!

Myers + Chang, 1145 Washington St., Boston; 617-542-5200 or


Maybe you should have made date ravioli.

[Laughter] I thought the milkshake was awesome! They’re always talking about they want sometimes simple food that tastes awesome. It was well-balanced: It had yogurt, there was cumin in there, it was interesting. I think they liked it, but they docked me some points for going too simple.

Tell me how it feels to cater someone else’s wedding on your anniversary.

It was incredibly stressful, but I think all of us, in one way or another, could relate to this special day. All of us realized it wasn’t just a competition today. We were all in this together to make something special for 25 couples that were going to remember this day for the rest of their lives. There was extra weight in the kitchen that day. They portrayed a lot of drama, but there was a lot of camaraderie.

I was really glad no one had to make a wedding cake. I made my best friend’s wedding cake. It was, start to finish, the hardest thing I’ve ever done in the kitchen. 

As a Top Chef fan, did you ever think you’d see a wedding episode featuring entirely LGBT couples?

In the back of all of our minds, we thought there would be a wedding episode, because it’s something they’ve done consistently on Top Chef. But I don’t think any of us knew it would be of that scale. It was such a groundbreaking year for marriage equality that it was really special we got to do that and it was nationally televised. It’s a big deal.

Your dessert obviously slayed. Marjorie has proven herself on the sweets course, but what did you bring to that dish?

It was my idea! I was a little bummed out—they made it seem like it was Marjorie’s dish. [Dessert] is something I wanted to do on the show. It’s something I’m very comfortable with. Outdoor, catering-style, this was a good opportunity to do something simple, delicious, and easy to execute in those conditions. Marjorie and I were friends on the show and we wanted to work together. It was fun working with her, and we made something awesome.

What were you thinking when Jason called out Phillip for misleading the rest of you about his potato purée in front of the judges?

I try to stay away from that whole thing. Phillip is a really talented chef, but he also rubbed people the wrong way a bit. It was an example of, at the end of a really stressful 20-hour day, some emotions coming out. Jason has a lot of integrity. It’s TV, so they play everything up. It’s tough. I don’t think Phillip was misleading anybody. As a chef, you have an idea in your mind, and sometimes it’s hard to explain. It’s not like we had an hour to talk about it and explain. He said he executed how he wanted to, and he defended it.

Next week, are there any reservations available at the Table, which opens on Tuesday?

Yeah, we’re booking up quick, but there are definitely still spots available. We’re doing something really fun: Kwame from the show is coming to town. He’s coming in to the Table on Thursday night [January 14]. He’ll be doing some dishes off his menu from his upcoming restaurant. It will be a fun atmosphere.

The Table, 2447 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge; 617-871-9468 or