Skip to main content

Karen Akunowicz Transcript

 Top Chef’s Karen Akunowicz on Pivots and Pasta

Kerry Diamond: Hey everyone, welcome to Radio Cherry Bombe, the podcast about women, food, and a whole lot more. I'm your host Kerry Diamond. If things sound a little different, well, they are. I'm talking to you from my apartment in Brooklyn, New York. We're recording on both my iPhone and a platform called Zencastr. It's a whole new day at Radio Cherry Bombe just as it is for so many of you. On today's show, I'm talking with Karen Akunowicz, the James Beard Award winning chef behind Fox & the Knife, an Italian neighborhood joint as she describes it, located in Boston. Karen talked to me about how she, like all restaurant owners, is figuring out a way forward for her business. In Karen's case, that means focusing on pickup and delivery with items like homemade pasta, focaccia, Spritz Kits, and special Sunday suppers featuring eggplant Parmigiana and baked Ziti. I wouldn't mind some of that right now.

Also, Karen is currently a contestant on Top Chef: All-Stars, which airs on Thursday nights on Bravo. We recorded this interview before the most recent episode. So, fingers crossed our friend Padma Lakshmi didn't tell Karen to pack her knives and go. Speaking of Top Chef, did any of you catch our Jubilee 2.0 After-Party, Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio made a special appearance and performed two songs during our talent show portion. That was very cool of him to do and we now refer to him as Tom the Bombe. I also want to thank all of our competitors and judges, it was a fun night and I can't believe how talented all of you are. Let's do some housekeeping. Thank you to our sponsors, Smithfield Culinary and the Wines of Rioja. What else? Did you know you can get digital copies of the most recent Cherry Bombe magazines via, that's

I know it's hard to find Cherry Bombe if you live abroad, so here's your chance to catch up. They're $10 per copy and all the proceeds from the most recent issue will go to our cover girls' charities of choice. To learn more, visit Before we get to today's show, here's a message from Smithfield Culinary.

Smithfield Culinary knows this is a difficult time for their food service partners. The Smithfield Culinary team is committed to doing everything they can to meet their customers' unique needs until we can all dine together again. Visit for some helpful tips and ideas. It's a long road ahead but Smithfield Culinary wants you to know, we'll all get through this together. Again visit

Kerry Diamond: Now, here's my conversation with Chef Karen Akunowicz of Fox & the Knife.

You’re on Top Chef.

Karen Akunowicz: I am, yeah. I'm on this season of Top Chef: All-Stars L.A., which is really exciting. And it is nice, kind of in this time when things are feeling a little crazy to have something that's a little bit light hearted and fun to look forward to every week, I think.

Kerry Diamond: Absolutely. How did you get on the show? It's not easy to get on Top Chef.

Karen Akunowicz: No, I was on Top Chef season 13, California. So, this for me, in a couple of different ways was a little bit of a homecoming. My first season was in California, this season was in LA and I'm back for my second season on All-Stars. And I had talked to the folks at Magical Elves for maybe four years before I really went through with it for season 13 and applied and went through the whole process.

Kerry Diamond: That's a long time.

Karen Akunowicz: It is. I talked to them back and forth and I just always said, "I don't think it's right for me. I don't think it's the right time." Whether it was personal things going on in my life or whether it was work. I mean, it's a very big commitment to-

Kerry Diamond: Yeah. Tell us about that Karen, what is the commitment?

Karen Akunowicz: Yeah, so the commitment is six to seven weeks. My first season was seven weeks plus finale, and this season was six weeks. So, you commit to being away from your family, your friends, your restaurant, your business for over a month, for about a month and a half, which in the restaurant world is forever. I mean, you leave for two days and it feels like you don't know what's happening when you come back.

Kerry Diamond: Exactly. You need a very understanding boss, if you don't own your own place. And if you do own your own place, I would imagine that's even harder.

Karen Akunowicz: Yeah, I agree with you. I felt really lucky the first time that I competed on the show, that Christopher Myers and Joanne Chang were so supportive. We really talked it through between all of us, and they supported me going and competing on the show. And I mean, there's so much guilt around leaving the restaurant not being there, but this time, it felt even harder because we were in our first year of being open at Fox & the knife. And I was stepping away sort of to do the show and compete on the show, and leaving so much to my team, which I have truly the most amazing management team, the most amazing staff, the most amazing kitchen team. But you just feel like you're putting so much in everyone's plates, they carried so much for me to be able to be gone.

Kerry Diamond: It's really hard to leave your restaurant. I remember, I used to own restaurants, when I left for vacation the first time, you really felt like you had left a newborn with a bunch of wolves.

Karen Akunowicz: Absolutely. It's like, oh my gosh, is the baby in the car with the windows rolled up. But part of it is that you can't... We had a little bit more leeway this time, but you have no communication. So, you don't have a cell phone, you don't have a computer, you're completely sequestered, you don't have books or magazines or any peek into the outside world. Your entire world becomes incredibly small, a very small bubble of simply just competing on the show. And so, good and bad, right? Good, because it allows you to focus, right? You're not distracted by anything else or what's going on. And challenging because your world gets reduced to simply competing on the show, which is incredibly stressful.

