“Top Chef” Star Karen Akunowicz Talks about Gender Dynamics in the Kitchen

Karen Akunowicz started cooking to impress a girl. Now, her kitchen nickname is Chainsaw and she’s one of the best-known chefs in the United States. For almost five years, she has been the Executive Chef at celebrated Boston restaurant Myers + Chang, she was just nominated for a James Beard award for Best Chef Northeast for the second year in a row, and she carves out space for herself on the current season of Bravo’s Top Chef. On Top Chef, along with being a fierce presence in the kitchen while she whips up food that I wish I could smell through the screen, Karen brings queer femme representation into the world of mainstream reality TV. Akunowicz took time out of her busy schedule to talk with me about how not to prepare puttanesca, gender dynamics in the kitchen, and why she’ll never play “mom” to her line cooks.

Did you cook growing up? How did you get into cooking?

I didn’t cook growing up. My mom likes to tell everybody that I couldn’t boil water. I mean, I would help her make dinner, because as my mom always put it: “You live in this house. Therefore, you make your bed, and you mow the lawn and clean the bathroom, and you help with dinner.” I like to eat, and I love sitting around with my family and having dinner and talking all about stuff. But I didn’t grow up cooking at all. I started cooking in my 20s, and I started cooking to impress a girl. [laugh]

I was actually working two jobs. I was working at Planned Parenthood during the day and I was working as a bartender at night. I was working with someone who I kept trying to get to take me out on a date.  It wasn’t working. So after a couple weeks of this, I said, “Hey, you should come over to my house, and I’ll cook for you.” Which is magic, right? Tell anybody that you’re gonna make them a meal, and all the sudden, she was like, “Oh yeah, I’ll definitely come over.” So I couldn’t cook at all.

Good idea, Karen.

Yeah, super well-thought-out plan. So I went to the bookstore, I bought a cookbook, and I made puttanesca, which translates to like “the whore’s pasta” because the story about it is you throw it all together, and it was what the ladies of the night would make in the whorehouses. They would call out that dinner was ready, and that was kinda the way that you drew the men into the brothels. So anyway, I think it was bad. I think that I made this pasta sauce, and it has tons of capers and olives. I think I didn’t rinse any of the capers, and it was probably really salty. I think it was probably not good, but I thought I was. You would’ve thought I was like a master chef. I was like, “I’m amazing. I’m so good at this.”

So that’s when you knew?

That was the minute. That was when I started cooking, and I spent maybe a year just cooking at home and thinking that I was really good at it. Probably about a year later or so, same girl who had became my girlfriend—joint bank account, two cats, all that stuff—yeah, I was applying to get my MSW and go back to school. She was like, “I don’t know why you’re applying to social work school because all you ever talk about is what you’re gonna do when you open your own restaurant.” And I applied to culinary school two weeks later.

Photo by Matt Kurkowski

That’s really cool. Now you’re one of the folks at the top of your industry, which basically seems to be made up of a bunch of dudes. So I’m wondering what’s it like to be in charge in a kitchen where you’re surrounded by people who are, for the most part, not other women?

Right. Actually, I have more women working here now than I have in the last five years. For four years that I was here, it was typically an entirely male staff, and people would say, “Wow. Oh, you’re not hiring women.” I would say, “Women don’t apply.”

It’s so interesting that they would say that, too. Do you think they would’ve said that to a male chef?

Absolutely not. What? “Oh, it seems like you have a lot of dudes working here.” No, of course not.

So it was on you.

Yeah, of course. I just hired another female sous chef. I’ve got a couple female line cooks, which has been fantastic. It is so interesting to, if you look at any event, or you look at a list when, say, there’s 20 chefs on it, you’re gonna have one or two women every time. Everybody says, “Oh, you can’t look at it that way.” But I do. I count all of the time to see how we’re represented.

Yeah.

Everyone says it’s different now; it’s changed. It’s changed a little. Hasn’’ changed that much. When I came to work here, when I took over the kitchen here, I took over as the Executive Chef. I didn’t come in as a cook. Anyway, there was a line cook here, and the second week I was here, he tried to ask me out on a date. He grabbed my ass. He left about two weeks later and stated the reason that he was leaving was because he wanted to work for “a real chef,” a big-time chef, somebody with a name who was still in the kitchen that he could learn from. So again, putting it back on me for not being good enough.

One of my friends is an aspiring chef in Portland, and I asked her, “Risa, what should I ask? What are things that I wouldn’t know to ask?” And she said that there’s often this dynamic if you’re a lady in the kitchen—whether you’re chef, sous chef, line cook, whatever—that you can either be the moral compass of the kitchen, or you can buy into the aggressive culture. Is that something that you’ve experienced?

Yeah, absolutely. I agree 100 percent. I think that as I’ve gotten older—I’m 37 now—that sort of changed for me. I’ve grown up a little bit. I definitely think that when I was younger, as I was a sous chef, as I was a line cook, I definitely took a stance of being a really hard line and definitely being aggressive. And definitely, of course, I got called a bitch, which I never think is a bad thing. [Laughs.] And people just being like, “Wow!” I got so much flack, and still do, for being a bitch, for being really clear on what I want, for having really high standards, for holding people to those standards. It’s incredible how that is perceived when you’re a woman as opposed to when you’re a man. I, for the most part, didn’t care, and that’s the line I took. As I get older, as I have more responsibility, I think I probably take more of the road of being the moral compass. Because I think that’s important.

