We met Karen Akunowicz when Fox and the Knife was still in the beginning stages of construction. Despite the plastic covering the bar and paint cans, as we toured the space and spotted the words “Hello Foxy” written in chalk on one of the basement walls, we could already tell that this place was going to be special. Karen has had a career most just dream about—a stint on Top Chef, a James Beard award, and a managing partnership at one of Boston’s most celebrated restaurants—but it's only more recently with the opening of Fox and the Knife that she fully found her culinary voice. And anyone in Boston would agree it was worth the wait: just try to get a reservation less than a few weeks out! Since opening, Fox in the Knife has received rave reviews and was named one of Food & Wine’s best new restaurants of 2019. Find out more about how she got here. Here’s a hint—it involves always saying “I can try.”
At 25, I had graduated from culinary school and started my first job as a line cook at Ten Tables in Jamaica Plain. On the night of my very first “stage” shift, the person I was supposed to be trailing didn’t show up for work, so I basically worked the garde manger shift by myself. The first real day on the job, the chef got terribly ill and I ended up having to work the line (we called it working the stove, the hot side of the kitchen) by myself and I really had no idea what I was doing. It was very much learning on the job—sink or swim. I remember the owner coming up to me and asking “do you think you can do this?” and every rational part of my brain was like, “absolutely not! I have no idea what I am doing, I don’t know how to pick up these dishes, I don’t know how to do any of this!” but of course in a can-do fashion I said, “I can try.”
She told me we wouldn’t take any other walk ins, and just try to cover the people there that night. I don’t remember much of it, but I remember feeling like everyone was watching me and like I was doing a lot. I didn’t really have kitchen moves down yet, like the ability to start one thing and finish another thing and plate it, so I was really just doing one thing at a time. And I still think, “man, I am so sorry to the people who came in that night.” But that was day one for me. Even though I went home and cried my face off (I think, I definitely drank a lot of wine) I definitely remember feeling like the kitchen was where I belonged. I could see this as a career, and that was a big turning point in my life.
I went to work after that at Via Matta, where I met Christopher Myers. That is also where I fell in love with Italian cooking. Then I became the opening sous-chef at Beehive. It was a really big opening. It was my first sous-chef job, and it was a 300-seat restaurant, so really a beast to get open. But it was an amazing experience.
At that point in time I went through a really difficult break up, and when something like that happens, it tends to be a catalyst for life changes. So I decided to move to Italy. I sublet my apartment, put everything I owned in storage, and moved to Modena, Italy. I didn’t speak Italian and didn’t have anywhere to live. My previous boss hooked me up with someone he had worked for, but he hadn’t been responding to any of my phone calls or emails leading up to my arrival. So I just kind of showed up to this restaurant and said, “remember, you told me I could come and work here?” Luckily, he did speak some English, but he said “yes, but I don’t have anywhere for you to live…” So I had to find a place, and I stayed there for a year and worked at that Enoteca. And from there I did a pasta-making stage; I was literally making pasta with little old ladies. [Editor’s note: Karen did all of this long before Season 2 of Master of None!]
A little while later, an acquaintance of mine was leaving his restaurant and asked me to replace him. I remember thinking, again, “I don’t think I can do that,” but, again, said “well, I can try.” So I ended up becoming the chef of this enoteca in the center of Modena, and I stayed there for a year.
I came back to the United States and worked as a sous-chef at Oleana—one of the big reasons I came home was to take that job. That was a huge learning experience for me and incredibly formative in my culinary career; it helped me develop my style as a chef - working with people who are so creative and talented. We were an all-female kitchen.
I was there for almost three years as the sous-chef and I was going through this period of time where I was wondering, “what am I doing to make the world a better place? What am I giving back to anybody?” You come to those times when you wonder what you are doing to make an impact in the world. And my girlfriend found a posting for a chef to be a program manager for a non-profit organization in Lowell, to work with disengaged youth who were either getting out of jail or gangs, and teach them work skills and life skills. I ended up interviewing, even though I hadn’t done youth work before, and I got it.
I left the kitchen and went to work in Lowell for about a year. It was amazing and transformative, and taught me a million things that I am super grateful for. It was also a position where I was doing work that I hadn’t ever done before, which was pretty cool. The parent organization is called UTEC and my program that I was running was called Fresh Roots.
I was just getting back from work one day, and I got a text message from Christopher Myers and it said, “I think it is great that you are saving the world, but I think it is probably time for you to come out of retirement. Joanne and I want to talk to you about being the chef at Myers+Chang.” At this point, their restaurant had been open for about three years. I lived close by, so I went there all the time and I was very familiar with the food. Christopher had been my friend for a few years, but Joanne and I didn’t know each other as well.
It was a very hard decision on my part. I had wanted, for a variety of reasons, to step away from restaurant kitchens. I wanted to make sure I was doing something good for the world, and I was trying to have more of a work/life balance. Anyone who works for a nonprofit knows that that isn’t a real thing, and I was still working all the time. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to restaurants. I did know I really missed being in the kitchen. I swear that at 4 PM every day I would start getting this weird panicky feeling and I finally figured out that it was because I was thinking, “I should be getting ready for service right now.” It was really a choice to say that I wanted to step back into a professional kitchen and continue my career.
I think if I had given it up at that point, I would have been really disappointed in myself. All that time I had put in and all those years I had worked, and then to kind of give it up—I wasn’t ready for that yet.