Kerry Diamond: Did they take your phones away.

Karen Akunowicz: Oh, yeah, you have no communication with anybody for the entire time. One, I mean, you just have no communication with anybody. You have no idea what's going on in the world. And two, something for me that I always thought about after the first season was, you are cut off from your support systems. And I think that was something for me that impacted me when I was finished shooting the show that, that was a really big piece of it.

The people in our lives, our community, our family, our chosen family, our restaurant family, the women in my life that support me, whether it be my best friends or my sister, those people are the people that bolster us, that hold us up, that lift us up every day, whether it's just, you had a hard day and you say, "Wow, I just got home and I feel like this day is really going to break me. I don't know that I can do this anymore." Or you have something wonderful to share. It's those people, our community, in our life that hold us up. And that piece of it, I think, is really challenging not to have contact with those... Your touchstones in your life.

Kerry Diamond: So, you knew what you were getting into, but you were in a very-

Karen Akunowicz: It was a different time-

Kerry Diamond: You were in a different situation because now you're a restaurant owner-

Karen Akunowicz: Right.

Kerry Diamond: And leading a team and having to say goodbye to them. I can't even imagine not knowing what was going on in your restaurant for six weeks. That's major. But the plus side is, what amazing PR for your restaurant-

Karen Akunowicz: Absolutely.

Kerry Diamond: Except we're in this bizarre unprecedented time, which we will talk about in a second. I want to stay on Top Chef, because it's fascinating. How do you prepare for Top Chef? You had insight having been on it before, how did you prepare differently this time?

Karen Akunowicz: Well, I think one of the things is, I had insight into it, but so did everybody else, right? So, it's nobody's first rodeo, and we were all coming back. For me, it was my second time competing, for some folks it was their third time or their fourth time competing. So, I think every time you do it, you take a little bit of weight from it. So, for me, I drilled myself before I went and I was getting to work at 6:30 in the morning to go in and practice and cook before anybody else got there, and I sort of had the kitchen to myself.

So, whether that was trying to figure out how to take my recipes, one, make them into smaller batches, right? Because if I make a pasta dough recipe to yield for a nights worth of pasta or whatever it is, but to take things, to make them into small recipes, and then to time myself, and to sort of race against the clock. I did things over and over and over again.

Kerry Diamond: Did you have a coach?

Karen Akunowicz: Did I have... No, just me. Just me, I would set a timer, my sous-chef definitely helped me with setting some stuff up. And I did that for a couple weeks before I left. I caught up on some seasons that I hadn't watched. I thought about the mistakes that I made and the challenges that I had, and-

Kerry Diamond: What were your big takeaways from your first season?

Karen Akunowicz: Well, I think that for me, personally, and I think it's different for everyone, I know it's different for everyone. But my anxiety really got in the way, and my fear really got in the way. And so, even for quickfire challenges, I would be so keyed up about them that I know whether it's just a mistake you make or... I mean, it's just crazy. It's like, here's 20 minutes to make an entire dish, right? And make it awesome and make it perfect and whatever that is, with limited ingredients, limited space, limited cookware and things like that. But I think that the fear really got the best to me in a couple of different situations. And also for myself thinking that the food that I was making wasn't good enough, or it wasn't elevated enough, or it wasn't fancy enough. I think that's a big thing for me, is that, I needed to make food that was, I don't know, not my own.

And my big takeaways were no, you have to be incredibly true to yourself and the food that you make, me personally. And two, that you have to just kind of go in and say, I'm just going to go full speed ahead and I'm just going to try and knock it out of the park every single challenge, and to be less fearful of being eliminated and going home, because I don't think you can win otherwise.

Kerry Diamond: So, I know you can only comment on the shows that have aired-

Karen Akunowicz: Right.

Kerry Diamond: How do you feel it's going for you so far?

Karen Akunowicz: I feel like it's going really well, so far. I am really proud of the food that I make on the show on this entire season. I feel like it's really representative of me and the way that I cook, and the food that I make. And I think that anybody who knows my food from Fox & the Knife or from Myers + Chang can look at it and say, "Oh, yeah, definitely, that's a Karen Akunowicz dish." I was on the winning team, we have a team challenge so far, which was awesome. It was a vegetarian challenge, which is something that I hold pretty near and dear to my heart. And I made a pasta dish that's similar to one of my opening dishes from Fox & the Knife. So, that meant a lot to me, that was something I sort of hold in my heart. Yeah, and I've been on the top for a bunch of quickfire challenges, and I'm just kind of... I haven't won anything yet, but just kind of moving forward and feeling really good about sort of the work that I'm doing and the way that I'm competing so far.

Kerry Diamond: Oh, good. And you got to cook with your sister.

Karen Akunowicz: I got to cook with my sister, which was amazing and hilarious at the same time. My sister is one of the smartest people that I know, she is a medical scientist.

Kerry Diamond: My sisters don't say that about me.

Karen Akunowicz: And she's so smart and so thorough and really, such a hard, hard, hard, hard worker, but she doesn't know a ton about food. So, she was very determined. She was like, "I have to do my best." We're both very competitive people and we want to win by nature and work really hard. But the cooking piece of it, she doesn't cook that much. She's sort of one of those people that she'll call me and say, "I'm looking at this recipe, and it says that I need basil, but I don't have basil, oh my God, what will I do?" And I'm like-

Kerry Diamond: She's a recipe literalist.

