“Top Chef” star Karen Akunowicz on being a queer femme and her favorite food

If you’ve been watching the latest season of Top Chef, you’ve probably noticed Chef Karen Akunowicz, who has stood out recently as quite a formidable competitor. The self-identified queer fierce femme graciously took some time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions about Top Chef, marriage, gender and sexuality, and, of course, Padma Lakshmi.

AfterEllen: What was the process like for you getting on Top Chef? Was it something you had been interested in pursuing for a long time?

Karen Akunowicz: You know, I have been really fortunate in that Top Chef reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in applying for the show. Which doesn’t mean you are on the show. [laughs] You still go through this whole application process. But I’ve been a really big fan of the show for a long time—I’ve watched every season, I have all of my favorite cheftestants, you know, all of that. So it felt like an honor to be asked to participate. Going through the application process this year—I felt like it was something I could do, and I felt like I had something to say. It is a competition and because I watch the show, I know how hard it looks. But I thought that my food would show really well, and I thought it would be a lot of fun. It was a tough decision to be away from my kitchen, and away from my family, and away from my spouse for that long, but, in the end I’m really glad that I did it.

 

AE: So knowing that you’re a fan, do you have a favorite past Top Chef contestant?

KA: I mean there are so many people. Of course, you’re always rooting for your hometown people, so Tiffani Faison, Stephanie Cmar, Kristen Kish—I’m big fans of all of them. Grayson Schmitz, who was on this season with us, she was one of my favorites from Season 9. There have been tons of people that I really liked, but those are folks that stand out for me.

 

AE: Do you have a favorite challenge that has aired so far?

KA: There were so many great challenges! I loved the Korean pop-up—challengewe had two and a half hours to create a pop-up concept. I was on Team Koreatown and that was just so much fun! Definitely stressful and definitely hard, but I loved not just creating the food, but also creating the environment and the atmosphere for that pop-up. I loved my team and it just remains one of my favorite challenges. I loved the golf cart challenge as well, that was a really fun day. It was a great challenge—I loved the dish I made, I loved working with my partner. So that, for me, was a really fun challenge as well.

 

AE: I know the next episode coming up has you all catering a big same-sex wedding with multiple couples. Being queer, was that especially emotional or special for you?

KA: Yeah, I only cried a few—timesit was awesome. [laughs] I actually just got married last year—my spouse and I got married in May of 2014. Marriage has been legal in Massachusetts, where I live, for the last 10 years, so I knew when we got married we wanted a Massachusetts marriage license—that was really important to us.

But you know going into this, marriage—federally—had just become legal and that was such a big deal. It was such an emotional year around marriage, so for me, as soon as they told us what we would be doing, I just kind of lost it and started crying. You promise yourself, “I’m going on TV, and I am not going to cry on television, I am not going to cry on television,” and then they came out and talked a little bit about equality and marriage and I kind of just lost it.

When I was growing up, I can remember being so young and thinking that I was never going to be able to get married. I also remember thinking I’m never going to get to have the dress! [laughs] Which I know isn’t the most important part, but it’s pretty close to my heart. I never thought that I would find someone to spend the rest of my life with; I never thought I would have that kind of commitment in my life at all. And when I met my spouse, I knew right away that they were the person I wanted to be with for the rest of my life. So us being able to get married and have that be recognized, not only on a state level, but on federal level, was just incredibly important and incredibly moving to so many of us, around the country.

Photo by: Dale Berman/Bravo

AE: It’s funny, I got married in Massachusetts for the very same reason, so I’m totally on the same page with you.

KA: Yes! It’s such a big deal.

AE: And I know you identify as a queer femme, so I was wondering if the way you identify affects the way that you cook or your style of food at all?

KA: I think the person that you are comes through in everything you do. Especially as you mature as a chef, and you mature as a person, you kind of grow into yourself. For me, my identity, identifying as a queer femme—when I found those words they were incredibly powerful to me. When I found my—communitymy friends that identify as femme, my friends that identify as queer—when you find those people and those words, and you figure it out… it’s like putting on a jacket that fits for the first time. Right? And you’re like, “Oh, that makes sense.” It doesn’t change who you are—insidebecause you’ve always been that—but sometimes being able to put words or value onto what you’re already feeling on the inside just feels so amazing.

So I think some of that comes through in everything you do. People say a lot, “Oh, your style is really pin-up girl, or it’s really vintage, and what draws you to that?” And I’d probably answer often in the same way—I think it’s feminine but really strong at the same time. You know, like I’m wearing lipstick, but I could pull a knife out of my hair at any time and you would never know. [laughs] I think that that kind of sentiment also resonates with my food as well. There is something luscious about the food that I make, but my flavors are incredibly strong. So yeah, I can see how that sort of comes through in my cooking and my style and all of that.

 

AE: I also saw that you’re married to a vegetarian—do you feel like that gave you an edge on Top Chef? It seems like a lot of contestants are generally not so great when presented with vegetarian challenges.

