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5 Things You Didn’t Know About Top Chef Star Karen Akunowicz

The Boston restaurant stalwart powerlifts to clear her head, and even though it’s a cliché, she loves the Cinque Terre.
By Published Mar. 31, 2017

Karen Akunowicz has had a crazy couple of years. In 2015, she starred in season 13 of Top Chef and was nominated for a James Beard Award for “Best Chef Northeast” for her work at Myers + Chang, a beloved Asian fusion haunt in Boston’s South End neighborhood. In 2016, Akunowicz was nominated for another Beard (again for “Best Chef Northeast”), and she also took up what is now her favorite hobby: powerlifting. (Cool, right?) 

And though getting recognized for your work by both your peers and the public is exciting and validating, it can also be exhausting. 

"I’m so tired," said Akunowicz. "It’s crazy. But I’m also so grateful. There are a lot of people who are successful, and who are working really hard for a really long time—I mean, our industry is brutal—and who are as talented, or more talented, and as hardworking who never get that recognition. Whatever stars aligned—and I know that a lot of it is your own hard work, and what you put into it—it was crazy. It’s still kind of crazy."

This year, Akunowicz has been busy working with her business partner, fellow Boston restaurant legend (and guest star on America’s Test Kitchen TV’s Sweet and Spicy Asian Specialties episode), Joanne Chang on the upcoming cookbook, Myers + Chang at Home.

Akunowicz stopped by the test kitchen last week to talk about the whirlwind. Here’s a taste of what she had to say.

1. She Took a Seven-Week Hiatus to Film Top Chef

So, I don’t think I’ll ever leave for seven weeks again. [Ed’s. Note: Top Chef’s shooting schedule is seven weeks.] But that was a big decision. We [Ed’s. Note: “We” refers to Karen and her fellow Myers + Chang partners, Joanne Chang and Christopher Myers.] sat down and we talked about it for a long time. Top Chef had asked me for years—four years, five years—to come and go through casting for the show. And casting itself feels like a part-time job. It’s a lot. So that was a very conscious decision between Joanne and Christopher and myself. They were really great about it.

And you know, I felt like it was my last year, if I wanted to do it—and I think part of me always wanted to—it was really the last year I would be able to do it. I had just become a partner at the restaurant—I knew my responsibilities would be greater—and I’d just gotten married that past year. I kind of felt that if I was going to do it, it was now or never. And Christopher and Joanne were super supportive of it. They really cheered me on. I feel like because I had that foundation and support I was able to do it.

2. She's Most Likely to Get Recognized in an Airport

When the show was airing it would be weird, because I’d be at the grocery store wearing yoga pants and someone would be following me around [laughs] . . . The amount of people who are travelling and come into the restaurant to see us because they saw the show is really cool . . . And I always get recognized in airports. Airports are crazy! I was coming back from Miami [recently], and I had a hat on, I had braids. And we were standing in line getting ready to board the plane, and this woman behind me was like, “Excuse me, were you on Top Chef?” And I said, “Oh, yes I was.” She pointed to her friends and said, “They said that you were and I said I didn’t know, but they were too embarrassed to ask you.” And then I got on the plane and two other people said it while I was walking down the aisle. So yeah, I get recognized a lot at airports. It’s very interesting.

3. Her Other Passion is Powerlifting

I always say I got into powerlifting about a year ago, but that’s not exactly true. I started working with a trainer about a year ago . . . and it was honestly because I was very injured. I had herniated a disc two years before, and I had tendonitis in my shoulder so severe my doctors thought it was a torn rotator cuff. An MRI and $800 later and they were like, “You have tendonitis.”

I had been in PT, I had been in yoga. I was doing all the things you’re supposed to do—and yet to get out of bed in the morning I had to reach over and grab my headboard and do this thing where I rolled and put my leg out, and then got on the floor on my stomach, and then got up from there. I was just in pain all of the time. Working was brutal. I had the very busy year, and I was broken.

So I ran into somebody that I knew who used to work in restaurants, and I said, “Hey, I haven’t seen you in a long time! How are ya?” And she said, “Oh, I’m training now. I’m boxing.” And I thought, “I want to box. I can barely stand, but it might be good to get some aggression out.” So I started boxing a little bit with her, and she was like, “You hit really, really hard.” And I was like, “Yeah, I’m pretty strong.” Everyone’s always told me I’m freakishly strong. Then I started lifting to strengthen my back, strengthen my core. That was the focus. And then I started getting stronger, I started getting healthier, I started lifting a little more. All of a sudden my trainer said, “This is insane, you are so strong.” So I started specifically only training for powerlifting. Powerlifting is squats, deadlift, and bench. I also do a lot of front squatting for my core.

My goal this year is to deadlift 300 pounds. I deadlifted on a hex bar 280 pounds the other day. That’s my PR (personal record). You know, it’s on a hex—my conventional is over 200 pounds. I hit my PR on bench press at 165 pounds, and I can back squat 230 pounds. And this is after not quite a year of training.

I am pain free. I am so much better. I can walk, my back doesn’t hurt. It’s insane. I thought I was just going to live the rest of my life in chronic pain, so I will extol the virtues of weightlifting till the cows come home. But also, it’s the first time I’ve had a hobby in 15 years. I go to the gym and I love it, and I get to do this thing I’m really good at but also it’s the only time I’m not thinking about anything else. It clears my brain. Lifter’s high—that’s a thing! I’m obsessed with it, it’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. And I have an awesome coach who’s worked so hard to get me from a place of being so broken to a place to where I’m feeling awesome.

During her visit to the test kitchen, Akunowicz got to take part in a tasting of Middle Eastern pastries and desserts.

4. She Lived in Italy, and Though She Loved the Entire Country, Her Favorite Place to Eat Was Naples

I loved everywhere. I lived in Modena, which is, I mean, hello! But I loved Napoli—Naples. Dude, I got there and I was just, like, immediately in love with it―with the people there, too. People there were so frickin’ kind to me. They were like, “You’re by yourself? Come, we’ll show you where to eat pizza.” That happened to me, people were so awesome. It stands out to me as being really, truly one of my most favorite places.

I also loved the Cinque Terre. My friends in Italy are all like, “You Yanks all love the Cinque Terre.” It’s frickin’ great! You hike all the way up [a hill] and there’s a guy on a rock who sells you limoncello he made at his house! It’s great!

5. To Achieve Wok Hei at Home, Karen Detaches Her Smoke Detectors

[Ed.'s note: Wok hei translates, roughly, to "breath of the wok," and it's that flavor you're tasting when eating food that's been fired in a wok.] When I cook at home, I detach my smoke detectors [laughs]. Because you can't cook, it's ridiculous! We actually just moved from a really old apartment to a new condo, so my smoke alarms are hardwired—it's ridiculous, I'm constantly setting off the smoke detector. But if you can detach your smoke detector and get your wok super, super, super hot—or, you could also use cast iron. You can crank up your heat on the cast iron and just let it go. I let it go until it's hot, hot, smoking, crazy ripping hot. And get your pan hot before you put the oil in. That will help a little bit too. 

More Test Kitchen Visitors

Want to read more about other food friends who have visited us in the test kitchen? Check out our visits from bread guru Peter Reinhart, cookie legend Dorie Greenspan, Momofuku's sweet genius Christina Tosi, and world traveler Naomi Duguid.   

What's your favorite Asian cuisine? Let us know in the comments!