Karen Akunowicz: Exactly, which is... I think about her a lot when I'm writing recipes. I'm working on my second cookbook now. And when I write recipes, I think about my sister and the question she would ask. And I usually try and throw in something like, if you don't have this ingredient, that's fine, here's something that you can substitute, or here's something you can do instead. But it was great. She came out and I was so, so happy to see her. I picked her up and hugged her for probably longer than was appropriate. You just were so isolated, so to see our friends and family and loved ones, I think one, it was a really big boost. And two, it was a little bit heartbreaking when they left, so-

Kerry Diamond: Oh, I can imagine.

Karen Akunowicz: The bittersweet.

Kerry Diamond: How hard is it to keep the secret about who won?

Karen Akunowicz: Oh, well, we signed a little million dollar non-disclosure agreement, and that makes it a little bit easier. But I think like anything, right? It's the second time that I'm doing it, so I feel a little less hard. And everyone comes in and says, "I really hope you win." And I say, "Yeah, I know, me too. I really hope I win too."

Kerry Diamond: Right. At least you know how to answer this time around.

Karen Akunowicz: Yeah.

Kerry Diamond: So Karen, I hate to bring up the obvious point but it's clearly bittersweet to be on Top Chef, at a time when the industry is going through what it's going through. I mean, it's amazing publicity for your restaurant, and I guess in a way, it does help because Fox & the Knife is open for takeout and delivery. Before we talk about that, let's talk about Fox & the Knife because it's still a new restaurant.

Karen Akunowicz: It is. Yeah, we're still a baby. We're just over a year old. We opened in February of 2019, February 2. And we had just such an incredible first year. I'm not one to say that I'm a little bit cynical, I hedge my bets all the time, I never want to get too excited about anything, but we could not have asked for a better first year. We were busy, we were successful. I opened the restaurant to be a neighborhood restaurant, right? I opened it... It's largely inspired by the time that I spent living and working in Emilia-Romagna in Italy. A piece of it was bringing that food to life.

Kerry Diamond: Which part of Boston are you in?

Karen Akunowicz: I'm in South Boston, so downtown in Southie. And part of it was bringing that food to life. Part of it was bringing a little bit of whimsy in my own personal take on that food to life. Part of it was just creating a space that I really missed from living in Modena. Just the enotecas that we would hang out at and coming together and being a community. And that piece of Italian culture was really what I was craving and what I wanted to create. I wanted to create a space where we have... Apertivio starts at 4:30 every day for an hour before dinner service. And Devra First in the Boston Globe wrote, "You kind of get the feeling that Karen opened this restaurant because she wanted to drink spritzes and eat olives and potato chips with you, and that's fine. We want to do that too." And I was like, "That is kind of what I wanted to do." I wanted to create that feeling that is so prevalent in Italy and in Europe, across Europe in general.

Kerry Diamond: How did you end up living in Italy.

Karen Akunowicz: I was the sous-chef for a chef who had lived in Modena as well. And I had kind of contracted to open a new restaurant and I knew that was only going to be a six month project. And I said, "I think this is my time." I had just been through a very bad breakup, also. I think it's always important to note, is those moments that seem terrible are often turning points in our lives. And I was like, "I'm just going to and do it."

Kerry Diamond: That's kind of an Eat, Pray, Love moment, sounds like.

Karen Akunowicz: Absolutely. And I actually... It's so funny, I read that book while I was there. I found it in an airport bookshop in Bologna. And I was like, "Interesting." And-

Kerry Diamond: And you were in Boston at the time.

Karen Akunowicz: I was in Boston at the time, yep.

Kerry Diamond: And got offered to go to Italy.

Karen Akunowicz: I asked my chef, I said, "Can you call anybody and see if I can go and stage." And he said, "Okay, you can go to Modena. This is my friend Max, he's a chef there, he owns a restaurant, you can go. He doesn't have anywhere for you to live." And I said, "Okay, that's great." In two weeks I-

Kerry Diamond: You said, that's great?

Karen Akunowicz: It's great. It's great. It'll be fine. I sublet my apartment, put everything I owned in storage and bought a plane ticket and I left. I thought, oh, I'll be fine. I can say all of the food words in Italian and that will be enough. I was not moving to Rome or Florence or somewhere where people spoke English sort of across the board. I moved there and there were very few people that spoke English. I didn't speak any Italian. I had nowhere to live. It just goes to show you when you're young and foolish and you just have that kind of confidence. Yeah, I'll just go, I'll do it. And I ended up living and working there for a year, I worked as a stage. I worked as a pasta maker as a pastaiolo. I had a pasta shop at a pastificio and then, I got a job as a chef at a 40 seat enoteca.

Karen Akunowicz: And when I say the chef, I mean, yes, I was the chef, I wrote the menu, I came up with the dishes. I also was the dishwasher, the prep cook, the line cook, it was just me in the kitchen. And that's one of those moments that I think back and when things feel really hard, I'm like, "Well, if I can do that, I can do anything."

