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


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!

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