Taste Bud Profile
Chef Karen has legions of adoring fans for her appearance on Top Chef, and also for her absolutely incredible pasta at Fox & The Knife. We bonded not just over our love for food, memories, and the joy that can be inspired through feeding people and being fed, but through a mutual and continued love of children's and YA literature! Karen sets such an incredible example for people through her food, her presence, and her boundless positivity.
Karen Akunowicz: I love children’s books. My mom was a children’s librarian for years, and I grew up reading all the time. Books have been such a huge part of my life. In one of my favorite books, the little girl “runs away” and hides under her table, because she’s concerned that she has “nothing to eat but prunes and rice, prunes and rice!” And that became one of my catchphrases too!
When I was very little, I remember my dad taking me to the Arlington Diner—which years later was my first restaurant job!—and sitting down in the booth with him and being full of excitement, because as soon as you’d get there, they’d bring you a little bowl of sour pickles. I thought it was just the best thing in the world. Most of my food memories are tied to being together, being with my family, or an event. I asked my mom one time, “was I excited the day my little sister was born?” And she said “yeah, you were excited because your dad said he’d take you to the Arlington Diner afterwards to eat those pickles!” I remember sliding into the booth, being with my dad, how those pickles tasted, everything. So often food is tied to memories that way.
I also remember helping my mom make dinner every now and then. When we’d have meatloaf, I was in charge of mixing it. My mom would call me into the kitchen, and she’d have already put all the ingredients into the bowl—we’re talking about very fancy ingredients here, like eggs, ketchup, and breadcrumbs!—and it was my job to mix all the stuff together with my little hands. And I can still remember how that felt, how it was cold, and the breadcrumbs were crunchy, and the meat was soft and the egg was gooey. It’s such a strong memory for me because it was so tactile, and it was an experience, and it created a feeling. We didn’t eat anything fancy at all. My favorite things my mom makes are chicken cutlets, and spaghetti. She didn’t make her own sauce—she’d open a jar of Ragu. But she’d chop onions and garlic and crumble in some sausage, and she’d “doctor it up”, as she used to say. I thought it was the greatest thing. A couple of years ago, my spouse and I were supposed to go to St Thomas for Valentine’s Day, which is also her birthday, and there was a massive blizzard. All the flights were being cancelled. So we were scrambling, trying to find an earlier flight to beat the storm, and we jumped in the car and drove to my parents’ house, which is really close to Newark. I called her from the road to tell her we’d be coming for dinner, and she immediately put a pot of sauce on for spaghetti. And we walked in the house, and we were stressed but that smell met us as soon as we entered and it just really felt like home, and everything was ok, and that this was the best Valentine’s Day ever. I think it’s just that feeling of being taken care of.
I love to cook, and I love to feed people. But what I love most about restaurants, about hospitality, is the way we come together through food. It’s how we celebrate. It’s how we grieve. It’s how we share with each other.
Food is not just something you eat for nutrition or energy. I want everyone to slow down, and to realize that when we eat food together, we share a moment together. We share time together. And that idea of togetherness—that’s what my strongest memories are tied to.