V Interesting

Cravings with Chef Karen Akunowicz, Breaking News Buzzkill, Homeschool Tricks and Tips

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CNN wants to disrupt your favorite HBO show with breaking news alerts, and people are pissed about it. A rise in homeschooling may have ties to Christian Nationalism and dangerous ripple effects for public schools. And V chats with James Beard Award-winning chef Karen Akunowicz about being a restaurateur during the pandemic, some of her favorite recipes from her latest cookbook, and the humbling experience of having her toddler reject her cooking.

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V Spehar, Karen Akunowicz

V Spehar  00:01

Hey friends, it’s September 8th 2023 Welcome to V INTERESTING, where we break down the viral and very interesting news you may have missed. I’m V Spehar and today, CNN wants to disrupt your favorite HBO show to tell you about all the depressing stuff that’s going on in the world, and people are not having it. A rise in homeschooling may have ties to Christian nationalism, and the dangerous ripple effect for public schools. Then I’m joined by James Beard award winning chef Karen Akunowicz, if you’re hungry right now you might want to wander into the kitchen and grab a snack because talking to Karen is sure to get your stomach rumbling all that more on today’s V Interesting on Lemonada Media. And now for some headlines now you guys may have seen this headline from approx go viral. It read Warner Brothers discovery is threatening to add CNN alerts to movies and shows on max. That’s right. You thought you were rid of the CNN breaking news banner when the early aughts ended and streaming became your best friend. But no, it is coming back and with a vengeance. CNN is launching a live service on Macs with new programming as the network reboots its streaming efforts. And Variety magazine reports that the CEO David Zasloff has floated the idea of alerting Max viewers to breaking news while they’re watching something else on the service. What the Fuddruckers David, you were already booed at Boston University’s Commencement for not paying your writers enough. Shouldn’t you stop pissing people off who are trying to use your services? Look, I think this is a bad idea for several reasons. First off, most of us stream our favorite shows and movies to escape from the news for a bit. When I’m watching Sister Wives I want to be immersed in the drama of last Christmas and Christine being the winner of this toxic situation and making her famous yeast rolls with Janelle I want to pause the TV only to remark at the ever growing size of Robins drawn on eyebrows. I don’t want to know that Kim Jong on just met with Putin that has to wait I am busy escaping. And I’m not alone in this sentiment. Someone tweeted quote, this is a dream come true for me. A person who wants pop up alerts about who Ariana Grande is dating while I’m trying to watch Hotel Rwanda. Another person tweeted after D branding HBO to max Warner Brothers discovery will test out a new subscription cancellation strategy. There’s a second reason this idea just makes no sense to me. Most of us are already getting alerts. We don’t need any more alerts. I mean, most of the time when I’m binging 90 Day fiance, I’ve got my phone by my side. I’m still checking it between episodes or when I get bored. I don’t need a red banner scrolling under the season premiere of succession to know that Mitch McConnell froze yet again. Max’s team is trying to address the PR crisis. In a tweet they said breaking news is being misinterpreted, and that the streaming service will be very careful about how they alert people to major news happenings. The CEO David Zasloff went on to say that CNN Max will serve as a sort of open beta for news when it launches this month. So expect other types of experimentation. Hasn’t CNN experimented enough and failed enough lately? I mean, the guy before is as love launched CNN plus, which lasted like a month before it went under. And I can’t even keep track of which media giants on what anymore. I mean, Warner Brothers discovery owns HBO, which is now just called Max, which is trying to get me to watch CNN. I mean, I cannot keep this all straight. And with these new bundle packages out there, do I get Hulu with Disney and ESPN? Or is paramount plus the one that comes with Showtime? And now I can’t even share a Netflix account with somebody if we’re not living under the same roof which is very not chill. With the writer strike going on. Is there even going to be anything worth watching this fall or winter? I mean, I don’t know about you, but I think it’s time to break up my library card. Find a stash of my old DVDs and dust off the old puzzles in the closet. Maybe we give up on television altogether.

V Spehar  04:38

Many of us experienced a heatwave this past week. The end of summer really decided to show off this year. But while heat related deaths are rising year after year, cold weather remains way more deadly. In fact, a team of scientists believe a period of severely cold weather 900,000 years ago may have nearly led to our extinction. The study was done by population geneticists at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and was published this month in science. They theorize that ancient humans saw a severe drop off in population size when the Earth’s climate change dramatically during the middle Pleistocene transition. Using ancient DNA records the researchers believe about 100,000 individuals existed on the planet before the onset of the harsh climates. After the cooling period, they believe that number was cut down to just 1300 people. This report raises the possibility that ancestral human populations temporarily suffered a steep drop in numbers, and were able to reproduce just enough to stave off extinction. Now, some scientists disagree with this theory or aren’t entirely convinced. But the study points to the idea that severe climate shifts could have pushed human ancestors and other species close to or over the brink of extinction. And if it happened before, there is no reason to think it couldn’t happen again, especially as we’re staring down the effects of climate change, and not to go down an apocalyptic rabbit hole. But the Farmers Almanac is predicting above normal snow and colder than normal temperatures for this winter. We’ve already seen some freaky shit and winters past especially if you’re up here in Western New York, you may remember the homes and buffalo being encased in ice during winter storm Elliott last year, or the huge swaths of Texas without electricity or heat when that extreme cold fronts swept through and 2021. These things are not normal. Bear in mind, though, that the cold snap during the middle Pleistocene transition lasted 117,000 years. So it wasn’t like a week, right? And if we’re the descendants of ancestors who weathered that storm, I think we’re pretty tough. We might just make it through this winter, but we’ve got to be careful with the climate going forward. Speaking of extreme, let’s take a good hard look at the homeschool movement Challis. Hundreds of 1000s of children have begun homeschooling in the last three years this according to The Washington Post, which signifies an unprecedented spike. Now there are a few reasons why the demand is surging. Some parents put their kids in homeschool pods during COVID and then just decided to not go back. Take New Hampshire for example, where the Post reports the number of homeschoolers doubled during the pandemic and remains 40% above free COVID totals. Other parents just aren’t happy with the public school options in their area, or believe their kids have special needs that the public school system can’t adequately address. Just last week gallops annual survey about American satisfaction with the quality of K through 12 education in the country matched a record low number just 36%. Now if I brought home a test with a 36% on it, you know my parents would have thrown a fit. Plus a huge swath of parents that become swayed by the Christian nationalist movement which is growing in America. influential leaders like conservative Christian lawyer, Michael Farris are spouting parental rights as a GOP rallying cry. This homeschool boom is generating a huge new market, because let’s be real, a lot of parents may love the idea of homeschool but they don’t actually want to like teach their kids full time in their homes. That’s why things like micro schools are popping up around the country, which are basically very small private schools akin to outsourced homeschooling. Some groups of parents are forming coops where one mom may teach the kids math while the different dad teaches them history or a different parent takes them to the YMCA to learn how to swim. This allows adults to share it and homeschooling and still work full time or at least part time. Now that all sounds pretty harmless and fine. It even sounds a little bit fun and community building ish, right. But the rise of homeschooling could further erode the public school system, which we can all agree is suffering in many parts of the country already. The Post reports that a dozen states allow families to use taxpayer funds for homeschool expenses. That means money is getting diverted from public schools and into the hands of unregulated private businesses with little to no oversight and in some cases, little to no experience in curriculum building. And now unsurprisingly, venture capitalists are dipping their hands into the money pot. They have invested 10s of millions of dollars in new companies to serve what they see as a potentially huge market. Prentice CEO said their schools are like Airbnb for education. Yikes. Chi pods founder compared their micro schools to we work offices. Double Yikes. And listen, I get that you want your kids to learn in the way that suits them best to follow their passion for shipwrecks or dinosaurs to learn through unstructured play.

