Chef Karen Akunowicz
Beantown. Massholes. Chowdah. This is the place I grew up in, the place I know so well. It’s a tough town, a blue collar town. The weather is harsh and so are the people. The culinary scene typically has gone unrecognized nationally for some time with the bigger brother down south getting all the love. But like the Red Sox and Patriots of the last decade this small New England town is taking notice and kicking some ass. With chefs like Joanne Chang, Tiffany Faison and now my homie Karen Akunowicz (who just got nominated for best new chef Northeast by James Beard Foundation) Boston is a town known for it’s food.
Tell me a little about your background
“I grew up just outside New York City in Carney New Jersey. I moved to Massachusetts for undergrad at UMASS Amherst. I’ve been working in the restaurant business since I was seventeen years old. My first job was as a waitress in a diner in New Jersey. I worked in food all through college. I managed a cafe and did some of the baking. I graduated with a degree in social work with a minor in women study as well as a minor public health. After college couldn’t get a job some I was a cocktail waitress at a college bar selling dollar drafts. When I did get a position in my field I was working at Planned Parenthood and had to supplement my income by tending bar a few nights a week. And like most people I came to food through my family. And some of my best memories are coming together around the table as a family”.
Can you tell me about your culinary career?
“So I decided to go to culinary school right around the time when I was deciding to get my MSW. I kind of retreated into myself and decided to apply to Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. After culinary school I went to work as a line cook at Ten Tables in Jamaica Plain. I’ll never forget my first day there because the person I was supposed to train under didn't show up for work. So I ended up working salad station by myself with the direction of my chef and I got hired that day. I came to work the next day and my chef, Kathrine Barrett, was violently ill, laying on the floor in the bathroom. I remember the owner looking at me and asking if I could cook all the food that night. I remember thinking Jesus Christ I’ve never worked on a hot line and last night was my first night here! But everyone got fed that night with no complaints. So those two night really solidified for me that I belonged in the kitchen.
After that I went to work as a cook in the Back Bay at Via Matta for Christopher Myers. I was there for a few years learning to make real authentic, beautiful Italian food. After a that I went to work and helped open The BeeHive as a sous chef. That place was a huge eclectic bohemian music hall with 300 seats. So again, it really felt like I was jumping into the deep end and not being sure I could swim. I had not been a sous chef so this was a big learning experience. I then moved to Modena Italy not speaking Italian and no real place to live. So I had to learn Italian very very fast because almost no one there spoke English. I staged at three places, at the Osteria. I staged making pasta with little old ladies and was really really happy. It was one of those moments were you think wow I really am living the dream. And from there I was given an opportunity to work in this enoteca in the middle of town. A friend had recommended me to take over the chef position and I remember thinking I’m not a chef. But I met the chef and he said ok great you will cook for us tomorrow. So again, jumping into the deep end.
After a year I came home to become a sous chef at Oleana. I did that for three years and was hugely influencing in my career. I spent a year after Oleana in the non profit sector before receiving a text message from Christopher Myers saying we need a chef at Myers and Chang and Joanne and I really want to talk with you. And that was six years ago”.
So there is a string presence of women chefs in Boston. Can you speak to that and how this influences you as a chef in your own right.
“Yea I think Boston is at the head of the pack in that regard. We have had really strong women running kitchens here. Chef’s like Lydia Shire, Barbara Lynch and Jody Adams have paved the way for so many of us. Now we have chefs like Mary Dumont and Tiffany Faison continuing to carry the torch”.
When the term female chef is used do you have an opinion on that?
“I think we all are doing the same work, doing the same job. We do have to keep talking about it because it hasn’t changed yet. There still less female executive chefs then there are CEO’s. Name another profession where we singling someone out by gender?”
What inspires you?
“Traveling. A lot of what I make is taking something and making it new or giving it a sort of tongue and cheek. I strive to take something from amemory of mine or someone else’s and making it new.”
Who do you look up to?
“I definitely would say my mom. She is an amazing strong person. She didn’t go to college until she was thirty. She had two small kids. She took class by class and it took her sixteen years to graduate. She is has always been my champion and taught me I could do anything. She would sing to me that song from Annie Oakley. My sister is a scientist, so she raised two women that are successful in careers dominated by men.”
What kind of advice would you give a young chef?
“Put your head down and work hard. Work hard when it feels too difficult. Work hard when the hours feel too long. Work hard when the money doesn't feel like enough. Make a plan for yourself. Decide who and where you want to work for and stay at least a year. And just be persistent.”
What would be your last dish be?
“Steamed lobster, french fries and a martini sitting upstairs at the Lobster Pot in Provincetown in a corner window.”
Who knew that a girl born and raised in New Jersey would become one of Boston’s most iconic chefs? With a rich history of women cooks in Boston, Karens place in this town’s history is already set. I am extremely proud that she represents my city in the food world. Maybe too the Sox will retire her “numbah” along with the greats of Boston.