Kerry Diamond: So what led you back to The States?

Karen Akunowicz: There are a couple of different things. I had to come back for my sister's wedding, my sister was getting married. And so, I knew I needed to make a trip back anyway. And at that point in time, a friend of mine had emailed me and said, "I know that you're there and I think that you're going to stay for a while, but Ana Sortun at Oleana in Cambridge is looking for a sous-chef, and I said I would see if you were interested." And I was very interested in working there. I think that Ana has always been at the forefront of modern Middle Eastern food. It was one of my favorite restaurants. I thought that was a great opportunity.

Karen Akunowicz: I really missed queer community, I really missed being in a... I mean, living in Boston and living where I live, I had a very vibrant gay community that I was ensconced in, and I didn't really have that when I lived in Montana. And that was something that I was dearly and sorely missing. So, between having to come back for my sister's wedding, starting a conversation with Ana about going to work at Oleana and really, kind of missing my people and my community.

Kerry Diamond: A lot of folks don't realize this, but the women in food scene in Boston is incredible, and tight.

Karen Akunowicz: It's tremendous. It is like... I don't want to take away from any other city but I think... We joke around Massachusetts, Boston, we hang on to some puritanical laws for a really long time and so on and so forth, and I can see in ways that we are behind in some things. But we have always had this incredible female chef community, and whether you want to say it goes back to Julia Child, or Lydia Shire, the Jody Adams, the Barbara Lynch, Joanne Chang, Ana Sortun, there is just this amazing group of women who have been the chefs, owned and operated their own restaurants for a really long time, and I think more so than anywhere else in the country.

Kerry Diamond: Absolutely. You come from a really wonderful legacy there. So, you worked for Ana and then, after that, is that when you worked for Joanne Chang?

Karen Akunowicz: I did. I actually took a year and I went to work for a nonprofit called Fresh Roots in Lowell, and it was a social enterprise, so it was working with young people who are getting out of jail or getting out of gangs and teaching them how to cook, and running a catering business through that program.

Kerry Diamond: Go back one step, so you're working for Ana, you're going to go into the nonprofit world. Why did you do that?

Karen Akunowicz: So, I worked for Ana for three years at Oleana and I also worked with Cassie Piuma, who was my Chef de Cuisine at the time. And my undergraduate degree is in social work. I graduated from UMass with a degree in family and community services, a minor in public health and a minor in women's studies. And I think that I've been cooking for a really long time, and I'm always thinking about, how can we do more for people for our community, so on and so forth? And my girlfriend at the time, randomly found this ad, this job listing, I think it was on Idealist and said, "Wow, if you combined your old life and your new life, this is the job that you would take. It's cooking, and it's youth work. And how cool is that?" And it just gave me pause. And I ended up leaving restaurants and going to work for a non-profit for a year.

Kerry Diamond: So, Karen, was that a premeditated move, or did that come totally out of the blue?

Karen Akunowicz: No, it came totally out of the blue. It was one of those moments where you come across something and you think, huh, and I remember thinking, well, if I could do that I would. And then thinking to myself, well, I can, I can kind of... We're all the architects of our own lives to some degree, and so maybe I'll try. I think that is something that comes up for me a lot. Should I do this? I don't know. Well, I guess I could try.

Kerry Diamond: How did that experience change you as a chef?

Karen Akunowicz: So, I had been in kitchens for such a long time, and cooking and so on and so forth. And such a big piece of my job was the administrative part of it, the financial part of it, operating a business. I ran a catering business through the social enterprise. And so, whether it was just excel sheets, follow up financials, P&L, things like that, I spent a year doing those things as well. And that piece of it is something that really ended up making me better as a chef and better as a business owner.

Kerry Diamond: And then, what about in terms of just sort of understanding your constituency? You talk about how Fox & the Knife you very much wanted it to be a neighborhood restaurant. But did it sort of change your idea about who you wanted to cook for, what you were cooking?

Karen Akunowicz: A lot of people would say it's a neighborhood restaurant. And I always think, just because your restaurant is in a neighborhood does not make it a neighborhood restaurant. My goal is always, that you kind of look at the dining room and you see quote, unquote, everybody. And I think that was something that we were able to do at Myers and Chang, and I think it's something that we see at Fox & the Knife, is that it appeals to a lot of people, and that your price points are such that folks can afford to come in two or three times a week, and that you're not limiting people, and that it's a place that feels warm and welcoming to everybody, which I'm sure sounds incredibly cliché. And at this point, that almost sounds antiquated because we see so few people every day.

Karen Akunowicz: But the goal is that when people leave, they feel better than when they walked in the door. That's always my goal. And so, how can we do that? And how can we do that for always more people and not less people?

Kerry Diamond: We'll be right back with Karen after this quick message. Hi, Bombesquad, let's go on a trip to Rioja, the premier wine making region in Spain that's home to more than 600 wineries. Rioja produces an incredible range of styles, reds, whites, rosés, and my favorite sparkling wines. Tempranillo is Rioja's hallmark grape. Indigenous to Spain, Tempranillo is elegant and versatile and can be found in every expression of Rioja. Rioja's food friendly wines pair beautifully with light bites, stand up to spice and compliment richer dishes.