V Spehar  09:50

But can we take Jimmy to his cheese making class after school? Lets Sasha climb trees at recess. Maybe save the school day for like, you know, reading and math lessons taught by professionals. Teachers rather than whoever the tech bros are hiring. This hits me super personally, because I had dyslexia, I still have it. And while public school did their best to try and help me overcome that by teaching me to speed read, it sucked, and it still sucks. And as an adult, I had to basically go back and teach myself how to read again, because the tools that they have for kids with dyslexia and other neuro divergences are so much more vast and useful than what they had in my day. So please, I know it is easy to jump on the bandwagon of hating on public schools or thinking that teachers aren’t doing enough that they are trying and there are resources, and you don’t want to hold those tools that are available at public schools back from your children. Public education is not the enemy. And if you or someone you know is considering homeschooling, please make sure you do your homework first and take a look at the people behind these new options. Make sure that they have you and your kids best interests at heart. And if you hear phrases like break the matrix, destroy the hive mind or hashtag This is homeschool on Tiktok please know that that is Christian nationalism that is the Christian nationalist homeschool movement. And it is trying to indoctrinate and isolate you and your children. Oh, okay, that got kind of extreme a little fire and brimstone for your Friday afternoon. Everything seems to be getting extreme even the food we eat. I mean how many shows about spicy food are there out there? Can we actually just like enjoy our food without trying to rip apart our taste buds and throw them in a dumpster fire? Well Food and Wine Magazine has a few tips for how to taste food better and I am here for this. They spoke with writer Mandy NAT glitch who is an expert on fine tuning your tasting abilities. First off, she says our mucous is very important when it comes to taste. She recommends drinking a lot of water and using a humidifier if you’re noticing that your skin, nose and eyes often feel dry. When your nose is dry. It’s harder to smell and scent is responsible for about 80% of what you taste. Second, she recommends mixing something that’s bitter with something that’s sweet to deepen the flavor. For example, put actual coffee in your coffee cake and she recommends adding a bit of mustard to your brownie batter. So interesting writes. And lastly, here’s my favorite. Choose your coffee mug wisely. Since taste is multisensory, the color of the mug you drink out of can impact the taste of the coffee. She says that studies on the associations between color and taste reveal that people tend to link certain colors with certain flavors. Red is often connected with sweetness, green is considered more sour. So play around until you find the color that suits you and your taste buds best. Speaking of taste buds yours are in for a treat because after the break, I’m gonna get to chat with one of my dearest friends. Chef Karen Akunowicz. You may know her from Top Chef or her restaurants in Boston including Fox and the knife and bar vote they just got a new cookbook coming out that you can preorder will not want to miss our conversation. Stick around we’ll be right back. And we’re back. Like I said before today I’m talking with my friend chef and author Karen Hakuna wits. I know Karen from my time working at the James Beard Foundation. Back in 2018. Karen won the James Beard Award for Best Chef NE And I don’t know if you know what a big deal it is to win an award like that. But you have to be incredibly talented. You’re up against literally all of the chefs in the Northeast. Which Karen obviously is incredibly talented. She competed on season 13 of Top Chef and also Top Chef All Stars LA. Her new cookbook is called Crave: Bold recipes that make you want seconds. She’s a wife, she’s a mother, an entrepreneur, a Jersey girl and we talk all about that today. Including how humbling it is to be a celebrated chef whose child refuses to eat the food you make for her. Here’s my conversation with Chef Karen. Chef Karen Welcome to the show. How are ya?

Karen Akunowicz  14:24

I am amazing. Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

V Spehar  14:27

I am so excited to see you again I haven’t seen you since pre pandemic really.

Karen Akunowicz  14:31

You know longtime listener first time caller here.

V Spehar  14:37

Well, I got the most special package in the mail yesterday I was so thrilled. I got this beautiful box and on the side it says XO Karen on it and I’m like I really hope that’s for me and then it was for me. And it was your book and all of these beautiful herbs and honeys and olive oils and pastas and I cannot wait to dive into it this weekend. I’m so excited. You may not know this, but I am a lurker of your gold belly. You are I am. So for folks who are listening and have not heard of gold belly before. It’s this platform that chefs can put their food up on. And so you can get like a Maine lobster roll from Maine sent to your house in Wisconsin, you can get any number of things, but chef Karen’s restaurant, the Foxen knife is on there. And I use it for gifts all the time. Like if I need a client gift, Christmas gifts, if I pissed my mom off, like you’re getting the pasta bundle and it’s so delicious. And it comes so fresh and beautifully. And so that is my UNsponsored plug for Karen’s gold belly.

