The Top Chef contestant talks growth and change—and how she pivoted from waitressing to cooking.
When she was 17, Karen Akunowicz fibbed about how much experience she had, didn’t mention her age, and landed a job waitressing at a New Jersey diner. This same moxie has been the string in Akunowicz’s career that has taken her from that diner to Boston, where she was the sous chef at Ana Sortun’s Oleana, to executive chef and partner at Myers + Chang and a contender on Bravo’s Top Chef. In 2017, she co-authored her first cookbook, Myers + Chang at Home: Recipes from the Beloved Boston Eatery, with Joanne Chang, and last year she won the 2018 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northeast. She is currently working on opening her own restaurant, Fox & the Knife. We spoke just as she was securing her lease.
JT: How did you pivot from being a waitress to cooking?
KA: I was applying for graduate school to get my master’s in social work and was working at Planned Parenthood, and I was waitressing and bartending at night. My girlfriend at the time said to me, “You never talk about being a therapist—you always talk about what you’ll do when you finally have your own restaurant.”
JT: You went from years of cooking in Boston to putting all of your belongings in storage and moving to Italy, where you knew no one and didn't speak the language, and cooked there for a year. How did you know it was time to come back?
KA: I had to come back for my sister’s wedding, and at the same point, a friend emailed me and said Ana Sortun was looking for a sous chef. The third piece was that there was no, or very little, queer community [in Modena, Italy]. That piece for me felt like oceans upon oceans. It made me feel incredibly isolated, incredibly alone.
JT: I got to know you when you were on Top Chef, when you became outspoken about your queer identity. Was that a conscious decision?
KA: The decision my spouse, LJ Johnson, and I made was that if I have the opportunity on such a massive scale, it was important to me not just to be out, but to say I’m a queer femme married to someone who identifies as genderqueer, and to use those words and pronouns, and to be clear about it. I always feel like if one person sees it and feels seen and heard, that’s important.
JT: Well many of us, myself included, felt seen and heard. I know how much it meant to me as a queer woman to watch you and then to also walk into Meyers + Chang and see you standing proudly in that open kitchen in charge.
KA: The response blew me away.
JT: You’ve made a huge change recently, from Myers + Chang to Fox & the Knife. How did you know it was time to leave the party?
KA: Joanne [Chang] and I sat down and had a frank conversation about our partnership, and the message from her and Christopher [Myers] was, “We’ll support you if you stay; we’ll support you if you leave.” It took me six months to make the decision. It was a long time coming, as big life decisions so often are.
JT: It sounds like communication was an important ingredient.
KA: It’s what allowed us to be in this place in a way that felt good for all of us. That was important to me, to be able to say I’ve spent seven years with this restaurant, and we’ll all do everything we can as smoothly as possible.
JT: It speaks highly of the respect you have for each other.
KA: It’s why we were partners in the first place. If you’re conducting business in that way and treating each other with respect, hopefully that’s how it ends up as well. Also I have a great therapist.
[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]