Top Chef Recap: That’s A Rap
Pour out a bowl of mushroom dashi for Karen Akunowicz, who was sent packing after last night’s episode of Top Chef.
The Myers + Chang chef admitted to the judges that she may have let her background cooking modern Chinese food influence her dish. The Elimination Challenge called on the remaining seven chefs to research a regional time period and draw on its culture and history. Akunowicz drew the last knife, and she was left with the Empire of Japan.
She read that age saw an increase of Chinese influence, and she ran with it. The judges tasted her preference for Chinese cuisine on first slurp.
“You had that beautiful [clear dashi] broth in there,” says guest judge, chef and author Jonathan Waxman. “It’s a chef’s job to edit yourself.”
Alas, Akunowicz wishes she had one less hour to cook. She wasn’t let go because of a bad dish—judge Gail Simmons noted she loved the roasted mushrooms. And during the prior QuickFire Challenge, where the chefs had to create a culinary rap name and a corresponding dish for guest judge MC Hammer, “the Pink Dragon” netted a Top 3 finish for her Chinese-style hot and sour soup.
“We felt the fire of the dragon in the spices,” Hammer says.
Boston still has one hometown chef to root for on the show: the Table chef Carl Dooley, aka Dr. Funky Fresh. He landed in the top for both challenges. MC Hammer loved Dooley’s funky and fresh beef tartare lettuce wraps with fish sauce, and his freestyle rap; and acclaimed Moroccan chef Mourad Lahlou threatened to steal his ancient ancient Greek-inspired recipe for his San Francisco restaurants.
But Akunowicz is not out of the spotlight: For the second year in a row, she’s a contender for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: Northeast.
Where does rapping for and fist-bumping MC Hammer rank among your top Top Chef moments?
Pretty high up there! One of the things that was really cool about the show was being put in all these different situations we couldn’t have expected, and I don’t think any of us expected to be cooking for MC Hammer. It was one of the first tapes I had. I remember listening to it on repeat, and hiding it from my mom. It was eye-opening for me. It was totally different than anything I’ve ever heard. To this day, I’m a huge fan of hip hop. Twenty-something years later, to be able to cook for him and have a goofy QuickFire was really fun.
And he was into it! He had some good feedback for everybody.
You got to select your region second. What made you choose ancient Greece over Belle Époque Paris?
Being [in Oakland] on the ocean was inspiring and it was definitely a day I wanted to cook some fish, and ancient Greece seemed like a good place to be able to do that. Plus, I love Greek food. Ancient Greece was rich with a lot of food traditions, they had access to a lot of different products and cooked with an abundance of vegetables, herbs, olive oil, acids, so I had a lot to draw from.
I was happy with how the judges responded to the dish. That panel was amazing to cook for. It was a much different vibe than other judges’ tables where there are more, like, celebrity chefs. Because even though these guys were all Michelin-starred chefs, they’re all pretty young, and the feedback was really specific. I didn’t feel like anyone was really hamming it up for the camera. Whether it was aired or not, I feel like all the feedback we got was thoughtful and none of them were going for shock value. It’s a group of chefs I really respect.
To be honest, I thought Jeremy should go home. Not only did his dish miss the spirit of the challenge, but also I think the judges also seemed to like it less than they liked Karen’s. What did you think of their feedback?
I was really surprised to see Karen go home. Tom [Colicchio] hit it on the head: Everything was really tasty. I think they were really nitpicking at that point. In my opinion, Karen was the strongest chef of the group. Period. Of all of us. Not only is she a really accomplished chef, but her food is really well-seasoned and craveable. Throughout the season, I tasted a lot of her food and I thought she was cooking at a really high level.
She handled it with a ton of grace. Throughout the season, her positive attitude and he awesome approach to life really shined through.
So, jamming at the Tonga Room: What a weird interlude.
[Laughter] That should have had its own episode. The producers kept on feeding us scorpion bowls and let us ride around on this, like, floating band gazebo thing. Jeremy was rocking the drums, and I was playing some off-beat tambourine. It was the first time we got to a real bar or restaurant. It was a fun moment arriving in San Francisco. We had all worked so hard to get there.
