Top Chef Recap: The Beef with Beef

Boston's Karen Akunowicz brings the girl power—and so does Chef Jacques la Merde. Someone should have brought a whole cow, though.

Top Chef

(L-R) Karen Akunowicz, Kwame Onwuachi, and Carl Dooley. / Photo by Dale Berman / Bravo

An epic feast last night at Puritan & Co. that was months in the making proved it’s not easy to make elevated junk food for a discerning crowd of food lovers, à la @ChefJacqueslaMerde.

But the Top Chef contestants were mercifully spared from having to create something that was both soigné and delicious. On last night’s episode, it was the Instagram community that judged their creations by sight alone; not a bite was taken of the whimsical, outrageous, calorie-laden creations.

And it was Karen Akunowicz’s pink swirl of Hot Takis-strawberry icing and Oreo cookie dirt that took the cake. But the Table chef Carl Dooley was in his goofy element, eliciting guffaws from the judges and fellow contestants alike when he described his Instagram plate, titled “Canned Lunch Meat from the Garden.”

When host Padma Lakshmi announced the winner, “Shut up!” was Akunowicz’s on point reaction.

The Myers & Chang chef is one of two women remaining in the competition, and at the beginning of the episode, she and Marjorie Meek-Bradley declared their intention to trade wins for the rest of the season. “Girls on top!” Akunowicz said.

It was Phillip Frankland Lee who ultimately prevailed during the following challenge—catering a beefsteak dinner, a historic, masculine, decadent style of hands-free eating (and the theme of the forthcoming Flank, opening next month in Waltham)—but the ladies fared well with positive feedback from the judges.

And given what they had to work with, both Boston chefs are more than happy with their performance.

The following conversations are edited and condensed.


Absolutely soigné. Tell me about your Instagram dish, and the inspiration behind it.

It was called ‘Strawberry Fields Forever.’ People often say dessert can be the kiss of death on Top Chef, so I thought this would be a good opportunity. I made an Oreo and tapioca soil with strawberry and Hot Takis icing, coconut donuts, pickled strawberries and carrots. And a little microgreens.

You mentioned the pink swoosh was meant to look like you! Was it some kind of a self-portrait?

I wish it was that thought out. It was more just having fun. Knowing each of the dishes were judged anonymously, I wanted to make something that when you looked at, you would think of me. It was one of the most fun challenges so far this season. It was hilarious. I think we were all a little sugar high.

How do you feel about the food photo culture?

One of the things that’s great is we have so much access, as chefs, to see what other restaurants are doing. We didn’t really have that before, unless you travel to that restaurant or wait for the cookbook to come out. In my life in general, what I’ll say about people taking pictures of their food, is I always hope people are more concerned with living in the moment rather than being behind the camera and worried about sharing. It’s flattering, but I still hope they’re still eating it while it’s hot, and are really enjoying the experience.

I am chagrined to admit, I thought there was no way Chef Jacques la Merde was a woman.

Everybody thought it was a dude! In one of the articles this morning, she said there’s a long list who people thought she was, and it was a long list of men. I think it’s pretty fantastic, and also a bummer that everybody assumed it was a man. Like, why is that the case?

I was so excited. I had enjoyed the challenge in general, and that was the icing on the cake. I had never met Christine before, but I know a lot of people who are friends with her. It was pretty exciting, and what a cool way to announce yourself to the world.

You were psyched and confident about the beefsteak challenge, but it proved harder than you thought. Why?

These were two of my favorite challenges. I loved our team, our menu, and each and every one of our dishes. I made grilled asparagus, and the judges loved that. We fried potatoes with olive aioli, and served it with olives with pits. I think [our dishes] were really tactile. We were the only team that did beef for the beefsteak challenge. 

But the judges seemed to want more.

They don’t sell sides of cow at Whole Foods. We all tried to purchase the best products we could with the budget we had. Maybe if there was a farmer who showed up and we had to break down a whole animal, it would have given the judges more of what they wanted. Some of the judges’ disappointment was based on the availability at a grocery store.


Your overflowing tin of lunch meat was making a statement. What did it say?

It reminded me of a walk through a farm on a misty morning, that experience when you’re out in the pasture, you see the beautiful vegetables, the soil.

What was on it?

It was showing off some beautiful charcuterie, Spam terrine with cocoa nib soil, pristine Bugles, a little bit of red Skittles, as they’re in season right now. As a chef, you’re only as good as your product, so I was testing what was best at the market that morning.

You seemed delighted that the person behind @ChefJacqueslaMerde is a woman, a fact that certainly surprised me. What were you thinking when Christine came out?

If you follow Jacques la Merde, all the bro-y kitchen talk she used to describe her dishes, I thought it was really fitting that it was poking fun at the masculine culture of cooking.

There was so much to cram into that episode, but she has so much charisma. Everyone—Padma, all the producers behind the scenes, were cracking up. It was a really fun Quickfire shoot, especially because we’re at the point in the season where everyone is intense, competition is really ramping up, it was a much-needed relief.

What are your thoughts on the whole Instagram food culture?

I’m @ChefDooley! I love it. It’s a great way for chefs to show what they’re doing with the broader foodie base, but also with each other. It’s great to see what chefs are doing in Germany, Australia, or Japan. We’re in a day and age now where chefs are much more open about the creative process and everyone inspires each other.

It’s great advertising. Food isn’t a precious thing in our restaurants. We want it to be shared.

I have this dream: For the last, like, 10 years, I’ve been taking photos at the end of the dish, when the plates are kind of smeared, and everything’s done, maybe it’s just a few utensils or sauces on the plate. Someday, I’m going to come out with a coffee table book of my favorite 100 dishes I’ve had, but not the full meal, just the empty plates, with a little story to go along with each dish. [Look for it in] 2025! [Laughter]

You were psyched and confident about the beefsteak challenge, but it proved harder than you thought. Why?

This is a very cheffy challenge: Cook big pieces of meat, make it rustic. Everyone loved the idea of this challenge.

[Guest chef-judge] Hugh Acheson was really obnoxious the whole time. He was like, ‘Ah, this is a huge platter with a little bit of steak on it.’ Yeah, well, I’m feeding 200 people at Whole Foods. There were a lot of frustrations: that it wasn’t explained very well, we weren’t set up to deliver what they expected. If they wanted us to do beefsteak, they should have wheeled in a whole cow, and let us cook oxtail, braise a whole shoulder, all this cool, funky stuff, but instead we were in a small retail store looking for something with a bone in it.

I wanted to cook beef, and I loved our team’s dishes. Karen, Kwame and I were all I definitely eating the shrimp all day and they were fantastic. I definitely have a bone to pick with the judges on this one. We were robbed.