Table Talk: Karen Akunowicz of Myers + Chang
The esteemed chef shares her most memorable meal, her worst kitchen nightmare, and more.
Welcome to Table Talk, a new series where we get to know your favorite local food industry professionals.
Karen Akunowicz has quite the CV. Not only is she executive chef and partner at Myers + Chang, but the two-time James Beard Best Chef: Northeast nominee is up for it a third time this year. She also received a Best of Boston nod for being a knockout up-and-coming chef, and chances are you’ve caught her fiery pink hair on a few episodes of Top Chef. Despite the successes (and the occasional kitchen nightmare) behind her, the force behind your favorite pan-Asian eats is eagerly looking to the next ticket.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s your favorite ingredient?
That’s tough. One of the ingredients I work with a lot is lime leaf, or Makrut lime. It adds aromatics to the dish, it’s savory; it almost has a sweet quality to it. It’s one of those ingredients that, if used sparingly, even has a mysterious quality to it. You kind of wonder what it is—it’s not quite citrus—but it’s incredibly fragrant.
Where can you find that on the Myers + Chang menu?
I finely dice lime leaf for the rice cakes that go into our lobster green curry. I add a little bit into the fish sauce caramel that goes on our duck and persimmon skewers. It’s ground up [with lemongrass] into our khao koor, which is a sweet Vietnamese rice that gets sprinkled onto our Tiger’s Tears salad for a bit of texture and aromatics.
What kitchen tool have you worn out at the restaurant?
Probably our blender, right? More than anything else, we’re constantly making pastes or sauces. Other than [that], maybe our steamer: we’re steaming pans upon pans of dumplings all day long. We also steam our rice and chicken for the Indonesian fried chicken. It really gets a workout at the restaurant.
What’s the most memorable meal you’ve ever had?
I lived in Modena, Italy, for a year, and I did a pasta-making stage with a chef there. The person that I replaced went to go work at [Osteria] Francescana, and that was the last place I ate when I [lived there]; he was kind enough to get me the reservation. I got to meet [chef] Massimo Bottura and have a really wonderful, special lunch.
When did you realize you wanted to be a chef?
I always say I started cooking to impress a girl. I was trying to get someone to go on a date with me, and told her that I could cook. I literally could not cook—I could barely boil water—and I went out and bought a cookbook to make dinner for her. That was my entry into the culinary world.
My first day at my first line cook job in a professional kitchen, I was working at Ten Tables in Jamaica Plain. From my very first shift there, it just felt like I had finally found a place that I belonged. Everything made sense, and I knew that was the thing I was supposed to be doing with my career.
What’s your worst kitchen horror story?
A couple of years ago, on New Year’s Day at Myers + Chang, we were really short-staffed and incredibly busy. We were busier than I had ever seen the restaurant. My team and I were prepping as fast as we could, and we were running through all of our food. And by 2 o’clock, everything we had prepped for the day was completely done, so we had to prep our entire list over again just to get through dinner. At that point in time, my sous chef put a knife through his hand while he was butchering fish, so I’m trying to keep him from bleeding, and I took over his project; and we had something happen with a gentleman who was screaming outside of the restaurant, so we had to call the police. It was just one of those days where you’re like, “Wow, could one more thing go wrong?” And the end of the day, we made all the food, and we made all the food again. And you all come out on the other side stronger for it.
If you could grab coffee with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be?
Oh my goodness. I have to say, there’s no one I would rather have coffee with than my spouse, LJ. We don’t spend nearly enough time together, so if it could be anyone in the world, that’s always who I would choose.
What music do you rock in the kitchen?
I let everyone listen to whatever they want. Nobody lets me touch the iPod in the kitchen [laughs]. Every now and then, if I’m in really early or prepping by myself, I’ll have my Pandora station on with Mary Lambert radio, Adele radio—probably not what people imagine to be hardcore kitchen music. But I let [the kitchen team] have full rein. It depends who gets to the restaurant first and plugs their phone in.
If you could collaborate with anyone locally, who would you want to work with?
Liz Vilardi, from Central Bottle, Belly [Wine Bar], and the Blue Room. I love wine, and I love her wine lists. One of the things people always say—that I’m constantly refuting—is that Asian food doesn’t pair well with wine. And so working on a project, or a pop-up on a night where we’re pairing different wines with dishes to highlight the fact that our food is actually fantastic with wine, would be great.
Myers + Chang, 1145 Washington St., South End, 617-542-5200, myersandchang.com.