What do I love most about Rioja? The wines are released when they are ready to drink. Every bottle of wine from Rioja is marked with a color coded seal, indicating how long it has been aged, according to Rioja's unique aging classification system. Cheers to that. For more, visit Back to my conversation with Karen Akunowicz. So, you were cooking Middle Eastern food with Ana, and then, you took this detour and then, you end up at Myers + Chang.

Karen Akunowicz: I was working at the nonprofit that I was at, and I got a text message from Christopher Myers saying... Who I had known, I worked for Christopher years before at Via Matta. I worked in the front of the house as a bartender while I was in culinary school. And then, I worked in the kitchen for two years. And he texted me and said, "I think it's really nice that you're saving the world. But it's probably time for you to come out of retirement, we're looking for a chef at Myers + Chang, will you come talk to Jo and I." I always say, take every meeting. And I sat down, and much like a lot of other points in my life, and I mean, he came and did a tasting and we had lots of meetings. We had five meetings about me possibly taking the job. And I remember thinking, "Okay, well, I can try. I don't know that I can do it, but I can try."

Kerry Diamond: You clearly are someone who loves a challenge.

Karen Akunowicz: I really do. My mom has often said to me, "Oh, I worry about you so much because you always seem to take the hardest path."

Kerry Diamond: Did you know Joanne well, at that point?

Karen Akunowicz: I didn't know Joanne at all. Joanne and I knew each other to like... I would say hello to her, if I saw her at Myers + Chang with Christopher. And seven years later, she is one of the people that... At this point, it's almost nine years later, but is one of the people that I'm the closest to. She's a dear friend. She's a mentor. She is somebody that I consider my family.

Kerry Diamond: And she's another force on the Boston scene. She's the founder of all the Flour bakeries, and they're more than bakeries, I mean, they're... I don't know, what do you call them? cafés, eateries-

Karen Akunowicz: Bakeries, cafés, and really anchors in every community that they're in, which is pretty amazing.

Kerry Diamond: So, you were at Myers + Chang for a little while, when did you decide you wanted your own place?

Karen Akunowicz:  I mean, I think for me, that's always been something that I've wanted as far back as I can remember. I mean, going as far back as before I really dove into restaurants full time, when I decided to go to culinary school, I was applying to get my masters in social work. And my girlfriend at the time said, "Karen, you never talk about what... You kind of talk about what population you would want to work with, or what you would want to do. But you always talk about what you would do if you had your own restaurant." So, I think for me, that's always been something that's been in my heart and in the back of my brain, but there are a million hurdles to get over to open your own restaurant. And I was at Myers + Chang for seven years. But after three years at Myers and Chang, I became Joanna and Christopher's business partner.

So, I was the managing partner there for the last four years. So, not just running the kitchen and coming up with the food and designing the menu, but working on the business piece of the restaurant as well. And we had plans to open at least another restaurant together within our partnership, and we had a space in Cambridge that kind of fell through, and then we were still looking and talking about it and we... It must have been the end of 2017 or the beginning of 2018, where we sat down to talk about it and Joanne said, "I just don't think that we want to... We'll continue to expand flour and open more bakeries, but I don't think we want to do another restaurant. And we'd love you to stay forever, but I understand if you have more inside of you that you want to do, and if you need to leave."

And it took me a really long time to make the decision. Leaving there felt like cutting my arm off. I'd been there for a really long time. For me, I felt very ensconced in the fabric of that restaurant, and I still do, I hold it very near and dear to my heart. But I really came into my own as a chef, who I really figured out who I was. I really learned how to not just run a kitchen but run a kitchen well and efficiently and successfully, and how to run a business. And it took me a handful of months but I finally made the decision that I was going to leave. And I don't even know that I was able to get the words out when I told Joanne, I think I was just crying. It was really, really tough.

But I thought, okay, if I'm going to do it, this is the time. And we had a wonderful year, we got a four star review in the Boston Globe. It was our 10 year anniversary. That was the year the Myers + Chang cook... We had wrote the book to coincide with our 10 year anniversary. And then in May of 2018, I won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northeast.

Kerry Diamond: Big year.

Karen Akunowicz: It was a big year. It was really good.

Kerry Diamond: So, then you're on the road to Fox & the Knife. Tell us about the name, what does that name-

Karen Akunowicz: The name is... I went back and forth about a bunch of different names and I certainly wasn't trying to come up with something that was odd or esoteric. But it's like, even I imagine when naming a baby, you go through a million names, and we kept going back and forth and we wanted to be something that felt... I don't know, that didn't feel so traditional. I didn't want it just be like a one woman girl name. We thought about naming it after my niece or my nieces. Yeah, it was like a thing at that point in time. I feel like 2017, 2018 was really the years of the one woman female name of a restaurant. God, I think I was so tired. I remember we, my spouse and I, were eating pizza, we were going back and forth. And we had been thinking about using Crow in the name of the restaurant, because my mother's maiden name is Crow.