KA: Right? I know, I think that’s so funny. Or they really dislike it, they’re like, “I cook meat.” But we also cook vegetables! [laughs] But yes, I am married to a vegetarian, and I’m married to a picky vegetarian who doesn’t eat spicy food, which is all very hilarious to me. But, yes, I love to cook with vegetables. I love cooking with vegetables as much as, if not more than I love cooking with different proteins. And to me, making something really special and really delicious out of just vegetables or grains can surprise people as well. I love making something that feels rich or luscious, but is vegan. I love dairy as well—I love cheese—but I don’t cook with very much of it. My restaurant is an Asian restaurant, so there’s very little dairy at all. If there’s butter in a dish, it probably says it in the title of the dish, because the butter is a very specific component and not because we are just tossing butter into everything. So, yes, I hope it gives me an advantage! [laughs] I cook tons of vegetarian food, I have a whole vegetarian menu at the restaurant; we have vegan desserts. So for me, that’s pretty comfortable.

AE: So you mentioned that your restaurant is Asian, do you have a particular style of cuisine that you like to cook the most?

KA: You know what, I’ve been really lucky. I lived in Italy for year and I learned traditional Northern Italian food—I made pasta with little old ladies. I spent three years at Oleana Restaurant in Cambridge learning about Middle Eastern food—Moroccan food, Turkish food—which I love. I love how redolent the spices are. I love to cook with nuts, or make nut sauces—I probably gained that knowledge and also my love of vegetables [at Oleana], as well. And I mean, I love Asian food and Asian flavors. So I would say probably one of my favorite things is taking a dish that is—whether it’s Southeast Asian or Thai or Vietnamese or Chinese—and giving it a little bit of a spin. Maybe finishing it with a dollop of greek yogurt or making a nut-based sauce or using pomegranate molasses in a way that’s surprising. Incorporating different ingredients from different cultures into the food that I’m making now is something that I love.

 

AE: And what’s it like being back at work since Top Chef has started airing? Have people been coming into the restaurant specifically to see you?

KA: [laughs] You know, everyone said that I shouldn’t be surprised, but I’ve been really blown away by all the love and support and, just, the kindness and generosity. People come in and say, “We’re traveling from New York, or we’re traveling from Wisconsin, and we’re in town and we had to come here because we’re watching you on Top Chef. We’re rooting for you!” What an amazing feeling, you know, and I just didn’t have that expectation.

My kitchen is the middle of the dining room—it’s an open—kitchenso I see our guests all the time. And we have guests that come in—whether it’s once a month, or once a—weekand I have personal relationships with all these people because I see them all the time. When I’m cooking I get to interact with people. But to see so many new faces that are really excited about the show, people who are watching and congratulating me and telling me that they’re on my team—it has been really amazing and really surprising and I am very, very grateful.

 

AE: That’s awesome! Okay, to close out my interviews I like to do a few rapid fire questions. Just quick answer, first thing that pops into your head.

KA: Oh gosh! Okay.

AE: They’re not hard, don’t worry.

KA: [laughs] Okay!

 

AE: Favorite color?

KA: Peacock, like a teal color.

 

AE: If you could describe your personality as a dish, what would it be?

KA: Something arrabbiata, something fiery and spicy. Kung Pao Chickpeas, something like that. [laughs]

 

AE: Do you prefer wine, beer, or liquor?

KA: Wine.

 

AE: Are you a night owl or a morning person?

KA: I am a night owl.

 

AE: What is your favorite thing for other people to cook for you?

KA: Anything! God, if anyone would cook me anything, it would be the most thrilling thing! No one cooks for me, ever. [laughs]

AE: That’s so sad! [laughs]

KA: I know, it’s so sad— you feel bad for me, right? Me too! [laughs]

 

AE: Alright, well, maybe someone will send you something, I don’t know.

KA: Hopefully.

 

AE: [laughs] What is your favorite kitchen tool or gadget?

KA: I mean, I can only pick one?

 

AE: Yup.

KA: My chef’s knife.

 

AE: Your current favorite song?

KA: Oh my god, “Hello,” Adele. Because, like the rest of America and the world, I can’t stop singing it. And I love her. A close second is “Secrets” by Mary Lambert. I sang that for a long time before “Hello” came out.

 

AE: And lastly, it’s no secret that I love Padma. If you could describe Padma in one word, what would it be?

KA: Majestic.

 

AE: Oh! That is a good one!

KA: Oh, girl, you have no idea.

 

AE: Kristen Kish said “intelligently sultry” when I asked her that, which was also a good one, but, wow, “majestic” is a great answer too. I’m going to start collecting Padma descriptions.

KA: Yeah, she is—wow. And I can’t even tell you in real life, it’s even more—you’re like, “Wow, you are a real person. I didn’t know people looked like that and were that tall and amazing.” Yeah, she’s really a phenomenal person.

If you’re in Boston, you can visit Karen at her restaurant, Myers + Chang, or you can catch her on Top Chef when it returns January 7th at 10pm EST (Bravo).