Stories / Impact, Awards

A Personal Touch

Chef Karen Akunowicz plans to make her mark with her first solo restaurant

Gabriella Gershenson

November 13, 2018

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Karen Akunowicz Photo Matt Kurkowski
Photo: Matt Kurkowski

The James Beard Foundation is committed to supporting women in the food and beverage industry, from chefs and restaurateurs to entrepreneurs dreaming up new ways to make our food system more diverse, delicious, and sustainable. Our Women’s Leadership Programs (WLP) presented by Audi, provide training at multiple stages of an individual’s career, from pitching your brand to developing a perspective and policy on human resources. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women in the industry, we’re sharing stories from female James Beard Award winners, Women’s Leadership Program alumni, and thought leaders pushing for change. Below, Gabriella Gershenson delves into James Beard Award winner Karen Akunowicz’s journey from aspiring social worker to chef in the highest echelons of Boston’s dining scene.

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If you’re not from Massachusetts, you might remember Karen Akunowicz as the pink-pompadoured contestant on Top Chef: California. Boston-area diners are more likely to know the chef for her steady rise to culinary prominence, having worked alongside some of the city’s most celebrated culinary talents, such as Beard Award winners Ana Sortun of Oleana and Michael Schlow. But Akunowicz may be best recognized as the former executive chef and partner of the beloved pan-Asian restaurant Myers + Chang. It was during her seven-year tenure there, which ended last summer, that she received four James Beard Award nominations for Best Chef: Northeast, finally winning the title in 2018. Akunowicz was also the recipient of a rare four-star review from the Boston Globe, whose restaurant critic Devra First called Myers + Chang an institution. She wrote: “These days, joy, passion, a strong sense of place, a commitment to caring for customers, and a high level of consistency—these are the kinds of things that conspire to make a four-star restaurant”.

First’s assessment happens to dovetail with Akunowicz’s own view of her cooking. “No matter what food I've been cooking, I lean towards very big, bold flavors,” says the chef, who has pivoted from making Eastern Mediterranean to Italian to pan-Asian cuisines during the course of her career. “I love spices and herbs. A lot of acid. And I think my food is always personal.”

Akunowicz came of age in the restaurant industry. Her first restaurant job was as a waitress at a diner in Kearny, New Jersey, where she grew up. “I've been working in restaurants for 21 years,” says Akunowicz, who recently turned 40. “I spent a lot of time working in the front of the house before I ever started cooking. I have done everything from being a server, to being a bartender, to being a general manager. I'm passionate about feeding people, but I'm also passionate about hospitality.”

Though Akunowicz is set to open her first restaurant, Fox & the Knife, in South Boston later this year, going into the business wasn’t part of the original plan. Akunowicz majored in family and community services, with a minor in women's studies and public health, at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. After she graduated, she moved to Boston to look for a full-time job. “I was really lucky. I got a job at Planned Parenthood, but I was still bartending at night because I had to pay my bills,” says Akunowicz, who worked the front desk at the abortion clinic, passing protesters every morning on her way in.

Around that time, Akunowicz was applying for master’s programs in social work. “My girlfriend said, ‘You never talk about what population you want to work with or what you're going to do with that degree, but you always talk about what you'll do when you own your own restaurant someday.’ I applied to culinary school two weeks later.” For Akunowicz, the moment was an epiphany. “Restaurants were a place where I always fit when I didn't necessarily feel like I fit in the world,” says Akunowicz. She went on to get her culinary degree at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, but still had no plans to become a chef. “I didn't really learn to cook until I was in my twenties,” says Akunowicz. “I remember thinking that going to culinary school would be a good basis for whatever I decided to do. I thought maybe I would stay in the front of the house, maybe I would go into wine. Clearly, I ended up staying in the kitchen.”

Some well-placed words of encouragement helped her make that choice. While she was a student, Akunowicz volunteered at an event where she assisted the legendary James Beard Award–winning California chef Suzanne Goin, who told her, “You should keep cooking, you really have it.”

“It was such a curveball,” says Akunowicz. “That changed the trajectory of my career. That made me say, okay, I'm really going to try and be a line cook.”

After graduating from culinary school, Akunowicz got a job cooking at her favorite neighborhood restaurant, Ten Tables in Jamaica Plain, followed by positions over the years that only grew in prestige. She eventually went to live and work in Modena, Italy, where she immersed herself in Italian cooking for a year, the cuisine quickly becoming her passion. Upon returning to Boston, she cooked for Sortun and, eventually, at Myers + Chang—putting Italian cuisine on the back burner…until now. Soon, Akunowicz will be cooking the food she loves most at Fox & the Knife, where homemade pasta and regional dishes, such as Sicilian tuna crudo, will be on the menu.

Now that Akunowicz is gearing up to run her own place, she is focusing even more intently on what she wants to say with her cooking. “I want to cook food that makes you think, that reminds you of something, maybe of a memory, a time, or a place. If I can do nothing more than foster a little bit of connection through food, and make people feel better when they walk out the door than when they walked in, I couldn't be happier about my career.”

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Gabriella Gershenson is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.

The JBF Women’s Leadership Programs are presented by Audi.