Top Chef is a seriously draining competition for even the most talented names in the culinary industry. On the show, renowned chefs partake in various competitions to ultimately win the Top Chef title.
And although many would likely want to throw in the dishtowel after appearing on the show, two-time contestant Karen Akunowicz has been busier than ever since she last appeared on Season 17 in 2019 — even with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
"I kind of feel like all that slowdown that people had during the pandemic I did not have," she tells Distractify on a Zoom call, on behalf of her recent work with All Inclusive Boston. "So I’m gonna try to get a little bit of that back this summer when we open Bar Volpe."
Keep reading to hear what the longtime Bostonian and pasta queen has been up to since Season 17, her thoughts on returning to the Bravo reality series, and mandatory pitstops to make when you visit her beloved stomping ground.
Karen Akunowicz is grateful to have been busier than ever since 'Top Chef: All-Stars.'
While many of us were sitting at home making TikTok dances and baking banana bread in 2020, Akunowicz was operating her Boston restaurant, Fox & the Knife, the entire time, flipping overnight to a takeout model. She also started running a brand new pasta delivery business, worked on opening a new Southern Italian restaurant, and began writing her second cookbook, which is coming out in 2023 — casual.
"During the pandemic, I never closed, even March through May of last year," she tells us. "I flipped overnight to a takeout model, and I started a new business called Fox Pasta, which is basically wholesale fresh pasta company — the pastas, the sauces, pesto, cheese, bread — all that kind of stuff."
"I'm also in the process of opening a new restaurant now, which is called Bar Volpe, a Southern Italian restaurant with a wood-burning grill, and a glass-walled pasta room which also has a little pastificio — a little market attached to it — so it's like a six-seat wine bar where you can buy your fresh pasta and sauces, and you can have a bite if you want and get coffee and pastries — it's super exciting. And I’m also working on my second cookbook, which will come out in 2023. I’m kind of actively working on the manuscript now, and I’m publishing with Norton."
And although she was able to stay busy, Akunowicz still worries for fellow chefs and restaurant workers post-pandemic.
"I’m heartbroken for the owners of the restaurants, as well as the people who work in them," she explains. "But I do have to think that we are hopefully moving in a positive direction. ... It's a tough time in our industry. With the pandemic we lost a lot of talent in our industry. ... As an industry as a whole, we are resilient and adaptable. A lot of us are survivors by nature. But I do worry about being able to staff our restaurants."
Will Akunowicz return to 'Top Chef'?
As we said previously, Top Chef is a seriously exhausting competition, so the odds that Akunowicz will return as a contestant may be slim. But she tells us she'd love more than anything to return as a guest judge.
"I would definitely return as a judge!" she exclaims. "I would be thrilled to be asked back as a judge. We’ll see!"
And although she loves that her former competitors are among the many guest judges on Season 18, she's waiting until the season ends to binge-watch it for the sake of sympathy stress.
"Watching the show is for me very stressful to watch, because all the memories of competing come back," she laughs. "So I like to wait until the season is over, watch the whole thing at once so I don’t have any breaks. I like to binge the entire thing."
"But, I’m very excited to watch it," she continues. "So many of my friends are back on this season and judging — Mel King, Gregory Gourdet — folks that I love. So I’m very excited to watch this season and see all of them judging and participating on it."
Oh, and if you're visiting Boston, Akunowicz has countless food recs.
Akunowicz is a longtime Boston resident, and recently, she teamed up with All Inclusive Boston, a campaign run by the city's Travel Tourism Commission, to show the diversity of business owners citywide — regardless of gender, sexuality, or race.
"There’s a lot more to Boston than a lot of people think or know. We’re just trying to show the diversity in business owners and people who are hopefully the next generation of people influencing this city," she explains. "I feel really lucky to be a part of it."
And after spending so many years in Bean Town, Akunowicz obviously has a handful of food recommendations if you find yourself there: Sarma, which serves middle eastern food, Flour Bakery (where she recommends getting cinnamon buns over sticky buns), City Feed & Supply for next-level sandwiches, and Neptune Oysters are just a few.
We're dying to try these as well as her various eateries citywide — a Karen Akunowicz-guided food tour around Boston is definitely in our future.