Ohhh [laughter]. It’s a bummer, right?
It is. I saw you in the trailer for next week’s episode, though! So…?
I will be back next week! There’s a handful of us coming back and sous cheffing in the kitchen. [Top Chef has] done that in a few seasons. It’s pretty fun. People will have to tune in to see what happens!
Was there a moment when you were preparing your dashi broth that you realized the dish might miss the mark?
I was pretty full steam ahead with my plan. I always worry and I doubt myself more than I should. This far into the competition, you’re getting tired, it’s nerve-wracking. I felt like I had a couple different directions I could go with my dish and this is what I chose, and I stand by it. This was a really cool period of time: [the Japanese are] eating meat and noodles for the first time, and there’s a huge Chinese and Western influence that comes into Japan for the first time ever. I was really drawn to that, and was trying to have my dish reflect how cool that time was. I should have gone more traditional.
Your exit was an emotional one, and you were gracious. What are the range of emotions you felt?
You could ask Carl, Kwame, or Marjorie this: Every episode I thought I was going home. I could be in the Top 3 and I was thinking to myself, I’m probably going home. We’re probably all going home! It’s probably a 17-person elimination today! [Worrying is] kind of my MO.
Of course there’s a huge range of emotions. You’re working together for this period of time, you’re competing, but becoming really close to everybody. The stakes are really high, you feel the pressure. Of course I felt sad. I always mentally prepare myself for what could come, when I’m standing there in the Bottom 3.
Also, I was so proud to be included specifically in this group of chefs. They’re such talented, accomplished people. At this point, there were of seven of us, and we were all very close, so it feels a bit like leaving your family. I really felt like I had more cooking left in me. It’s a bummer.
What was “so Chinese” about your broth? How did yours miss the mark so much that the judges put it below Jeremy’s dish? It seemed to me they enjoyed eating yours better.
How would you explain just making noodles and putting them in dashi? I felt like I needed to do more. I had made a mushroom stock and combined it with the dashi, so the broth was richer and more flavorful, it was full of umami. There were pickled mushrooms on top so there was definitely acid in the dish, plus wagyu beef, the soba noodles, and pickled radishes as well. It was the Empire of Japan and they wanted to see that simplicity that’s reflected in Japanese food. Making food on a regular basis food that is Chinese-influenced, my flavors are rich, funky, a lot of acid in general. What I made is something I would definitely put on my menu right now.
Would you do Top Chef again?
Absolutely. I loved working with Bravo and it was a great experience.
What if it meant missing the James Beard gala again?
[Laughter] Well, I don’t think I’ll be going back on Top Chef any time soon, so I don’t know that would be an issue. Since the JBF semifinalist nominations came out this week, the first thing everybody said to me was, ‘Congratulations! At least you get to go this year.’ If I make it to the shortlist, it would be fantastic to be able to go to the awards ceremony in Chicago.
What’s next for you?
Right now, actually, people should be going to Bravotv.com/fan-favorite and if they enjoyed watching me this season, they should be voting for me. And watching Last Chance Kitchen, absolutely.
Aside from being at the restaurant almost every day, Joanne Chang and I are co-authoring the Myers + Chang cookbook, so I am knee-deep in that, which is awesome. That is a really big project. And Joanne, Christopher [Myers] and I are working on another concept coming to Boston this coming year. I’ve got a lot on my plate.
Yeah, is that definitely headed for the Novartis building in Kendall Square?
I am just going to say we will be coming to Cambridge in 2016.
Is it another Myers + Chang?
It is not. The spirit of Myers + Chang will be reflected in it, but I can’t [say anymore]!
Well, I look forward to hearing about it when you can talk about it.
Thank you, and thanks to everyone who’s been watching and reading and rooting for me. I’ve been so overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. It’s be absolutely fantastic. I’m excited for everyone to watch the rest of the season and see how it unfolds.