From Waitress to James Beard Award-Winning Chef: How Karen Akunowicz Sliced and Diced Her Way to Success
Executive Chef Karen Akunowicz is the real deal. The 40-year-old chef grew up in New Jersey and started out in the restaurant industry as a waitress. After attending the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, she worked in many Boston restaurants including Via Matta and Oleana, and then as head chef of Myers+Chang where she received a James Beard Award and won best chef in the Northeast. In addition, she was a contestant on Top Chef, co-author of a cookbook, and just recently opened up an acclaimed restaurant in South Boston called Fox & the Knife.
Entrepreneur spoke with Akunowicz about her rise to success and tips on making your dreams into a reality.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What sparked your interest in food?
I didn't really cook growing up, but I always helped my mom make dinner. Coming together with my family usually involved sitting around the dinner table, so I always thought of food as something that brings people together. I started cooking in my twenties to impress a girl that I had a date with, and she ended up being my girlfriend for four years. I was working toward my master's degree in social work, and she mentioned that I never really talked about what I would do with the degree -- instead, I always talked about what it would be like to own a restaurant someday. That conversation with her really moved me, so I enrolled in culinary school a few weeks later.
Was there was a specific person, place, or event that had an impact on your career path?
When I was in culinary school there was a big event in Boston that doesn't exist anymore. It was a really big deal and all the restaurants in the city participated. My school sent a few students and I was lucky enough to be chosen in a random lottery. Every group was paired with a high profile chef and Suzanne Goin was our guest. The other students were taking pictures and hanging out while I was very concentrated on cooking. We went to take a picture at the end with all the students and after she took me aside and said you really have what it takes, you should do this. That event was the turning point where I said ok, I am going to try and do it. I'm sure she doesn't know that but she had a profound effect on my career.
What was the biggest roadblock you have experienced in life, and how did you get past it?
When I thought to myself, I am 37 years old, it's 100 degrees on a summer day and I'm scrubbing ovens. What am I doing with my life? I was burned out and wasn't loving cooking as much as I should've, although I don't think I ever lost my passion for it. At that point, I felt stuck, and like I wasn't doing any good. My girlfriend at the time found this ad looking for a youth worker, but with a culinary background. She told me that this was the perfect job, so I applied although I had not done actual youth work before. I left professional restaurants to go and run a social enterprise where I worked with disengaged youth who were getting out of jail or getting out of gangs or difficult situations. I taught them culinary skills as well as soft skills such as how to cook, properly shake a hand, or how to interview for a job. It was an amazing year-long experience. Randomly Christopher Myers, somebody I had worked with a long time ago, texted me and told me it's time to come out of retirement. Next thing I knew, I was the chef de cuisine at Myers+Chang for seven years, became their business partner, won a James Beard award, and made a whole lot of Asian food.
Are there any specific challenges that you or other women face in the food/restaurant industry? What advice would you give?
I think that sexism is pervasive in many industries, and it blankets our every day so much that we don't see it right. It's like glasses; there are different lenses that we all look at things through and say, "Well, you know I didn't necessarily have this opportunity, but you're not saying I didn't have this opportunity because I was a woman." It permeates almost everything, so it is important to recognize it since it's been a part of our lives for such a long time in many industries. My sister is a scientist, and we talk about the similarities across the board in our two completely different professions. I have been able to be successful in my own business, but many would say that I am lucky or hardworking or have a lot of opportunities and all those things are true. But it is easier for men to get money. There are more resources available to them, and they receive more offers. Trying to change them is extremely important. If I get a call about a project, maybe it's not a project I want to do but instead of just saying no, I say, "Hey, you should call so-and-so and give them the name of another female owner and operator who is an appropriate fit." My advice is to use your confidence and female power to speak up and demand an inclusive city, whether it is women or whether it's queer people or people of color.
What career milestones are you most proud of achieving?
Opening my restaurant Fox & the Knife the year I turned 40 was a really big deal. From the day I created my business plan to the grand opening of the restaurant was only one year and one month, which is insane. I'm really proud of that. Three months later I opened a fast-casual concept for my second space in partnership with Whole Foods. It’s a completely different concept called SloPoke. Using fresh items from hand-cut vegetables to beautiful Hawaiian tuna, everything is made from scratch. I've never worked in fast-casual before, so creating that concept, working on that concept, and forming a partnership with a large corporate company was an accomplishment. Also, I am currently working on my second cookbook, which is sort of just getting the wheels turning.
It doesn't sound like you have a lot of downtime, but what do you do for fun when you do?
My mom was a librarian and I grew up reading. We were just a big reading family, so anytime I get to relax and read a novel I'm having fun. I love to garden, and I have huge cucumber and tomato plants this year. I grow many things including lilacs, blueberry bushes, and I even have a raspberry thicket now. Living in Boston where so much of the time we are surrounded in stone-cold weather, every opportunity that I can be outside I will take. Even if it's mulching or weeding I love to be outside. Also, I have been powerlifting for a few years and can deadlift some serious weight!