Karen Akunowicz  15:40

Oh my god, I love it. It’s amazing. You know what I gold belly really touts the most iconic foods in the country. And I to use gold belly as a gift because it’s perfect. I send exactly I said lobster rolls from the clam shack and get us all over the country to people and we send you know our own foxes and gold Belly belly packages as well. And actually we are going to do I think this week, I’m going to do a gold belly giveaway for pre orders on my book on my credit here first. Yep, so it’s going to be a big dinner for six focaccia olive oil, the whole the whole shebang. So it’s like a $400 gift. Gold belly gift box.

V Spehar  16:20

So delicious. It comes out so great every time. Now people actually want to cook instead of ordering off gold belly, you are very good at putting odds and ends together and introducing people to new vegetables, new recipes, stuff they might not have thought of, like you have a recipe for fennel and I have not thought about fennel, and so long, but this was delicious. So I want to dig into your new book. This is your second book, right?

Karen Akunowicz  16:43

It’s my second book. Yes.

V Spehar  16:44

Second book. For all the cookbooks there are in the world. What makes you go no, no, no, you don’t understand. I’ve got a whole second book of recipes that you got to see.

Karen Akunowicz  16:59

You guys need to get this. You’re the second person in a week that has said fennel. I haven’t thought about fennel in forever. And I’m like I use when I use it all the time.

V Spehar  17:10

I know and it’s so delicious. And then you forget about it.

Karen Akunowicz  17:14

I think I’m the exception, not the rule. Well, this recipe, the recipe, the drunken federal that that will make you love, love settle again, that’s a really good one. You know, I loved that people started cooking during the pandemic, it was really cool. To watch people not just gross galleons on the windowsills, it makes sourdough. But to really kind of dive into cooking. I taught a ton of remote cooking classes, which was really fun. And, you know, for me, we lost so much connection that was really fun to be able to connect with people. And this book, I actually started the idea for the book is called crave bold recipes that make you want seconds. And I started to do when I finished the first book that I wrote the first book was a restaurant cookbook, and I wrote it with Joanne Chang, who is a restaurant tour here in Boston, she was my business partner. And it was Myers and Chang at home. So it was taking the recipes that people really loved from this very beloved restaurant that was 10 years old. And saying this is how you can take that magic and bring it home. And I love to write and I was really in the you know writing a book is it’s hard to say it’s a labor of love to say the least.

V Spehar  18:28

I want to stop you there for a quick second on the writing the book. Do you have any recipes that you’re like, Oh, I can’t make this public. My, my, my ancestors want me to keep gate keep this one or you put them all out there.

Karen Akunowicz  18:40

Here’s the thing. I think you put it all out there. Because everybody who comes into the restaurant, when they you know, we have a little card that says you can pre order the book. And people say but is the broccoli Caesar recipe in there is the focaccia recipe in there. People want the recipes they love. They want to try and create that and how I feel about that in terms of gatekeeping is like, I cook food to share with people I cook food to make people happy. Yes, this is how I make my living. Yes, this is my business. But at the core of what it is we cook food to share to make people happy to break bread together. And if you want to go ahead and you want to take my recipes out of this book and you want to go make your own Fox and spoon, then go right ahead because the working that is creating the dish and creating it consistently every single day, you know, 365 days a year.

V Spehar  19:38

Send you pictures or tell you like Hey, I did this and it came out good.

Karen Akunowicz  19:43

It’s the best. It’s actually the best thing in the world. If you want to I get whether people post it or where they just send it to me on Instagram and they’ve made the recipe I’m always like, I feel like a parent. I’m a proud mama. I’m like You did so good. I’m so proud of you. Look at that, you know especially with their our My goal with this book was to really make these recipes accessible to people this book is for home cooks, this book is not a coffee table book, this is a book that it should be in your kitchen and you should use all the time. And I wanted to make it accessible. And when recipes feel too challenging or have too many ingredients, maybe you make it for a special occasion or you make it on a Saturday or a Sunday when you have more time. But these are really recipes that you can make kind of every day of the week and it’s taking technique that here’s how you braised the chicken thigh. And then I’m going to teach you how to make Muhammara and you’re going to smother your chicken thighs and Emma Hummer i and it’s going to be amazing. So it’s teaching some basic cooking techniques, which I think is just so important across the board and then giving you that restaurant sparkle that little bit of magic that makes you say off the I go there to get this dish. So and I you know it’s just share getting to share that with people.

V Spehar  20:55

Let me tell you how cocky I get. I get a cookbook, okay. I will get a cookbook like Kelly fields is a great friend and a great example of this Kelly fields of the restaurant Willa Jean down in New Orleans. She since moved up to p town another incredible queer chef, one outstanding pastry chef.

Karen Akunowicz  21:10

Can I say I’m interesting that I was just at Kelly fields brunch at the Crowne in P town a few weeks ago and get there if you haven’t because it is amazing.

V Spehar  21:23

But Kelly, she’s she’s outstanding. And I feel so spoiled to be pals with her because I have her book here and she’s like, Oh God, do you have the fucking book out again? Because I’ll be like, Kelly, just talk to me one more time about like this particular chocolate. And she’s like, do you have that book out again. She wrote this cookbook, and I read it. And then I made her chocolate chip cookies, which she won like a James Beard Award for and I was so cocky about it. I was like, Oh, I got the right salt. And they finally came out crispy on the bottom the way that hers deal. And I was feeling I was feeling my oats. And I’m telling you when you cook from a book like Kelly’s or like yours, where you’re talking to people through the recipes, also, you’re not just like, here’s a list of ingredients, figure it out. It’s like a real coaching. You just feel cocky. And then you want to share it with everyone else. And they’re like, where did you get this recipe? And you’re like, oh, I don’t know. It’s a family secret. It’s not a family secret. It’s in crave bold recipes that want you make you want. Carrot Hakuna Woods book. How did you decide what recipes you want to put in?

