A conversation with Karen Akunowicz of Fox & the Knife
Karen Akunowicz attracted fans at the South End’s Myers + Chang, where she won the James Beard award as Best Chef: Northeast in 2018. Now she has her very own spot, Fox & the Knife, in South Boston. The 80-seat Italian restaurant spotlights dishes that she created while working in Italy as a chef and pasta-maker at L’Avian Blu Enoteca in Modena.
What’s the first restaurant you ever ate at in Boston? This was 20 years ago! It’s funny trying to remember what the first one was. I remember going to Anchovies. It reminds me of every place in my hometown in New Jersey. The first fancy restaurant I made reservations at was Truc. I was sitting the back room, the greenhouse terrace room, and they had a monkfish dish that was very popular. I remember reading about it. I was going to eat that dish! It was a big deal. It was a night you saved up for. It was the first time I’d ever gone to the South End. I lived in Allston at the time.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? I would love the ownership, the leadership, and the management to be more representative of the people who work in [restaurants]. In restaurants, I’ve always loved the diversity and the people who work in them. We could be more diverse in a lot of ways, but that’s another conversation for another day. I would love to see that happen with the folks who own, manage, and lead restaurants, with more representation of the people who spend the time working in them, taking care of the food, and bringing hospitality to our guests.
What other restaurants do you visit? We go to Sarma whenever we can get to Somerville. And we’re so lucky to have Bar Mezzana and Coppa as neighbors. I also really love Tiger Mama and Nathalie Wine Bar.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think: I want to work in restaurants? I didn’t cook as a kid at all! My mom always said I couldn’t boil water. But I always loved restaurants and hospitality. When as a kid, it was a big deal to even go to a neighborhood joint with a burger and fries. There’s always been this magical quality about restaurants. And I had worked since I was 17 as a bartender, server, and I was managing front of the house at some point. I was also applying for my master’s in social work. My girlfriend said, “What would you do with this degree? You always talk about what you’d do if you owned your own restaurant!” So instead I went to culinary school. That was my big pivot moment. I was 22 or 23.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? Recently, I went out and the food and drinks were fine, but we felt like we were — there were three of us — we felt like an interruption for the staff and manager. We were a pain in the butt, coming here in the middle of the week. They made us feel like we were in the way or bothering them, and that’s a bummer. We’d been excited to go; it was a place we hadn’t been in a long time. But we weren’t made to feel welcome.
How could Boston become a better food city? I will say I think Boston is an amazing food city. I’ve lived here a long time, and I have been so lucky to have watched it change and evolve so much. How could it become better? There are a lot of things that are prohibitive for independent owners and operators . . . it’s hard to get [a restaurant] up and running, it’s hard to stay open, rent is tough, and it’s hard to get a liquor license. A lot of people say to me, “Oh, your cocktails are great. I thought you didn’t have a full liquor license!” I say, “We don’t.” I can’t afford one. We have beer, wine, and cordials. People are shocked to find we don’t have a full liquor license. All of these things make it tough to run a restaurant. We’d see more diversity and I think we’d see different types of restaurants, and our landscape would change, with the ability for more people to come in and open. We need more of a kaleidoscope.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. Loyal, smart, more adventurous than people think.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? It’s not a trend in food, but I’m tired of going out to eat and having the server give me a 15-minute spiel of how to eat the food. I need a tutorial before I order! I think that might be a tad overdone for me.
What are you reading? I just pulled back out “Sunday Suppers at Lucques,” the Flour + Water cookbook, and “Pasta by Hand” by Jenn Louis and gave them to another cook. On my bedside table, I have “The Opposite of Hate” by Sally Kohn and “Thrive” by Arianna Huffington. I love to read. I have more books than anything else. My mom is a librarian and books were a huge part of our life. Books always threaten to take over my house.
How’s your commute? Awesome, actually. I live in Roslindale and one of the amazing things is that I live right by the commuter rail. And right now I’m looking at the Broadway T stop. My staff is excited. It makes it easy for most people to get to and from work.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again? Joanne [Chang] and I have had this conversation for years: meringue or buttercream. Maybe I haven’t had great ones! I’m still not sold. But try the raspberry swirl meringue at Flour Bakery. They swirl it with chopsticks.
What kind of restaurant is Boston missing right now? I know some people are bringing cool Filipino cuisine here, and I’d love to see more of that. I think that those flavors and food in general is delicious, and I’d love to see that come to light for people.
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? Pho Republique. I feel like I talk about it on a regular basis.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? That’s a very challenging question. I’d go to Myers + Chang and have nasi goreng.