Many chefs take a direct path to the kitchen, knowing early on that theirs would be a world of fire and knives. Others, take a slightly more round-about path. Chef Karen Akunowicz, the executive chef at Myers + Chang is a perfect example of that. Cooking wasn’t something she had an affinity for at a young age. According to her mom, Karen couldn’t even boil water! But, with a passion for hospitality, she found her way in to the restaurant scene any way working various jobs in the front of the house. As her love for food grew, though, so did her desire to start cooking.
I had the chance to speak with Karen a few weeks back. We talked about how her love of food developed, how she got her start in the business (including a very crazy 2nd night!), and one of her favorite food memories.
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Foodie Journal: How did you figure out that food was something that
you were excited about and that you would eventually take it on as a career?
know what? I always wish I had one of those stories that start with, “I stood
by my mother, my grandmother’s knee while she stirred sauce on the stove.” I
always feel like that’s the awesome kind of story, but I didn’t.
I came to cooking in a kind of a roundabout way. I’ve worked in
restaurants since I was about 15 years old, and I’ve always been drawn to the
hospitality industry. I worked in the front of the house until I was 25,
actually. I always feel like I kind of came to it from the back door, and I
didn’t grow up cooking. For a great deal of that time I mean, my mother used to
say I couldn’t boil water, literally. It was after working in restaurants and
becoming really enamored with food and with the kitchen that I decided to go to
FJ: You started off front of house. What did you do?
KA: Yeah. I was a server, I was a bartender, I was a front of the
house manager, at a lot of great places, and one of them being at Via Matta,
where I bartended for two years, while I was in culinary school. When I
graduated, I went to the chef and said, “You know, I’ve just finished culinary school
and I’d really love it if you could consider me for a job in the kitchen,”
because I loved the food there so much.
FJ: Was that your first real experience once you came out of culinary
KA: They didn’t have anything at the time for me in the kitchen at Via
Mata, so my first job in a kitchen was at Ten Tables in Jamaica Plain. I live
in JP still so that felt really good for me working at a restaurant in the
community that I felt so strongly about. I worked garde manger there, and that
was my first kitchen job. It was kind of trial by fire.
My second night in the kitchen, the chef became violently, violently
ill, and Crystal literally looked at me and was like, “Can you do this?” I had
staged only one day before. I didn’t even know the menu! I was standing there
with a menu in my hand and saying, “I guess I’ll try and cook the food and we
can try and cover the reservations.” We looked at each other and she said,
“Okay, if it’s really bad, we’ll just refund everybody’s money, change the
reservations, and won’t take any walk-ins.”
While it seems like it’s only 10 tables, it’s a very small place, but
I’d never cooked on the line before, with the exception of school. We did
actually get through that night. People got all their food and they seemed happy.
I think it was just really slow.
FJ: So being in this area for a while now, you’ve seen how the food
scene has changed in the Boston area. Can you talk a little about how things
have change in the Boston area as far as the restaurant scene over the last
five, 10 years?
KA: The restaurant scene is just exploding, with lots of different
kinds of restaurants, and lots of people opening new places and even just in
this past year. I think there’s definitely been a shift to the outskirts, kind
of, restaurants that aren’t just in Boston proper.
I think we’ve also seen this: the style of dining, what people are
gravitating toward is very different. I think that sort of fine dining, that
very white tablecloth formal service is certainly not a thing of the past as we
see from restaurants like Menton, but something that isn’t really the norm
anymore. I think one of the things that’s awesome is being able to go to
restaurants and get sort of that quality of food or have that experience in a
slightly less formal setting, while still getting really warm, wonderful,
FJ: So you’re the executive chef at Myers + Chang. What’s your aim
with the menu there?
KA: I’ve been here almost two years now. There are items, there are
dishes on the menu that’ll never come off the menu, and I would never want them
to. But Christopher [Myers], Joanne [Chang], and I are always having
conversations about what our food is. We say, “These are my interpretations of different
dishes, and this is me bringing some spices in to the mix. Like, here’s the way
that I make a traditional Italian-style sauce or ragù, and I’m going to infuse
it with all these Asian flavors.” Or even an interpretation of traditional
Taiwanese dishes that Joanne grew up eating.
Christopher always tries tying it together and says, “You know, we’re
making Asian soul food.” That’s kind of always been what we’re striving for and
the way that that kind of grows and changes is always really interesting. I
think that our flavors, across the board, are strong flavors. Whether it’s
fiery hot flavors or whether it’s powerful umami flavors. We’re always trying
to… I think our food is very powerful, always. It’s not shy or timid, and
that’s how I like to think about our food.
FJ: I think a lot of places tend to bring flavors down a little bit
out of fear that people can’t handle it. It’s nice when you hear people say,
“You know what? Let’s go with a punch of flavor.”
KA: Yeah. We like for people to think of our food as really very
strong, strong in texture, strong in flavor. I talk a lot about spice, and all
the different kinds of spice. You talk about hybrid chili, that fresh chili
heat, that hits you on the tip of your tongue, and kind of ignites your palate,
or if we’re talking about black pepper spice, which is further back on your
tongue. It is like a more lingering spice. Or Chinese mustard or wasabi spice
that kind of hits you in the nose and how there’s so many varying levels of
spice and heat in our dishes.
Fj: So being a chef can be tough. You all deal with some very long
days; the heat, especially with summer coming. What is it that does bring you
back every day and makes you want to keep doing what you do?
KA: Because it’s the best job ever. I mentioned earlier I came to
cooking a little bit later than a lot of people, but when I found it, even that
first day, that trial by fire day in the kitchen, I knew that was where I fit.
You get to make people happy. You can make something for somebody. You get to …
It sounds a little cheesy, but you’re sharing that love, you’re making food for
people, you’re getting that instant gratification from it, but also I just love
actually working in a kitchen.
I still work the line every night. I mean, that environment for me has
always been the place where I’m the most comfortable, where I have always felt
like everything sort of clicked for me. Certainly there are days every now and
then when I think, “Really? This is it. This is what I chose?” [Laughs] But, I
think for every cook and every chef, there’s a high when it’s a great night. When
everybody is really on, and the line is moving like it’s a machine. When the
front of the house is amazing, and everybody’s just “on”? There’s nothing quite
like that. I mean that high is absolutely incredible. That’s what keeps me coming
FJ: So, I think for most people, food and memories kind of go hand in
hand. Do you have a particular food memory that stands out for you as a
KA: I mean, I feel like I have so many of my memories in my life are
connected to food. My mom actually doesn’t cook. She probably actually cooks
more now, more than when we were younger. She used to make a stewed meat pie.
She’d make the crust herself and she would make the filling, bake the pie, and
it would come out of the oven. We’d sit down to dinner, and she would make us
all look at the pie that she had made, and we would look at it and say, “Mom,
that looks so beautiful. That is the most beautiful meat pie.” We didn’t even
have a good name for it! We called it ‘meat pie’. We had to admire it and
congratulate her on it before we could dig in.
Then she would
take all the scraps from the pie dough and roll them out and sprinkle them with
cinnamon and butter and sugar and roll them up, and then bake them. Actually we
probably liked that part, the little cinnamon cookie rolls, better than the
actual dinner. It was the standing around and the admiring the pie, though… that
is one of my favorite memories from being a kid.
FJ: Yeah, even if we’re not always great at it, everybody wants to be
a good cook.
KA: Absolutely, absolutely. Plus the love and appreciation that comes
from cooking. It’s special!
Karen Akunowicz is the executive chef at Myers + Chang, located at 1145 Washington Street in Boston.