Karen Akunowicz  22:24

Well, so the funny thing about the little thing about reading books is you you start writing it far before it gets published. So you know, this recipe was like this book was, you know, it’s a little dream in your heart six years ago, seven years ago, and I believed I talked to my my book agent, Stacy Glick and I said I am going to was 2018 I was in the process of opening Foxman knife, I had just left my executive chef job at Meyerson Chang. And so I had this six months, five months, probably four or five months before I was really like, I was opening the restaurant and I was just doing the pre opening work. And I said, Guess what, I’m gonna write the proposal for my book right now. But she was like, insane. You can’t do both those things at one time. And I’m like, Oh, I can I can do a lot, I can get a lot done. Now you actually you can’t I’m just sure I wrote part of it. But that did not the restaurant got open, the book didn’t get written. And then one year into the restaurant being open Fox and the nice being open, the pandemic hit. I mean, we were a baby when the pandemic end. And then it was, you know, we stayed open to the pandemic, we created Fox pasta company to, you know, we sold on gold belly, we were selling 75 to 100 pounds of fresh pasta a day out of our restaurant out of our soil. And so I was working, I those three months, I mean, eight of us at Fox and the knife, were working my entire management team. And we were working harder than we had ever worked, even opening the restaurant. So that was not the time. So, you know, it finally rolls around and I’m like, Okay, I’m, I’m ready, I’m gonna do it. This needs to this needs to happen. So I remember looking at the table of contents and saying, I’m not gonna put that recipe in there because to me that recipe was that was so me three years ago. That was so me two years ago. There. There are plenty of recipes that are, you know, this really covers depth and breadth of my of my career and recipes that I love. So by the time your book comes out two years later, three years later, you’re like, Oh, I would have put these 10 recipes in it, I would have done something else, which is how we all get tricked into writing a second. I still have something to say I still have something just show you. But my idea for this book was always to divide the chapters by cravings, because I think inherently right we said what do you want for dinner? I don’t know. What do you want for dinner? And when we say well do you want Uh, pizza. Do you want Thai food? Do you want me to make you know? Do you want me roasted chicken? I think when we say, Oh yeah, that’s the thing I want. It’s not necessarily that you’re like, you know, oh, I really want some chicken. Although I do love chicken. And it’s like, oh, you’re gonna roast me a chicken that makes me feel loved and taken care of. Oh, you want to get Thai food? Yeah, can we get for my favorite place? And we can get can we get the the green papaya slaw? Because you’re like, fresh and crisp and crunchy. You know, can we order from the pizza place because I had a really bad day. And I need cheese and carbs immediately. So I think our cravings are emotional. I think they are they’re sometimes physical. But they manifest from a bunch of different things. And that’s how we really decide what we want to eat. So instead of saying, Here’s your appetizers, here’s your entree, so you just see food or meat or veggies. The chapters are divided into tangy and bright, fresh and Chris, you know, and fresh and crisp is salad herbs and greens. Chapter Three is creamy and cheesy dip soups and cheeses. So you really, you know, crispy and crunchy hot and spicy karbi and starchy. So you really are like, Oh, what is it that I that I want. And you can find your recipe based based on that. And so for me, I, as I created the chapters and looked through the recipes, and kind of put them into place, it was also about what what was a craving and if I was craving something fresh and Chris, what is the thing that I would want to make? Then what do I hope that other people you know, also want to make an […]

V Spehar  26:39

And the chapter that I love because I’m such a sap is chapter eight, Hardy and Homey like someone’s mom used to make. And I love that you I love especially the detail that you titled it like in parentheses someone’s mom mistake because my mom did not cook okay, but I understand the idea of like a mother or some sort of like, you know, woman figure maternal figure cooking for you. And I loved this because it made me feel included. My mom was a takeout mom, my mom could order a pizza like nobody’s business, right? She knew all the takeout. But you do have that feeling where you’re like I want to feel cared for I want to have something that feels like a tradition like I’m included in a family sometimes. Especially I think back to when I first graduated college moved to New York City on my own, you do feel a little bit alone. And this is something that you could you could give a recent graduate or somebody who’s got their first big girl job who’s living in their first big girl apartment, to say like, if you’re ever feeling homesick, you can make this little treat for yourself. That’s like how I used to cure my homesickness. And again, my mother didn’t cook, I would like go out and roast yourself a little chicken or make yourself a little something special that made you feel cared for even when you’re alone. And I think as we’re you know, seeing in the United States, this epidemic of loneliness and individualism, this chapter of this book in particular, I’m telling Karen not to put pressure on you but I do think it’s going to heal the country okay, if we could take care of ourselves then we could start to make that little dish for somebody else and for somebody else and maybe this is how we fix everything I don’t know. But what did you mean when you said cook like somebody’s mom used to make.

Karen Akunowicz  28:13

Crave, bowls recipes that make you want to make one seconds healing the world when one one dish at a time.

V Spehar  28:18

I’m telling you, put it in the foreword.

Karen Akunowicz  28:22

You know, this chapter was some of its like comfy cozy dishes. That chicken Milanese A is you know, it’s my version of that dish. But my mom would say do you guys want chicken cutlets for dinner and it was you know, pan fried, you know, chicken, chicken breasts. That was something that I always wanted when I came home and I would eat them. My mom would make a bunch of them and I would eat them out of a Ziploc bag in the fridge. Like when I came home from college. I’d be like, do you have are there any chicken cutlets in the fridge? And she’d be like they’re in the they’re in the drawer. I’m from New Jersey. So there’s there’s there’s some of that too. There’s definitely some like red sauce, New Jersey vibes in this book. But one of the things at Fox in the knife that I got from so many people, and it’s different dishes and it’s different dishes for different people. People come in, they would say this reminds me my grandma. And and I had one friend that said my grandma didn’t make anything that that was like this dish. It’s like burrata with this swiss chard and walnut salad. But it tastes like her cooking. It tastes like something that I remember. And so many of these dishes. That’s that’s the comments that I get about them. Right. So, you know, Sunday meatballs. Did you used to go to your friend’s house? And did you just go to your friend’s house? Their mom made this, did you? You know, was it that your roommate in college made it was it? You know, it’s like this tastes like going to somebody’s house on a Sunday. A good friend of mine, Britt racino she’s She came into flux. And I’ve recently and she was like I am in tears. This all these are not dishes that my grandmother made. But this taste of my grandmother’s cooking is the best meal that I’ve had in a restaurant. And, and that, for me is kind of what these dishes encompass. These aren’t the fanciest dishes, they’re all delicious. But this is you make this dish for someone to say, I love you. You had a bad day. Let me make let me make this chicken dish for you. Let me make these meatballs for you. Let me brace this lamb also buco for you. Because you will know that I took a lot of time to make this. And I put a lot of effort into it. And it was because I care for you. And I love you. And I think you know, we’re all I think you hit it right on the head, the epidemic of loneliness. I think we all are looking for connection, I think we’re all looking for love. You know, and so if we can give, if we can give just a little bit of that to somebody else a little, a little love on a plate, that’s, you know, it’s a step.