And we had gone back and forth and we had tossed around Fox & the Crow from Aesop's Fable, and my spouse was going, Oh, Fox, Foxy, Fox in the night. No, Fox with the knife. That's you, you're the fox with the knife." And we were laughing and it just stuck. I said, "Well, we're not going to call it that." But we started just calling it the fox or Foxy or Fox & the Knife when we were talking about it, and it was the only thing that stuck. And I was like, "Okay, I guess that's it." But now of course, we couldn't imagine anything else. And we actually have... My friend Alexis Weinrich did a gorgeous mural for us on the back wall of the dining room that's a rendition of Aesop's Fable of the Fox & the Crow.

Kerry Diamond: So, tell us about the menu. We know it's an Italian restaurant, what were some of the greatest hits?

Karen Akunowicz: Some of our greatest hits are, by far our focaccia, which is kind of... It's not a focaccia di Recco at all, but is a little bit reminiscent of that.

Kerry Diamond: And how do you do yours?

Karen Akunowicz: It's a more traditional focaccia, so it's a little spongier, and it's a rosemary and Sicilian olive oil focaccia. And when I was originally thinking about it, I was going to put stracciatella on top, some kind of tomato and stracciatella. I was like, "Ah, that doesn't really... I really want to do something else." I went back and forth between it, and one day, I was like, "What if we put the cheese inside? What if we bake them off, slice them with the cheese inside, put them back together." We had this little deck oven that I inherited with the restaurant and we baked them to order with the cheese. So it's stuffed taleggio and a little bit of mozzarella, so you get that sort of cheese poll.

Karen Akunowicz: And I think it was... The cheese pull heard around the world, Food & Wine called it one of the best bites of 2019. And that became definitely one of our signature dishes. It's like grown-up grilled cheese. We also have... In sort of the bread section of our menu, I make Tigelle which are a very traditional Emilia Romagna little muffin, it's like a crumpet or a muffin, and we make them in an iron that I brought back from Italy on the stove top 10 years ago. You can only make six at a time and they're just one of my favorite things in the world and pretty special. So, that's definitely one of our greatest hits as well.

We have a broccoli alla griglia, which is a grilled broccoli Caesar salad that has a white misto and colatura Caesar dressing on it with lots of migas and lemon zest and parsley. And our Tagliatelle Bolognese, which I learned to make my Bolognese in Bologna when I lived in Emilia Romagna, and I changed it a little bit, I add some wild boar to it, which is a little nod to Tuscany, where I spent a lot of time, with just incredibly light Tagliatelle, and that is definitely one of the dishes that I get the most emails, DMS, comment cards about the people say this brought me back, I felt like I was in Italy. I felt like I was in Tuscany. I felt like I was in Emilia Romagna. This to me, brought me back to that place which is-

Kerry Diamond: It sounds amazing.

Karen Akunowicz: I mean, if there was any goal that I had, that's certainly one of them.

Kerry Diamond: So, let's talk about the tough stuff, what you and your team are going through right now. I mean, I obviously know what went down in New York. And on that timetable, I'm guessing Boston was probably a few days or a week behind New York City.

Karen Akunowicz: Yeah, five days to a week behind. And man did it happen fast. I remember hearing... We were open, completely open for business, the week before we... And we never actually closed, not for one day did we shut our doors. But before we went to a takeout model the week before, we had our... And now, I say this with no, I don't know, arrogance or anything, but we've been an incredibly busy restaurant since the minute we opened our doors. We had our busiest sales week, the week before we had to close or turn to a takeout model. So, we were kind of like, Yeah, we're busy, we're going, we're fine." We did not see that drop in sales that I know a lot of people experienced at all. We definitely lost some reservations. We definitely had people pick them back up. We were busy. And I heard about what happened in New York and I thought, okay, I'm really going to have to start... I'm going to have to make a plan. So what does that look like?

If we have to operate at 50% capacity, do we stay open, do we keep going? And wrote a few different plans, talked to my staff, came up with different schedules, different staffing, how could we do this? Could we make it work? Could we make the numbers work? And the other thing that I did was to say, "Okay, I am going to hold off on this as long as I possibly can, but I'm going to come up with a takeout menu." What makes sense for takeout? What do I feel comfortable putting in a box? What do I feel comfortable that we can execute in a way that still is-

Kerry Diamond: Oh, I feel like I'm going to cry.

Karen Akunowicz:... representative and true to the restaurant and what we've always tried to do. And I put all of that together, sent it to my managers, I said, "Make a template menu for this. Get everything set up." I said, I'm going to hold off on doing this as long as I absolutely have to." I mean, we've never been open for takeout. We didn't do delivery at all. We didn't do takeout at all. I said, "Get this all ready, that if we have to turn on a dime, that we can do it." And I was working on a second restaurant that was also in South Boston, and a piece of that was a pastificio, was a little pasta shop. And when we were thinking, okay, what will happen if we have to shut down or turn to a takeout model, I said, "Okay, that might work. That piece of the new restaurant might... Maybe we can do that. We can do some wholesale pasta and wholesale sauces."

I remember it was... We had those sort of things in place. I said, "I want to be ready to go. I don't want it to be scramble. I want it to be well thought out. I want it to be well done." It was a Sunday, and my spouse and I were at home and we were waiting to... The mayor was making a speech and talking about COVID-19 and what would be expected of businesses and so on and so forth. And he said, "Okay, we're going to reduce capacity to 50%." Which was exactly what we had seen happen in New York the week before. And we had seen so many great restaurants immediately close.

