It’s been a pretty bleak week for local food lovers, but here’s one bright spot: Top Chef returns to the airwaves on Thursday, March 19. Coronavirus may have closed our restaurants and cancelled all live events for the time being, but it can’t interrupt our previously-recorded reality TV competitions, folks!
This is the hit series’ second-ever All-Stars season in its 14 years on Bravo, which means that chefs who once heard Padma Lakshmi’s devastating dismissal—“please pack your knives and go”—are coming back with a vengeance. That includes two Boston badasses: Stephanie Cmar, native Bostonian and a longtime South End chef; and Karen Akunowicz, chef-owner of Fox & the Knife in South Boston.
In my social isolation this week, I have been rewatching episodes from both women’s original runs—Season 11 in New Orleans, where then-No. 9 Park sous chef Cmar competed against incredible talents like Nina Compton, now a James Beard award-winning chef in that city; and Season 13 in California, where then-Myers + Chang chef de cuisine Akunowicz criss-crossed the Golden State with the likes of fellow Bostonian Carl Dooley (The Table at Season to Taste), and rising star Kwame Onwuachi.
In the interest of giving you something to do with your evenings quarantined at home, dear readers, here are a few Top Chef reruns to binge-watch to get to know these local toques ahead of Top Chef: All-Stars. (Mild spoilers ensue—but you already know neither local won their original season.)
This is one of the first times during the New Orleans season where Cmar’s self-deprecating humor really shines through—as well as her creativity. “I’ve never made this shit before,” she says, during a confessional moment of the elimination challenge. At one point in the episode, another cheftestant has to tell her how to light the gas grill in their makeshift, outdoor kitchen. A wild alligator is literally eyeing her at another moment, and she does not like it. There’s also a separate, short montage of her adorably lobbing mild complaints about the chefs’ circumstances (i.e., “I have like, a farmers’ tan”). In hindsight, Cmar, who’s now a private chef, cringes at the pork belly she served judges that day, she says. It’s an episode that reminds her just how far she’s come: “When I went on to New Orleans, I was still really learning the fundamentals of cooking,” she says. Total bonus about this episode: The late, great Dr. John’s guest-judging cameo is absolute hot tang.
The annual episode that requires the cheftestants to conceptualize, set up, open, and execute a brand-new restaurant concept in just 24 hours is always a highlight of the Top Chef season. New Orleans was no exception: One team falls into the common “Restaurant Wars” trope of letting individual egos get in the way of the team’s success. (Spoiler alert!) But the twist in New Orleans is that the team that fails isn’t the team, on paper, that fans expected would fail. “Restaurant Wars was the perfect episode of my season that [I] was like, be an underdog, and then just crush the expectations,” Cmar recalls.
The main reason I love Top Chef so much is that though it’s all just a game, the stakes are high. The judges are smart and (usually) fair, and though the chefs are truly talented, they also (usually) own their own mistakes. Like any game, though, it also has its own weird rules. One of Top Chef’s rules is that if a chef earns immunity for an elimination challenge, they won’t be eliminated—even if they made all the mistakes. Stephanie did not have immunity in this episode, but a mistake-making teammate of hers did. “The reason why I’m back [for All-Stars] is kind of some vengeance, or at least redemption,” she says.
Full disclosure: Akunowicz would not choose this episode for you to watch. “That’s my worst episode,” she says, flatly. “I literally want to cry every time somebody shows it.” I get where she’s coming from. It’s frustrating to watch someone we now know as an absolute boss—not to mention, someone who uses her platform to empower other women in the industry—falter alongside the less-confident female chef with whom she’s partnered in the elimination challenge. But this episode is about more than food: The cheftestants are catering a group wedding for 25 gay couples, including vow renewals for the inspiring master, chef Art Smith, and his husband. The wedding happens to fall during the month of Akunowicz’s own anniversary, her first with spouse LJ, with whom she now co-owns Fox & the Knife. I literally want to cry getting to “meet” LJ, through photos, during this episode, and it fills my heart with joy to hear the chef talk about how proud she is to be married, after growing up never imagining it would be possible. Bonus: This episode also falls on chef Dooley’s anniversary, so we also get to see a sweet call home to his wife, Angie. I just love it, OK!
This episode follows the disappointing wedding dinner, and Akunowicz clearly lets that experience fuel her. Both dishes she created, for the Quickfire and elimination challenges, showcase the chef’s mastery of bold flavors, but in particular, a duck dish with beets, coffee, and ras el hanout really shows the other cheftestants what this Oleana alum is capable of. “You’re always hoping [the judges] 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,” recalls Akunowicz.
For the first (and so far, only) time ever, Top Chef challenged the California season cheftestants to do both lunch and dinner service at the brand-new restaurants they have just 24 hours to conceptualize, set up, open, and execute. It was certainly stressful, but Akunowicz’s team—which also included Dooley, plus two other fan favorites from season 13—exhibits an air of calm and competence throughout the day. That’s thanks in no small part to the pink-haired chef’s two-and-a-half killer dishes, as well as her leadership as the front-of-house manager during dinner service. “One of the biggest compliments I got was from Padma and Tom [Colicchio, the show’s head judge], who said I made sure the diners felt like they were the most important thing in the room,” Akunowicz recalls. “That’s what every restaurant is about.” At the time it originally aired, I thought “Restaurant Wars” might be a glimpse at the kind of restaurant chef Karen would eventually open for herself in Boston—and in fact, now we have the welcoming, wonderful Fox & the Knife.
Top Chef: All-Stars premieres Thursday, March 19, at 10 p.m. on Bravo.
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