V Spehar  31:15

The woman who cooked in my family was my father’s mother. And we grew up like, what I would describe as like Connecticut poor, like, I wasn’t like in desperate poverty. But we weren’t rich, like at all you know what I mean? Like, there was no waste in our house, my dad would do things like if we needed money for something he like, knew how to fix stuff. So he’d like bring a car into the yard and like fix up a car and sell the car and like that was. So it’s like Connecticut poor. It’s like working class poor. We’re like, you could make money up here, you could make some you could make ends meet. And for my birthday every year, I would ask my grandmother to make mac and cheese. And it was never the same twice because her mac and cheese was literally like a pound of L dry elbow macaroni and like whatever odds and ends of cheese and butter she had. Sometimes it was margarine. Sometimes it was butter. But it was like all these mix of cheeses it was never the same twice. And to this day, like if I make it because I’ll try to like think of what she would have had and like make it for my dad, he will literally cry. And there’s a bunch of that in here too. Which is which is like what you want to do you want to give people something to even celebrate with something to show them that you remember them. But there is some you said there’s not fancy stuff in here and Karen there is in that in that chapter, chapter for there’s a whole chapter called decadent and savory rich, luxurious, special occasion delights and I want to talk about this chapter because this is me right? I’m such a like, ask kiss people pleaser type person. And so like if I’m having people over for dinner, I remember Thomas Keller one time did like a cooking show. And he taught folks how to make it was like a tomato red pepper gazpacho. And it had like a crab ball with avocado and surfaces like back in like the 90s. And I used to make that all the time because that was like very impressive plating. It was like such a thing. But in here, this is where I’m going with myself now. Right? This is where like you’re like oh this’ll thing but like you actually followed the directions that Chef Karen gave you so you know how to do it. Raised s girl with white wine and brown butter that is a restaurant dish. Nobody knows how to make that at home. Now you do the drunken fennel with balsamic vinegar, which I’m gonna make like every night because I love fennel. Can you describe this dish to people? There’s a lot of folks who have not had fennel.

Karen Akunowicz  33:28

Yeah, I mean fennel has that. And its flavor to it. It has light I hate you know, people always say licorice and I get that. Yes, that’s some variation of what it is but I don’t love black licorice and I love fennel. I think it’s vegetal, I think it’s fresh. I think it has that you know, licorice undertone to it. And when you roast it, it gets incredibly sweet. It’s also got an amazing texture to it. So you shaved fennel, you eat it raw, I put it in salads all the time. But you doing this what where you roast it and kind of braise it. And you braise it in brandy or cognac, which is where it gets the drunk and fennel name from. It is an Italian dish called it’s Uber Jaco. It means drunken. And then you finish it with some really good balsamic vinegar. So this is you know, the decadent and savory chapters. You you think it’s going to be all lobster and caviar. But I think that there are really beautiful ways to treat produce. I think you can make things that are very luxurious, incredibly sexy, decadent. And you don’t necessarily have to go out and buy, you know?

V Spehar  34:44

Speaking of filet mignon do that is the only thing my mom knew how to cook. My grandma taught her how to make filet mignon and big stuffed shrimp to hook my father which she did. And then we used to have that every year on Christmas you would make like one thing that she knew how to make and so that was our like, fancy once a year dinner But in in this chapter, you have something called a Christmas short rib, which also sounds like maybe we should switch up the flaming yawn and big stuffed shrimp this year. Can you talk about Christmas short rib?

Karen Akunowicz  35:10

Please make the Christmas short ribs. So the Christmas short ribs are it is. You know, this is one of the recipes that I’m like this is a very New Jersey kind of brace, it’s red wine, it’s tomato, it’s short ribs, braised red wine, and tomato and rosemary and thyme, and, you know, all of the delicious, all these delicious things. And I started making it years ago for Christmas, I you know, being a cook. Before it was even a chef being a line cook being a sous chef, I never had time off. So I spent eight, nine years where I never saw my family for holidays. Christmas was really the only holiday I saw them for and I was usually like driving in or taking the train. And coming back the next day, sometimes on Christmas. Because I usually had to work the day after Christmas. And I never had you know, I never had that time off. But I would come in and I started making this wild Let me help. You know, I can help with dinner and I would make these short ribs. And I you know, every year I would come home and my mom would say I don’t want you to have to work I don’t want to have to cook you work so hard.

V Spehar  36:15

But can you just help with this?

Karen Akunowicz  36:16

But do you think you could just make the you don’t have to make a lot of them. Now, it doesn’t matter if you make you know, five or 20 it’s kind of all the same thing. That’s one of the things I love about is you can make it for two people. You can make it for 20 people, could you just make the short ribs and now I make them I’ve been making them every year for God 10 years now. And if I don’t make them, it is really it is not okay. And it used to be like in addition to if we were having a turkey if we were having a ham and now it’s really the main dish and I serve them with the easiest choosiest polenta which everybody loves, which is in the the cheesy chapter. And we have it every year. So in my house that is that is the Christmas dish, bringing a little bit a little bit of the holiday so and the other thing is you I make it I do it in the morning. before it even gets to my my we usually have validate that my sister’s house now used to be at my mom’s now it’s at my sister’s and I put it in the oven and and then I’m done. And I get dressed, you know, and we pull them out three hours later, four hours later, and you know, and I didn’t have to literally physically be cooking for all that time I can actually hang out and have a glass of wine with my family.

