“Top Chef” star Karen Akunowicz on being a queer femme and her favorite food

If you’ve been watching the latest season of Top Chef, you’ve probably noticed Chef Karen Akunowicz, who has stood out recently as quite a formidable competitor. The self-identified queer fierce femme graciously took some time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions about Top Chef, marriage, gender and sexuality, and, of course, Padma Lakshmi.


AfterEllen: What was the process like for you getting on Top Chef? Was it something you had been interested in pursuing for a long time?

Karen Akunowicz: You know, I have been really fortunate in that Top Chef reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in applying for the show. Which doesn’t mean you are on the show. [laughs] You still go through this whole application process. But I’ve been a really big fan of the show for a long time—I’ve watched every season, I have all of my favorite cheftestants, you know, all of that. So it felt like an honor to be asked to participate. Going through the application process this year—I felt like it was something I could do, and I felt like I had something to say. It is a competition and because I watch the show, I know how hard it looks. But I thought that my food would show really well, and I thought it would be a lot of fun. It was a tough decision to be away from my kitchen, and away from my family, and away from my spouse for that long, but, in the end I’m really glad that I did it.


AE: So knowing that you’re a fan, do you have a favorite past Top Chef contestant?

KA: I mean there are so many people. Of course, you’re always rooting for your hometown people, so Tiffani Faison, Stephanie Cmar, Kristen Kish—I’m big fans of all of them. Grayson Schmitz, who was on this season with us, she was one of my favorites from Season 9. There have been tons of people that I really liked, but those are folks that stand out for me.


AE: Do you have a favorite challenge that has aired so far?

KA: There were so many great challenges! I loved the Korean pop-up—challengewe had two and a half hours to create a pop-up concept. I was on Team Koreatown and that was just so much fun! Definitely stressful and definitely hard, but I loved not just creating the food, but also creating the environment and the atmosphere for that pop-up. I loved my team and it just remains one of my favorite challenges. I loved the golf cart challenge as well, that was a really fun day. It was a great challenge—I loved the dish I made, I loved working with my partner. So that, for me, was a really fun challenge as well.


AE: I know the next episode coming up has you all catering a big same-sex wedding with multiple couples. Being queer, was that especially emotional or special for you?

KA: Yeah, I only cried a few—timesit was awesome. [laughs] I actually just got married last year—my spouse and I got married in May of 2014. Marriage has been legal in Massachusetts, where I live, for the last 10 years, so I knew when we got married we wanted a Massachusetts marriage license—that was really important to us.

But you know going into this, marriage—federally—had just become legal and that was such a big deal. It was such an emotional year around marriage, so for me, as soon as they told us what we would be doing, I just kind of lost it and started crying. You promise yourself, “I’m going on TV, and I am not going to cry on television, I am not going to cry on television,” and then they came out and talked a little bit about equality and marriage and I kind of just lost it.

When I was growing up, I can remember being so young and thinking that I was never going to be able to get married. I also remember thinking I’m never going to get to have the dress! [laughs] Which I know isn’t the most important part, but it’s pretty close to my heart. I never thought that I would find someone to spend the rest of my life with; I never thought I would have that kind of commitment in my life at all. And when I met my spouse, I knew right away that they were the person I wanted to be with for the rest of my life. So us being able to get married and have that be recognized, not only on a state level, but on federal level, was just incredibly important and incredibly moving to so many of us, around the country.

Top Chef - Season 13Photo by: Dale Berman/Bravo

AE: It’s funny, I got married in Massachusetts for the very same reason, so I’m totally on the same page with you.

KA: Yes! It’s such a big deal.