With the exception of the work I had done in Italy, this was my first chef job, so it was a big deal. I was very nervous about the responsibility and doing a good job, and making sure that I could not just execute the food but contribute to the menu and the restaurant, and drive it forward. And I have such respect for Chris and Joanne so I wanted to make sure that I was able to really hit a home run for them.
I took the job at Myers+Chang around age 34.
At 35, I received my first James Beard nomination for best chef northeast at Myers+Chang. During that time I also met my spouse, so it was this time in my life where I came back to restaurants, got my first James Beard and also met the person I was going to marry. And that was an interesting situation, because during the entire time that I was cooking and working in restaurants, every relationship I had had gone the way of, “you work too much, you’re way too invested in your job.” And LJ was kind of like, this is just what you do, this is just the work you do. It was never a big deal and it was never something that was prohibitive. So that was a really big deal to me, especially because I had just taken this job and I was working a lot and working very hard. To meet someone in that point of time who was also willing to say “yeah, I get it” and be with me through that was huge.
So, at 35 I had my first nomination, and I’ll never forget that feeling. It came completely out of left field for me. When I found out, LJ and I were coming back from a vacation, and I was getting on the plane and as the doors were closing my friend texted me and said, “oh my God, you made the long list.” And I was like, “the long list of what…?” It was so far off my radar, something I had never even dreamed would happen in my life. I was completely surprised by it. When I made the short list that year, I just remember thinking “oh my God, is this even real, is this even happening?” It was just such a huge, huge moment and it was bigger than anything I could have imagined for my life.
At 35, I also became a partner at Myers+Chang. Becoming a partner was a huge step for me. I had put a lot of myself into the restaurant, it was so important to me, and I loved being there, so that was a big step for all of us.
Very shortly after that, I was cast on Top Chef. I had actually talked to the casting directors at Top Chef for four years before, and I had kind of said, “uh, I’m sort of interested in this, but I just started this job,” or “I’m getting married during the time you are taping,” and had kind of gone through the application process. But I remember thinking, do I really want to do this? Do I think I’m a strong enough chef to do it, will I be able to represent not only myself and my cooking and my food, but also the restaurant and my family and my cooks? Will I be able to do it and do a good job if I did get cast on the show? But I also just figured it was the last year that I would consider doing it. I was one of the oldest cast members on my season.
During that period of time, I wasn’t able to go to the awards ceremony for my first James Beard nomination because I was taping Top Chef. I’m pretty sure the ceremony was on the first day of taping. So everyone went together from Myers+Chang in solidarity, since Joanne was actually nominated as well.
Top Chef was a huge growing experience. I really think that it was a huge part of my culinary career. It was not only a great experience—I mean it was incredibly stressful, I’m a very anxious person as it is—but it was also a huge moment of growth for me. It took me completely out of my comfort zone, it pushed me in ways that I couldn’t have imagined as a chef. It helped me grow stronger and it helped me find my voice. It was a great opportunity and I am so thankful that I was able to get cast on the show and be on season 13, meet amazing people, and really grow as a chef. It’s a very important part of my culinary career.
Right after I turned 39, our cookbook came out. Joanne and I co-wrote the Myers+Chang Cookbook. It was definitely a life goal to write a book, so to be able to write this with Joanne, who is so amazing to work with and was able to show me the ropes, teach me how to do it, and involve me in the process, was really phenomenal. So our book came out as the restaurant was having it’s ten-year anniversary. Both things were monumental occasions, and during the same month, we got re-reviewed in the Boston Globe. And that was a pretty big deal. We didn’t know it was coming, and Devra First gave us a four star review.
During this period of time, as the year was going on, we were having conversations around whether or not we would open another restaurant. And, having the conversation, Joanne and Chris didn’t really know if they wanted to open another restaurant. It was an open and honest conversation with the three of us. It took me quite some time to make a decision. It was really tough, it felt like cutting off my own arm. But we collectively decided that I would leave and start looking for my own restaurant.
I had been thinking about different ideas, and I had found a space that I loved and started to work on lease agreements, and then it ended up falling through. No one really knew about it, but that was pretty disappointing. Very shortly after that, I did find another space, in South Boston, by the Broadway T stop. The owners were selling their business and moving across the country, so it was really the right space, right time. During that time, the nominations for James Beard came out, and this was my fourth year nominated. I am always so honored and grateful to make the list at all, but I was very lucky that this was my year. In May, I won the James Beard award for best chef Northeast. Oh my gosh—you really could have knocked me over with a feather. Which was amazing. I was there with Christopher and Joanne and LJ my spouse, and there were so many amazing people from Boston nominated - Cassie Piuma, Tiffani Faison, Tony Messina. It was just really, really cool. It felt great to be part of such a powerful year, that had a lot of meaning.
At that point, we had been waiting to announce that I was leaving until we had figured out who was going to take over the kitchen at Myers+Chang. A few weeks after that, we had solidified that our chef du cuisine as well as my former sous-chef were going to co-chef at the restaurant, so at that point we announced that I was going to leave and start my own place.
At 40, I am working on my second book (a solo project) and have opened my new restaurant. It’s called Fox & The Knife. My spouse actually named it after me. It’s just such a personal project, and LJ felt that the name should be a reflection of that. We went back and forth for a long time, and LJ said, “that’s you! You are the fox with the knife, babe.” So, it’s an Italian-inspired neighborhood restaurant. This restaurant is really me bringing the life that I lived in Italy and the experience of Italian dining, the feeling behind it, the spirit of aperitivo and dining together. This is really a love letter to that time I spent in Italy.