V Spehar  37:25

That is smart. Now something else. This is a personal question. I recently saw that Starbucks is putting olive oil in their coffee right? And everybody got crazy about it. They were like why would they do that? That’s two diuretics at a time Americans should not be doing this right but this is like an Italian thing, right? They put some sort of very nice olive oil in the coffee. And you put olive oil in the chocolate torte Can you talk about what what does olive oil do to food and to coffee to make it so much more delicious?

Karen Akunowicz  37:59

Well, so I also have seen that I have not tried. I have not tried that yet. I’m also assuming it’s something along the lines of like bullet proof where you add.

V Spehar  38:08

I’My stomach is too weak for this.

Karen Akunowicz  38:14

I’ve been using olive oil and anything in any way I don’t need to add it to my coffee. But when we were opening Fox in the knife, I you know and I love a lick of polenta, olive oil cake right very traditional. Delicious. An olive oil is rich without being heavy. Right? It’s an it’s if you use good olive oil, you get the flavors from the olive oil and whether it’s verdant or whether it’s spicy, or whether it’s fruity, right it’s going to impart those notes to the dish the same way that cooking with wine. You are imparting the the flavor of the wine into into the dish. And I had said to my pastry chef at the time. Brittany Lee I said I want to I want an olive oil cake on the menu. I’m not an I’m not a baker. I will say I want an olive oil cake on the menu but I think we do it with chocolate. And she was like I’ve never done that before and I was like oh I’ll work on it with you. And we worked on it and worked on it and it is rich. And so light at the same time. So if you love chocolate, as many people do, this is you know something that you’re like oh this is satisfying that craving but it’s still like you know we serve it with some pistachio brittle to have a little sweetness and whipped cream fresh. This is this dessert is almost we serve this dessert of folks in the knife it’s been on the menu since we open this dessert is almost not sweet enough. If you put a touch less sugar in it, you would think this is like a breakfast towards breakfast cake or something like that. I really kind of veer on the side made of. There’s always salt in the desert. And that it’s very balanced. Because when you finish a meal, I do think you should have something sweet at the end have you know a tiny bite of gelato little greeny test something and I forgot, oh, a little something sweet. But you don’t want to feel like you can’t go out dancing afterwards. You don’t want to feel like you’re going home. You’re like, oh my god, I have to fall asleep in the car. Because I’ve eaten so much of it felt so heavy. So how do we satiate our cravings? How do we satisfy those cravings in a way that still makes our bodies feel really good? And you know, I think that’s one of the things that chocolate olive oil torta does. Yeah, I’m not a baker. But I love and adore all of the, the sweet and luscious dishes in that chapter. I mean, and that’s really homey to my my mother in law, who’s not with us anymore. I used to make my spouse lemon squares for their birthday every year. And I was really lucky to get the lemon square recipe from her. Now I make them every year. And so that’s my little homage to her in the book as well. You know, these are recipes that we pass down to the bone, we say, I’m going to share this with you. And also keep the memory right, whether it’s the restaurants or the people or something that somebody taught you were keeping, we’re keeping memories alive too.

V Spehar  41:19

Absolutely. Now you brought up your spouse and the lemon squares. Everybody, of course knows you from Top Chef and your competitive cooking. And we’ve seen your face some super tough judges out there. But I was wondering, with the new series on Instagram where your daughter Rogue is reading her dinner? How does she stack up as a judge? Is she tougher than the Top Chef judges? Or does she give mom a little leniency?

Karen Akunowicz  41:43

Miss Rosemarie I will say that. So anyone who is currently parenting a small child and doing what is called Baby led weaning, you know, it’s really not just giving your kids all purees it’s giving them real food from the time they were little. And so we have been cooking for her I have been cooking for her really, my spouse does not does not cook solid foods and she was six months. And she’s 11 months now. And it’s just it was hilarious. Me because she’s actually she’s actually a pretty good eater. You just got to let her sit, sit the entire time and get to the end. But you watch it and that she’s hilarious. Because she would she’ll take a bite and something she’s like, Oh, I love this. And then she’ll take a bite and she’ll just drop it. She’ll just hold it to intentionally to the side and just drop it or throw her spoon or, or whatever it is. And I was just watching her and I’m like, Girl, this is hilarious. And I’m thinking how I’m, I’m this I’m a professional chef, who people like my food?

Karen Akunowicz  42:44

Awarded and like celebrated chef.

Karen Akunowicz  42:49

This little kid is like, I don’t know, I don’t think so. And we find it hilarious. My my nieces years and years ago, I made them cheeseburgers one day. And they were sitting at the table. Basically my niece’s Emma and Olivia basically crying, because they did not want to eat the cheeseburgers and I was like, I didn’t do anything Sheffy to them. I didn’t do anything. And I called it cheeseburger gate. And I will say just this year, I have made cheeseburgers I like I was like, nobody has to eat them and put them on the table. And my one niece was like, that looks pretty good. And they tried. She was like, this is a good cheeseburger. So I feel like I’ve redeemed myself. And so whether you’re a regular, you know, a regular person, a mom, a dad, a parent, in whatever way a grandparent and aunt and uncle and you’re cooking for kids, you know, just now there’s a professional chef out there somewhere who’s cooking this food for their children. And she’s also like, I don’t think so I’m going to I’m going to drop that on the ground. So I really I made a video as a as a joke. I was like, Guys, look, it happens to everyone rug, rug rates or dinner. And I have never gotten anything I’ve done TV books, the restaurants. I’ve never gotten such a huge response as my little rogue rates or dinner recipe. So everyone’s like more more. More rope content.

V Spehar  44:09

She is hilarious. Yeah, that’s the thing. You are such a respected, also kind, generous, beloved chef. Like there’s a lot of chefs out there that make good food but they’re assholes. Like you’re not you’re delightful. Nobody would throw your food on the floor. And then your own kin just dead iContact.

Karen Akunowicz  44:29

She does not care. She she loves but then two days later, she doesn’t love it anymore. She loves cod. She really big cod fan. She likes she likes shrimp. Now she didn’t used to like it. I think it was the texture. She likes lobster sometimes but also the claws and the tail. I think it’s texture. But it made her salmon one day I was like oh she’s gonna love this and she cried. She took one bite of it and then she just cried and didn’t eat any dinner. And so, you know, it’s really insolate solidarity man, we’re all just out here too fast.