That being said, there’s no doubt that I am the leader in the kitchen and that I’m always gonna be the one to call you out and expect more from you and still have those high expectations. People are like, “Oh, you’re everybody’s mom.” And I’m always like, “I am not your mother. I’m the chef, I’m a partner at this restaurant, I’m your boss, I’m your colleague, I’m your coworker, I’ll be your support. I’ll be all of those things, but I’m not a parent in any way.” So I think that’s the third trope of being a female chef is that you’re going to be really maternal and really nurturing, and everyone’s gonna be your babies. That’s just not, no. That’s not the case.

Its awesome that youre queer, youre femme, youre in the kitchen, youre a boss. You are so many things that you would not think that you would find in a [professional] kitchen based on the numbers. Have you always been out in the kitchen? Do you think there’s a different dynamic than if you were a straight woman taking the lead?

I have always been out in the kitchen, always, and I have always been really clear to be out. It’s always been important to me not to hide, to be exactly who I am, and that is a big part of who I am. Being queer, being femme, being gay: all of those things are, to me, as important to who I am and make up part of who I am as much as being a chef or a daughter or a friend or a sister or any of those things.

I had a friend of mine. He’s still my friend today. This is 10 years ago. We were line cooks together, and something happened. I asked for help, which was rare for me, especially when I was a young line cook. You don’t ask for help, you do it on your own, you lift it on your own, because not doing so makes you appear weak, right? This was someone that I cooked next to for two years. We were partners on the line. He was not only my friend but somebody that I respected in the kitchen. I felt that he respected me. And I said to him, “Hey, can you help me with this?” He looked at me and said—of course, he was joking—he said, “Chainsaw,” cuz that was my nickname. “Chainsaw, I guess it looks like you need a man for something.” And I went like when you just see so much red that you can’t, you almost can’t breathe, that’s how angry I was. Everyone was like, “Why are you so mad? Why are you so mad about that?” And I just let loose on him, and I just let it rip.

People say, “What is one word that you would use to describe yourself?” and I always say the same thing: tenacious. Things like that, for me, have been the things that make me keep going instead of the things that make me want to quit.

So back when you were an aspiring chef, who were you looking up to? Who are your role models?

One is Gabrielle Hamilton at Prune. It remains my favorite restaurant, not just in New York, but one of my favorite restaurants in the world. I think she’s phenomenal, I think her writing is fantastic, and I love that. Like, if you said you could eat at one place, it’s your last meal, last restaurant, it would be Prune in New York. I have always looked up to Suzanne Goin, at Lucques in West Hollywood. From the first time I read Sunday Suppers at Lucques—her first cookbook—I have just been enamored with the way that she cooks and the food that she makes. I got to actually go to Lucques for the first time when I was in California filming Top Chef, and she was actually a judge on one of the challenges.

Wow!

I was just like, “Oh god. Of course this is happening.”

What do you think the industry could do to encourage more women who might be thinking about wanting to get in the kitchen professionally?

You know, this is a very boring answer, but one of the things in the industry that can change now is the structure of it: your benefits, your time off, your parental leave. I’m really big right now on the culture around having a kid, right?

Do you have kids?

I don’t have kids, no. Many women want to have children. Many of those women who want to have children are going to have to birth those children themselves, right? If you are in a job that says you are not gonna come back to the same job that you were in, whether you’re a sous chef or whether you’re a chef, you don’t have maternal leave or parental leave, you don’t have that paid leave, or maybe it’s—if you’re lucky—six weeks, which is not enough time.

Absolutely not. Agreed.

You are seeing large amounts of women drop out of the industry because of that. And people are gonna say, “Oh, you’ve been out of the kitchen for this long, you haven’t worked in this long, oh, you have a family, oh, you need to be home to pick your kids up from work, oh, you need to x, y, and z.” So I think systemically, those things need to change. I think that there needs to be time off, paid time off. I try very hard to create in my kitchen a culture that lets you have two days off in a row. My sous chef, Ashley, had the same two days off in a row for two years. She knew when her days off were; she could plan her life. It’s not that much to do or to ask for. Making sure that people have health insurance and benefits. I think that those things would go so far to not even just getting women into the kitchen but keeping and retaining really great talent that we’re not seeing stay.

Do you have to cook every day?

Oh yeah. All day. All day. Right now, I’m in the kitchen seven days a week, lunch and dinner. Everyone keeps coming in and being like, “Oh, wow! You’re here!” My answer is always like, “Where else would I be?” [Laughs.]

Like, “This is who I am. This is what I do.”

I’m taking out the trash, I’m sweeping the sidewalk. It’s very glamorous.

And Bravo’s following you around for all of it.

Right. Right. Well, it’s not. People are like, “Wow, you’re on TV.” And I’m like, “Yeah, and I’m going through the dumpster. I’m picking out the boxes that didn’t get broken down.” 

Kate Lesniak is the publisher at Bitch Media.

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