Karen Akunowicz on cooking for PFLAG and her chances at winning “Top Chef” Fan Favorite

You probably remember Chef Karen Akunowicz (aka Pink Dragon) from this season of Bravo’s Top Chef. The a fierce competitor who cooked her way to the final seven graciously took some time to speak with me about post-Top Chef life, including her role as Culinary Chair for an upcoming LGBT fundraiser and her surprise at making it to the final two cheftestants in the Fan Favorite competition.

AfterEllen.com: So, sadly you were sent home on Top Chef a few weeks ago. Now that you’ve had a little more distance from that experience, what were some of your favorite moments,  either that we saw on air or behind the scenes?

Karen Akunowicz: Oh my gosh, I have so many favorite moments. It’s actually easier to pinpoint them with a little bit of distance—you know, as you get away from it, your memories get fonder. [laughs] I loved the Korean pop-up. I keep saying that, but that was one of my favorite challenges. I loved the Beefsteak challenge. Our team did not win, but I was so proud of the food we made, and I had so much fun during that challenge. I love working with Carl and Kwame. They are two of the most talented chefs that I know, and two of my favorite people. So that was just a great time. Carl and I set up our prep station outside that day—it was a beautiful day—and we were cooking on little induction burners, and I was grilling outside, and it was really just a fantastic event. And actually after I got eliminated, I loved coming back and working with Marjorie for her first finale challenge.

 

AE: Yeah, she’s so great.

KA: She’s one of my favorite people and she’s wildly talented. For me, her and I working together—we can kind of work without having to talk too much. We have great communication and we think the same way about a lot of things, so we can help each other sort of process through the dish. We collaborate really well together. So that was one of my favorite moments as well. It was just such a fantastic time and such a unique experience.

 

AE: Do you have any key takeaways or things you’ve learned from your time on the show?

KA: Get out of your comfort zone, as much as you can. We all are doing the best that we can, we’re all trying to make awesome food, we’re all in our kitchens doing our work everyday—but having a chance to take yourself outside of that and challenge yourself in ways that feel uncomfortable. I think it’s really important, as important as travel and eating in other restaurants that inspire you. That, for me, was really the biggest takeaway.

AE: So now that you’re done, I know that you are the Culinary Chair of an upcoming PFLAG fundraiser—can you tell me a little bit about that?

KA: I can! I’m really excited about this event—I am working with Greater Boston PFLAG on their Pride & Passion Gala this year. This is their biggest fundraiser of the year, their biggest event, and I think it’s just really going to be fantastic. This fundraiser is where they raise the majority of their funds for the entire year, so it’s an incredibly important event for people to come out to. The theme for this year is “People who love us unconditionally” and it’s around Mother’s Day, so they’re really focusing on moms. I’m actually bringing my mom to the event.

 

AE: Aww.

KA: Yeah, it just speaks volumes to me. I have had—ooh, I’m gonna cry. No, I am not going to cry. [laughs] I have had the really, really, really good fortune in my life to know from the time I was born to this day, and going forward, that I am loved unconditionally by my family. My mom, my sister, my dad, my aunt, my cousins—I know from the bottom of my heart that I have their unconditional love. And that has made everything in my life possible, really, truly.

AE: Well now you’re going to make me cry!

KA: I know! I’m just really lucky. Whether it has been my career—I’ve been doing this for 15 years now—they supported me when times were tough. When you’re a line cook, and you’re working long hours, and not making any money. My mom came to visit me and she bought me a new pair of clogs because I couldn’t afford them, and I was wearing shoes that had holes in them. Or, you know, just being my biggest fans and my biggest supporters.

And coming out and being out—my family just never blinked an eye. They have just always, always wanted me to be as happy as possible. And I know that I have been able to do everything in my life because of them and their unconditional love. So, working with PFLAG has been great, because I think our support systems—our allies, our friends and family—are so instrumental in our everyday lives, but also because this theme feels very personal to me this year.

AE: That’s awesome. Have you worked with PFLAG before?

KA: I haven’t, this is my first time working with them. They got in touch with me through Tiffani Faison, who I believe was the Culinary Chair last year, and she said, “This was a great event, you should really think about doing it.” And I immediately was like, “Yes, I would love to work with them.” So it’s a new relationship that I have with Greater Boston PFLAG, and I’m very excited about it. I’m excited to work with them again in the future.

 

AE: So, what does a Culinary Chair actually do?

KA: [laughs] So, my role is—I’m designing the menu for the evening, it’s a three-course menu, and I’m working on it now with the chef at the event space. I think that my dessert is going to be inspired by something my mom used to make for me. I’ll be planning the menu, I’ll be overseeing the kitchen, and I’ll also attend the event and bring my mom with me. I’ll give a little speech and a shout out to my mom. So I’ll be coordinating the event as well as participating in the event.

 

AE: That sounds great. How has appearing on Top Chef affected your life and getting opportunities like this PFLAG event?

KA: I think it’s happening more often. I’ve been so lucky in my career in the past four or five years or so that organizations such as Future Chefs or Share Our Strength have reached out to me about doing different events and partnering or supporting them in different ways. There are definitely more opportunities because of Top Chef, because you have greater visibility and, for me, I think that’s great. More than anything else, if I can be part of an organization like Greater Boston PFLAG and help support this event that is so important to them and their funds to continue on for the rest of the year—that makes it worth it. That’s a real tangible value from the show.

 

AE: Yeah, that’s really awesome. So, speaking of the show, I know you’re in the top two for Top Chef Fan Favorite?

KA: I am! It has been so surprising and lovely that people liked me on the show, and liked what I did, and what I had to offer. Isaac [Toups] is—you know, he’s my fan favorite, too! I mean, he’s a very talented chef and he’s also hilarious. He kept me laughing the entire time that we were there. He’s just a fantastic person. So, to even be considered next to him as Fan Favorite is pretty awesome. It sort of already feels like I’ve won, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t vote for me. [laughs]

 

AE: I have been voting for you! And I really hope you get the win. Thanks so much for talking with me!

KA: Thank you!

 

If you’re in the Boston area, you can find more information about supporting or attending Greater Boston PFLAG’s Pride & Passion Gala here. And no matter where you live, be sure to vote for Karen for Top Chef Fan Favorite here. We’ll find out whether Karen or Isaac wins on Watch What Happens Live tomorrow night (March 17 at 9PM ET on Bravo).