V Spehar  45:10

Oh my gosh, I can’t have you thought of like doing a kid’s recipe book is that coming down the line or like a baby led weaning cooking book or?

Karen Akunowicz  45:21

So funny. So that’s what I’ve been getting asked a lot lately about, you know, Cooking for Kids or like, or specifically like really, really little kids. So it’s it’s rolling around in my head right now. I said to LJ my spouse recently I was like, Oh, well, it’ll be in the next book. And he was like, what we’re doing another book. And I was like, you know, because again, writing a book is really hard. I didn’t I didn’t write with a co author. I didn’t work with a writer I wrote I wrote the book myself.

V Spehar  45:56

What makes it so good, though Karen like, you can send my sorry’s LJ that we do. In fact, I need you to write it. Because you do have this way of writing the recipes explaining things in a way that isn’t pretentious, but is elevated. That isn’t like condescending if you don’t assume that people just know stuff, right? But it but it also doesn’t make them feel stupid. And I think it’s such a rarity to find in cookbook writing, that somebody isn’t writing at you or just sort of like recipe dumping on you that you you can actually almost feel you in the room with them, going through the steps. And if you mess one up, you could go back and sort of like reread that line. And I think that’s such a gift that you give to people. So tell LJ we’re sorry.

Karen Akunowicz  46:38

I write every recipe like I’m writing for LJ who is not a cook, I write every recipe like I’m writing for them. Because that is the way to really write a book for for home cooks. So you if you write a book, and it’s Sheffy, and you’re like this is for you to make my recipes at home, but it’s very Sheffy. Really, you’re not really writing for home cooks. And, you know, if you if you’re not explaining a technique, you’re really writing for people who you don’t, I don’t want you to just look at the pictures, I want you to really be able to do it. And so you have to be in that in that mindset. But yeah, I very recently, people have been saying, I don’t know, maybe maybe do a kid’s book, which is of course not what I was intending for another book. But I think the best ideas, right? Come at Penn have come out of nowhere, and you’re like, Oh, that would be it’d be really fun.

V Spehar  47:33

I think it would be fun. Yeah, I don’t even have kids. And I’m like, Look, I need you to read a kid’s book. I don’t know. Maybe we’ll get some someday we’re working on it. But what do you think any more? Any more kids for you? How has being a mom than your all time one? Perfect One. Nailed it.

Karen Akunowicz  47:49

Nailed today. She’s my perfect soak you. Being a mom, being a mom is the most amazing thing in the world. And it’s so hard. Yeah, it’s so hard. I can’t help but be transparent about everything, you know, should really be like, What a gift What a miracle. And it is such truly, you know, especially being part of a queer couple, like it’s, it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge to, to have one to have a kid into everything you go through. And we really tried for six years, with a lot of loss and you know, a lot of a lot of struggle. And so she she really is my miracle baby, but man, it is hard. Being a good parent is hard, hard work. So and I’m also I’m turning 45 next month. So this is she’s our she’s going to choose our one and only she’s our one and she’ll be our she’ll kind of just be our road dog for life. You know, when you just have to like, here we go, yeah, we’re hanging out. We’re go. We take her out. We took her to Sicily in June, we take her everywhere. We you know, she’ll just grow up that way. And you know, she’s already so very much has her own opinions. And just she just gave me a look. She was walking out there and she just she wasn’t walking. My spouse was taking her out of that. And she like, did this look at me or she like looked over her shoulder and she was like, huh, and I was like, Oh, you get that from your mama.

V Spehar  49:11

Yes, that’s the Jersey girl is hereditary. It was passed down. You know, your spouse does have a reputation in our industry of being the best spouse. truly, genuinely, the best most supportive, thoughtful, and I’m gonna tell you Karen downright handsome spouse.

Karen Akunowicz  49:32

Oh, my How did you guys meet? We met. So we’ve been together for almost 12 years and married for almost 10 We met at the club. I mean, how do you sound the people? Yes. How you used to meet people because it was before I mean, you know, internet dating certainly has had started and kind of was a thing but you know, you just used to meet people because LJ worked with my roommate Rachel. And I had just gotten out of relationship. And so I moved into Rachel’s apartment and Rachel worked with LJ. And so Rachel introduced us. And it was kind of like, I met LJ and I was like, in that moment, I was like, this is the best person I’ve ever met in my life. And I’m gonna marry them, and have babies with them. And I never wanted to get married and or have babies never. And I was like, well, that’s, that’s it. That’s it. And I was like, Well, I hope I hope this works. Hope this works out for me. But they truly are. I mean, the reason that I can write this cookbook, the reason that I can, you know, travel and compete on the Food Network and tournament of champions and, you know, to say, Okay, I just got, you know, I’m gonna go judge guy’s grocery games, or I’m going to do this. So that is because, you know, I have someone who’s holding it down at home, and it’s the foundation of our life and is saying, yes, it’s not a well, let’s see if we can figure that out. It’s like, of course, of course, you should do that. Of course, you should keep pursuing your dreams. You know, and they are at home full time. There are a social worker, you know, by profession in their home full time with the kiddo and you know, just working working their their butt off. LJ is really amazing. And I mean, God when we were finishing crave, I was I was pregnant when I was finishing crave. So there’s, there’s some of that in there to talk about your cravings. Finishing it, I was finishing writing it while I was pregnant. And when we shot the photography for the book, which is by the amazing Christian tag. I was eight and a half months pregnant. Look at that cover photo, 8 months pregnant right there. And it was the hottest week of the year. It was August, the hottest week of the year, and I was so pregnant. And we were like, okay, you know, seven days of seven days of shooting and, you know, and yeah, and you know, you I get through all of it, I get to do all of it. Because I have somebody who is saying, who is not just holding it down, but it’s really cheering me on and supporting me in all the ways so that I can keep doing everything else.

V Spehar  52:14

You cook look a lot at home. There’s, there’s this phenomenon called girl dinner. It’s just what it is right? Like when my wife is on tour. I just eat popcorn and drink red wine and then a different rate or like a handful of m&ms. Yeah, girl dinner. Girl dinner. It could really just be like, I don’t know. I only feel like eating or cooking when my person is around kind of dinner. Girl dinner. What’s your girl dinner?