And what I think that people don't understand is that many of us cannot survive or operate at 50% capacity, that our margins are so thin as it is that even successful restaurants, if you took away half of our seats, the math doesn't work. You can't also just reduce your staff by half, is one of the things that I've talked a lot with people about, to continue to put up the same level of food and the same level of hospitality, which is such a big part of what we do. We can't just cut half of our staff. We need more people than that. And so then, there's your business model. Does your business model work? But we said, okay, we'll try. We sort of had these plans. That day was our staff holiday party. My managers and I all got there a couple of hours early, sat down, put our plan into place and said, "Okay, tomorrow, this is the physicality of it. Where will we put half of our chairs? Will they fit in our storage unit? Where will we put them away? Put them at my house?"

We made a floor plan. We made a game plan, we made this. We had this whole thing ready to go. Our party started at 6:00 PM, people started walking in the door. And at 6:00 PM, Governor Baker announced that we would not be allowed to remain open at all, that restaurants were still considered an essential business but only open for takeout and delivery. So, in the course of three hours, our entire plan changed.

Kerry Diamond: What was the mood of the staff party?

Karen Akunowicz: I mean, I was almost in tears the entire time. People were coming in and we wanted to sort of wait until everyone was there. And so, I think a lot of people had already heard the news coming in, and were aware of it. So, about halfway through, I sort of got up and made the announcement to everyone. And basically, at our staff holiday party, I had to announce that everybody was furloughed, our entire team was furloughed, all of our hourly staff. What we had decided was that we were going to try and remain open, all of my managers would stay on staff, and what I was able to come up with in the hour or two that I had before I announced it was, we would pay everybody 40 hours of PTO. I would continue to pay 100% of everyone's health insurance for as long as we were able to, and that I would keep my managers on full salary. And we would try and operate as a takeout business.

I spent, after I announced it to my staff... And announced it and then promptly burst into tears, and talk to every single one of them, and I mean, we just have the best team in the world, and everyone was just like, "Chef it's not your fault. This isn't your fault." And I said, "I know, but I feel..." You feel responsible for everybody. I spent the rest of the night on the phone with my sister. Her marketing team who came up with... We came up with branding, we came up with new names for our takeout, our takeout concept box at home as well as our wholesale concept box pasta. Had two new Instagram accounts ready to go by the next morning. We did one night of service at 50%, and Tuesday morning opened as a full takeout operation and wholesale pasta business.

Kerry Diamond That was a fast pivot, well-

Karen Akunowicz: But I didn't... I don't know, I felt like I didn't want to lose momentum. I didn't want to let our team down. My management team was very adamant that they all wanted to be there and wanted to try, and I just thought that if I didn't try, that I might look back and say, "Did I try my very hardest to keep us afloat, to keep going, to keep serving our community, to take care of our team? Did I try my very hardest?" And that I would never forgive myself if I didn't feel like I did every single thing that I could do. And I did, and do feel if we're deemed an essential business, and we can do it, I take that responsibility very seriously. And-

Kerry Diamond: How are you handling all the highs and lows in your life right now? I would imagine you're a little exhausted.

Karen Akunowicz: Thank you for saying that. To being completely transparent, I'm completely exhausted. I mean, we've worked very hard and we've been very well supported by our community and by our city. We are doing half the amount of sales that we were doing as open as a full service restaurant with eight people. We have three cooks, and a pasta maker who are making all of the food. And we are almost doing the same amount of food sales that we were doing when we were open. We are lucky that we are this busy, but man, it is exhausting. And the emotional highs and lows are the pieces that are so hard as well. I have days where I come in and I'm like, "I just thought of a new thing, I'm going to... Okay, we figured out how to do this and make 75 pounds of pasta a day, and I'm going to make gelato now. Okay, now we're going to do this. I'm going to do this project." And there are days that, that really keeps you going, and the support from people who just bring us cards and write me emails and say, "Thank you so much for staying open during this period of time. Thank you for giving us a bit of normal. Or, thank you for making sure that my birthday was still really special." That keeps you going.

My team who is the hardest working women in show business. Let me tell you, we're an all female management team. And these women just grind every single day and do it with a smile on each of their faces. They're phenomenal. That keeps you going. But in all honesty, Kerry, there are days that I come home and I just start to cry. I cry for my employees that aren't working, I cry for our industry, I cry for humanity, for our society. I think about what we'll... Every time somebody says, well, it'll be back to normal at some point, I think, normal is not going to be what normal was. This is going to look really different.

Kerry Diamond: Who's leading the charge, Karen, in the on the Boston scene for the restaurants?

Karen Akunowicz: I would say without any sort of like bravado, or I think we definitely are, I think Sarma restaurant as well. Cassie and I... So, Cassie Piuma when I was the sous-chef at Oleana, Cassie Piuma was the Chef de Cuisine. And Sarma is... I mean, it's one of my favorite restaurants in the world, much less the city. Cassie is so talented and so hard working, and she and I, especially when we were starting talked every day, and we both kind of said, "Okay, I think we're going to try and make a go of it." And shared insight with each other and shared sales, and shared methods with each other. And they did the exact same thing. They turned around, they never closed. And they just keep pushing and putting out some really amazing food with... I think their team is seven or eight as well. And they definitely are another restaurant leading the charge in this and really saying, we're not down yet. We're not giving up. We're going to do everything we can to continue to feed people safely and responsibly.

