Karen Akunowicz remembers making an apron in the seventh-grade at Lincoln School in home economics class back in 1991.
“We used sewing machines to make them,” she said. “It was some kind of zebra pattern.”
What she somehow couldn’t recall — at first — was that making those aprons had a greater purpose: in eighth-grade, students wore those self-made aprons while cooking in home economics part two.
“Funny, I only remember cooking a few things — like maybe a spaghetti sauce, grilled cheese and an icebox cake,” she said.
What she probably never realized, at the time, was that cooking would ultimately become her career. When she left Kearny after graduating Kearny High School in 1996 for the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, it was her plan to be a social worker.
And since cooking shows were limited to a few pros back then — remember Julia Child as “The French Chef?” — she had no idea she’d go on to be a contestant on Bravo TV’s 13th season of “Top Chef.”
If she wins, aside from many other perks, she’ll take home $125,000 — back to Boston where she lives with her wife, LJ, and where she’s been the executive chef at Myers + Chang, a restaurant that serves a mix of Chinese, Taiwanese, Thai and Vietnamese cuisine in Boston’s South End, or Southie, as the natives call it.
An interesting road
It’s been an interesting journey for Akunowicz to have gotten where she is now.
When she finished at UMass-Amherst, she, like many new college graduates, figured she’d get a great job right out of university. And, like most other college graduates, she quickly found out she was dead wrong.
“I really did think I’d get something great right out of UMass,” she said. “At this point, I’d moved to Boston. I’d worked at the Massachusetts State House the summer before my last year. And as much as I wanted that great job, it didn’t turn out that way at all. I was forced to take any job.”
As she waited for that dream job, Akunowicz took a traditional alternate route — she waited tables in Boston. She needed to do so to live in Boston — rents aren’t exactly affordable there as in any large city.
At one point, while she was waiting tables, her girlfriend at the time suggested that maybe culinary school would be a better choice than waiting for a social-work job. Karen then did some soul searching and ended up going to the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts.
She finished 13 years ago. Before joining Myers + Chang, she made a few stops elsewhere — including a full year in Italy.
“I previously worked at Oleana, Via Matta, The Beehive and Ten Tables, and I lived in Modena, Italy, for a year doing a pasta-making stage and being a chef at an enoteca called L’Avian Bleu,” Akunowicz said. But it’s been at Myers + Chang where she made her biggest impact.
“I have been the executive chef at Myers + Chang for four years and recently became a partner there,” she said. “Our new venture is still to be named, but [it] will be in Cambridge, probably this summer.”
Yup, that’s right — Karen’s opening her own restaurant. And before she does that, she’s working on a huge project with Joanne Chang, her partner at Myers + Chang.
“I am writing the Myers + Chang cookbook with Joanne Chang, being published by Houghton Mifflin — and hitting shelves in September 2017,” she said.
So with all of this going on, how was she able to find out about the chance to be on the show and then pack up her things, leave her wife and her job behind in Massachusetts, while possibly spending several months in California? [Because the show, “Top Chef,” is only in its third week of airing on Bravo, she wasn’t able to say how long she was away — or if she won the competition].
It was rather simple, she says.
“My wife is my biggest supporter,” Akunowicz said of LJ. “There had been open-casting calls before this year. The folks had approached me to ask me if I wanted to try out, but the timing wasn’t right. I wouldn’t have been able to do it — to leave the restaurant for weeks. But it was something I did want to do eventually if given the chance.”
And indeed, she was given that chance again.
The casting folks asked her to apply for the show again — she says her restaurant partners Christopher and Joanne were very supportive — and LJ was, too. So she applied — and when the show kicked off a few weeks ago, she was one of 17 contestants vying for the top prize — to be America’s newest “Top Chef.”
“LJ has been my rock,” she said. “Throughout this entire process, she never had a complaint.”
Akunowicz, so far, is still on the show, three weeks in. Several contestants have already been eliminated, though the eliminated contestants do get a chance to come back on to the show in a second-chance kind of cook-off called “Last Chance Kitchen,” a Web-only series.
But for now, she has remained in contention for the top slot.
In this season of “Top Chef,” unlike previous seasons, the cooking will take place in six cities across California. If she remains on the show, she’ll go from Hollywood, to San Francisco to Santa Barbara, to Palm Springs and elsewhere — and then back to Los Angeles.
And despite all of the fame she’s gained from being on the show, she hasn’t forgotten her Kearny roots one bit.
“My parents still live in town and I still hit up Sunset Deli every time I am home,” she said of the deli that once stood at the northeast corner of Kearny and Laurel Aves. [Of course, we had to tell her Sunset Deli is no more, much to her chagrin]. “My parents are both from Kearny and grew up there. My mom went to Kearny High School too. [At KHS], I was a cheerleader, rower and softball player — and I was involved in musicals, chorus and the Student Government Association.”
Jerry Ficeto, who for many years directed plays and musicals at KHS, remembered Akunowicz as an extremely diligent and hard-working student.
“She was involved in numerous activities and groups in KHS including the Kearny High School marching unit and was always involved in the KHS musicals,” Ficeto recalled. “She was a lovely young woman who was very talented — always hard-working, dedicated, self-motivated and an amazing drive to succeed.”
And soon, with luck, that success will also include becoming America’s new “Top Chef.”
“It’s been an absolutely incredible experience,” Akunowicz said. “Stressful, but incredible.”
Watch “Top Chef” on Bravo at 10 p.m. ET Thursday nights. Miss an episode? Catch up online at www.BravoTV.com/top-chef.