Karen Akunowicz  52:42

Oh, yes, I make girls dinner. i Yeah, it’s like whatever’s whatever’s Oh, I have some cucumbers in hummus. And I’ve got some like, Oh, if it’s a goat cheese fantastic. Or I turn I can turn anything into a nacho I believe like to like anything into a nacho I’ll do that too. I feel like that falls under under girl dinner. But I think girl dinner has been going on forever. And people are just have just caught on to it like but yeah, I’m I’m I’m terrible at it. I don’t cook at all. If if LJ and I aren’t, aren’t together, I don’t I don’t cook at all. And I cook I cook more now at home because of because of the baby. Right? Because we’re feeding her two meals a day and I’m the I’m the opener LJ is usually the closer we switch on the weekends. But I’m the opener. So I get up with her in the morning and I do the first three hours of the day and I let LJ sleep and I do breakfast with her. And I prep her food for dinner and you know and all of that so I’m definitely cooking more. And we try and also feed her things that we’re eating too. So now I’m cooking more than I used to at home. I mean when you talk about your mom ordering a pizza like LJ is like I’m gonna get by the way tonight yeah, okay, yeah no […].

V Spehar  54:01

It is a skill there is a skill to being able to order takeout for a family and satisfy everybody and so I always appreciated that about my mom but I always wanted a cookie Mom You know how like, you always want what you don’t have and like somebody is somebody’s mom would be like a cookie mom and I always wanted that now my wife is a cookie she will be the cookie mom but she’s a baker and so delightful you gotta like seek out in the world when you don’t have and that’s like a good match. Yes, I let if you don’t have any skills and you haven’t found your life partner at the club yet. You can buy this book and you can learn how to cook for yourself and you can impress all your friends. It’s called crave bold recipes that make you want second, folks where where can folks get the book?

Karen Akunowicz  54:43

Folks can get the book everywhere so everywhere book is everywhere. The little bit is available for pre order now. And we love pre orders. I posted something about this recently because you know anyone is like pre pre ordered but why is it helpful to pre order it really helps the author. So it helps bookstores, it helps, you know, big, you know, big online ordering like Amazon, small, independent bookstores, Barnes and Noble everything in between. It helps them decide how many books they’re going to order. So it helps really helps determine how successful a book or a cookbook is going to be. And then if you want to write a second book, if we want to rate write rates or dinner, you know, a publisher will say, Oh, your, your first book did really well was ordered by a lot of stores, you sold a lot of copies, and you you have an easier time kind of writing another book. So if you like an author, and you want to read more of what they’re writing pre orders are a wonderful way to help them out. So it’s available for pre order. Now it is available at your independent bookstore, if you’re in Boston, Brookline booksmith tried and all of my favorite independent bookstores are carrying it for pre order. And I will be signing all of the books that are pre ordered from independent bookstores in Boston. It’s available on Amazon. It’s available on Barnes and Noble. It’s available directly from my publisher, WW Norton. And you can just Google it, and you can pre order it anywhere. It arrives on September 19. So you can order and I get it right away then. And I’m gonna be on book tour through the fall and the winter and beginning of spring all over the country. I’ll be doing book dinners at some of everybody’s favorite restaurants around the country.

V Spehar  56:25

You got to have fun. Where can people find that?

Karen Akunowicz  56:31

Oh my gosh, so many places. I don’t want to skip anybody. It’s your website.

V Spehar  56:35

Maybe that’s a good place to send.

Karen Akunowicz  56:38

You can go to either the restaurants […]. I will be at gun show in Atlanta. I’ll be a Toups meatery in New Orleans. I’ll be at Tuck Tuck snack shop when it opens in Lexington, Kentucky. I will be at the James Beard Foundation app platform in December right before Christmas. You know, we have a ton of other a ton of other places as well. I will be at ms Chi in Los Angeles. I will be at Boone in Guerneville, California. And we are we’re sliding in a ton of other places as well. So

V Spehar  57:13

That is so fun. Like watch your favorite Top Chef competitor, live making dinner and get a treat. Chef Karen, it is always such a joy to chat with you. Thank you for sharing all of this with us. I so appreciate not just our friendship, but the way that you help people you know, just feel that connection to food to their friends and neighbors and give them a lot of peace and confidence when it comes to cooking. So thank you for that.

Karen Akunowicz  57:39

Oh my God, we thank you so much for having me. This is really super fun. And I just want to hang out with you and talk to you for like three more hours.

V Spehar  57:46

I know I gotta make it up to Boston still.

Karen Akunowicz  57:49

We should cook we should cook together.

V Spehar  57:51

Oh my gosh, that would be a very funny TikTok. Done.


Thanks again to Karen for joining me today keep an eye out for a cooking club between me and Karen because I was not kidding that it would make for some hilarious content and preorder her new cookbook Crave: Bold Recipes that make you want seconds wherever you buy your books. Be sure to tune into next week’s episode where we dig into the headlines you may have missed please leave us a five star rating on whatever platform you’re listening on. Follow me at underthedesknews on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube and now we even have a Patreon. It’s patreon.com/underthedesknews and guess what friends if all of that wasn’t enough for you? There is more V Interesting with Lemonada Premium. Subscribers get exclusive access to bonus content, like NPR pop culture critic Aisha Harris talking about the dark and dirty movies from the 1990s that shaped us millennial girlies. Subscribe now in Apple podcasts. V Interesting is a Lemonada Media Original. Our producers are Kryssy Pease, Kathryn Barnes and Martin Macias. Our VP of weekly programming is Steve Nelson. Executive Producers are Stephanie Wittles Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Mix and scoring is by James Farber. Music by Seth Applebaum. Please help others find the show by reading and reviewing wherever you listen and follow us across all social platforms at @VitusSpehar, @underthedesknews and @LemonadaMedia. If you want more V Interesting. Subscribe to Lemonada Premium only on Apple podcasts and follow the show where ever you get your podcasts or listen ad free on Amazon music with your Prime membership.

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