Kerry Diamond: Have you aligned with any of the groups that have emerged like ROAR or anything?

Karen Akunowicz: Yeah, I mean, I do my best to save independent restaurants, the Beard Foundation, anything that we can sort of be a part of, we are. But I will say, a piece of it that is a very odd feeling is there are so many people right now that are quarantined, that are at home whose businesses are shut down, and we are busier than we ever were. So, I'm starting my week, I'm like, I am in the kitchen for... I'm working 12, 14, 16 hours a day to sort of keep everything afloat.

So, I always do my best to be, I think, inherently... Activism is a part of my my soul and kind of who I am, and I do the best I can. But we're just still cranking every day at the restaurant.

Kerry Diamond: Well, I am amazed, we've been following what you're up to on your Instagram, and it does not look like you've slowed down one bit. And then, just trying to keep everybody spirits up with Top Chef as well. I don't know, it's remarkable, Karen. I don't know how you're doing everything you're doing right now, but thanks for being a shining light as always in this industry. Since you are open and doing delivery and takeout very responsibly, what should people who live in the area order from you?

Karen Akunowicz: Oh gosh, so, we made sure to keep all of our... Kind of we talked about before our greatest hits, are grilled broccoli Caesar salad, our focaccia, our chicken under a brick is actually one of the... I mean, travels so well and also, I think one of our most stellar dishes. But Fox Pasta, which is our wholesale pasta business, I think, is something that we wouldn't have offered before that allows people to come and pick up a pound of pasta. I make three different sauces every day. Pestos, I make house-made ricotta, truffle butter, compound butters, chive butters.

We also sell flour and olive oil. We're trying to have some staples for people as well. And I think that has really been what we've seen the most excitement about, is that you can take something home and you are making it yourself but it's also... It's a little less work than making your own pasta at home. And that's something that we've been really proud and really excited about. We see so many pictures on Instagram of people tagging their pasta pics. I'm so proud of everyone. I'm like, "Oh my god, you guys are doing an amazing job." So, that is sort of then... I think that, that's kind of the must have.

Kerry Diamond: Karen, we're happy you're doing okay. We really send our best to your entire team, and we're rooting for you on Top Chef.

Karen Akunowicz: Well, keep watching. It's an amazing season. And I will say, when the show was... It was sort of the height of Corona when the show was airing, and I didn't know how to feel about it. I didn't know if I should be celebrating it or promoting it, did that feel shallow? Did it feel small? And what I came to realize was, is that people are really excited to have something to look forward to every week, and to have people to root for, and to see all these familiar faces from past seasons that they love. And so, that for me, I get to look at that as a bright spot.

Kerry Diamond: Absolutely. And you have worked so hard for so many years and have so many fans in this industry. So, don't question it. Everybody wants to celebrate you and is really happy for your success. If folks want to support Karen and you happen to live in the Boston area, you can check out their Instagram, check out their website. You mentioned you launched a few different Instagram accounts. What are they?

Karen Akunowicz: Yeah, so, my personal Instagram is @ChefKarenAkunowicz, and then we have Fox & the Knife. It's actually @foxandknife on Instagram. And we also have at @foxpastaboston, and that's where you can get all of our updates on wholesale pasta and menus and lots of really fun pasta pics of folks cooking at home.

Kerry Diamond: And there's the Myers + Chang cookbook if you'd like to see.

Karen Akunowicz: And the Myers + Chang cookbook.

Kerry Diamond: Exactly.

Karen Akunowicz: Which is definitely having a resurgence right now as folks are at home. People keep sending me pictures of like, I just bought it on Amazon, or I just got the Myers + Chang book. So, that's been really exciting to see people cook from the book as well.

Kerry Diamond: Oh, good. All right. Well, Karen, take care yourself, okay?

Karen Akunowicz: Thanks. You too, Kerry?

Kerry Diamond: All right. You're the Bombe.

Karen Akunowicz: You too.

Kerry Diamond:  That's it for today's show. Thank you to Chef Karen Akunowicz of Fox & the Knife in Boston. If you live in the Boston area, definitely check out their takeout and delivery menu. And for all of you out there, be sure to watch Karen on the current season of Top Chef. Thank you to Smithfield Culinary and the Wines of Rioja for supporting our show. Radio Cherry Bombe is edited and produced by Jess Zeidman. Our theme song is, All Fired Up, by the band Tralala. Hang in there everybody, and thank you for listening. You're the Bombe.

When Harry Met Sally Clip: I'll have what she's having.

Johanna Albertsson: Hi, my name is Johanna Albertsson, and I work in public relations at Krupa Consulting representing a ton of better for use snack brands and Our Place cookware. I think that Andrea Czarnota is the Bombe because she quit her full time job to pursue her love of photography. And now she's a published photographer in Lonny Magazine and the good shoots just keep on coming. So, Andrea is my pick.