Top Chef Recap: Cheers to Karen
Karen Akunowicz has proven herself throughout her time on Top Chef, with a no-nonsense, competitive drive and a mastery of bold, international flavors the judges have nearly consistently praised. Almost halfway through season 13, the Boston-based chef finally got her first win.
In San Diego last night, Akunowicz first landed in the top during a Sudden Death Quickfire Challenge, with oyster and kimchi tacos, but (then-)local chef Chad White ultimately prevailed with white-hot tacos that appealed to guest judge and Baja Med cuisine innovator Javier Plascencia‘s spice tolerance.
But Akunowicz went on to create the dish that most perfectly captured the essence of a beer that judge Richard Blais brewed with San Diego craft giants Stone and Ballast Point, using the “natural sweetness of beets, the mystery of chocolate, and the nuance” of the North African seasoning ras el hanout.
The region’s other contender, chef Carl Dooley, didn’t make a splash (or a belly flop) with either of his dishes, but he says he doesn’t mind flying under the radar. “I was psyched for Karen. We’ll take a win for Boston!”
Six episodes in, congratulations on finally getting the judges’ approval! You’ve had a few close calls, but of course you’re up against some pretty intense competition.
This is the third episode that I’ve been in the top 3. I think a 50 percent Top 3 is nothing to scoff at. Last week was definitely a challenging week; we didn’t come together and that definitely came through. I went into this challenge really to come back from that and turn it around.
I meant congratulations on finally getting a win! You’ve been close before.
Thank you! I think you can tell by my reaction that I was really surprised. You’re always hoping they liked your dish, but not just that: You’re hoping that somebody else sees and tastes what your intentions are. For me, that happened this week. It was definitely the beet and cocoa nib puree that was the star of my dish. What I was trying to do with the puree, with the earthiness and the cocoa nibs, I really accomplished that, and it was great the judges felt the same way.
You seemed the most comfortable with those ingredients, and not every one was. How had you used the spice blend before?
When we tasted the beer, I loved it, and I immediately thought of duck. I did use [ras el hanout] when I was at Oleana. I was comfortable. It’s a mixture of 11 or 12 different spices. It has cardamom, cumin, cinnamon, clove, sometimes fenugreek or tumeric. It varies. The name is Arabic for “head of the shop,” like saying it’s the best spices the shop has to offer. It’s often used with couscous, often meat, sometimes fish. It’s got an earthy flavor, while still being aromatic, which is why I added the Moroccan spiced almonds on top.
How did you interpret that challenge? It wasn’t really a beer pairing, per se.
That’s a grat point, and that was one of the challenges we all went into. It’s more mimicking the flavors, which is very different. How do you make sure those flavor notes shines, but they don’t overpower each other? Those are two strong flavors. I wanted the dish to almost be a little mysterious: There was a touch of orange blossom water in the beet puree. I wanted it to be fragrant, I wanted them to wonder what the aromatic was in the puree. I wanted everything to play harmoniously in the dish. I incorporated the ras el hanout in the puree as well as on the carrots, which also had a little bit of harissa on them, and simply roasting the duck let everything else shine.
What’s your favorite beer?
I haven’t been drinking a lot of beer lately, but I love a lot of the beer from Pretty Things and I’m sad they’re closing. Night Shift [made] a beer that has some rose in it; it pairs really, really well with our food [at Myers + Chang]. That was the last beer I was really in love with. I love Stone Brewing, who was one of the judges last night, I love their IPA. We drank a lot of Grapefruit Sculpin from Ballast Point. I’m not a flavored beer person, but it’s so refreshing. It’s like the beer equivalent of a mimosa.
You operated a fish taco stand in Nicaragua? Tell me about that.
There was a really cool surfer beach outside the town we were living in. We’d go every morning to surf. There was a bar there with a few local beers and like, chips. It was like a tent thing right on the beach. I was talking to the guy who ran the bar and said, there should be some food here! The guy was really receptive to it. His wife had an old grill lying around. [The region] had a lot of dorado. I’d get a whole one each morning and break it down, and his wife made fresh tortillas. With awesome avocados, this mango-y hot sauce condiment they have, for $1 after a morning of surfing, it was hard to beat. It was a fun way to meet the locals, and everyone really embraced it. I ended up going back a year later, and the guy built more of a structure and had a fryer. The idea definitely stuck.
But this was still a tough challenge. Why?
Having the judge be a Baja chef, we all wanted to impress him and make something special. Afterwards, I got to taste everyone’s dishes, and everyone’s was awesome. I was happy with my dish, with beautiful bay scallops with charred poblano pepper and jalapeño and a salsa verde. It was a really cohesive bite. Chad won, and his was so good; it was so spicy, though. I think by the time [the judges] got to mine, everyone’s palates were burnt out. I could have put more heat and acid in mine.
Do you think it was an advantage or a disadvantage that the judges were three beers in when they tried your course during the next challenge?
[Laughter] The palates of the judges are so good; they were able to decipher.
The challenge was to recreate the flavors from the beer, and heighten them. I had some seasoning issues I would adjust if I had another shot, but I thought I captured the essence of Emeril’s beer. I made an awesome salsa with dried cherries, coffee, ancho chili, and orange peel. I grilled short ribs, and I ended up putting too much shit on top. Raw orange, raw Fresno chili, cilantro. If I just put the sauce down with a piece of meat, it would have been a lot more focused. As a chef, you want to create something complex, but sometimes you lose sight of the challenge.
Karen’s dish was a really good example: She nailed the flavors, and everyone got that in one bite. It was really well-executed.
What’s your favorite beer?
Miller High Life. I’m really into wine. I’m not a huge beer nerd. I’ll crack a High Life if I’m watching a football game, or after a night on the line. I’m also pretty partial to Bud Light Lime over ice, which takes my chef street cred down a bit, probably.