Boston's "Top Chef" Contestants Are Loyal to the Local
Back after a rollicking filming schedule for Bravo's "Top Chef" Season 13, chefs Karen Akunowicz and Carl Dooley talk about their favorite places around town to eat, drink and shop.
Fans of the show “Top Chef” are thrilled that two current competitors are Boston’s own. Karen Akunowicz, executive chef at Myers + Chang in the South End, and Carl Dooley, chef at his new restaurant, The Table, in North Cambridge, are back home after filming Season 13, which took “cheftestants” on a six-city road trip through California. Neither can reveal the outcome — no spoilers! — so both are happy to chat about another subject near and dear to their hearts: favorite places around town to eat, drink and shop.
Akunowicz, originally from New Jersey, has called Boston home for more than 10 years. After culinary school at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, she worked at restaurants including the now-closed Via Matta and at Oleana, with a year of living in Modena, Italy, tucked in between.
Dooley, who grew up in Cambridge and trained at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont, worked as Craigie on Main’s chef de cuisine before launching his new restaurant earlier this month (it’s housed within Season to Taste Catering).
When you talk with these energetic chefs, you quickly learn how passionate they are about small, family-run businesses, often within walking distance of home or work. The conversation always returns to places that are artisanal and local.
Dishes they crave
Selecting favorite dishes is a snap. Akunowicz nominates the smoked turkey sandwich with cheddar cheese and delectable red pepper relish on an Iggy’s brioche roll at City Feed and Supply in Jamaica Plain. It’s a favorite mom-and-pop grocery-eatery she has frequented for years. Dooley can’t get enough of “the amazing dumplings” and the spicy eggplant with fermented black bean-garlic-and-chile sauce at Qingdao Garden in North Cambridge. “It’s exactly what I want with a cold beer late at night,” he says.
Places and preferences in common
Their nominations and preferences often coincide. Both choose The Hawthorne in Hotel Commonwealth, Kenmore Square, as their top spot for a cocktail. Flour Bakery is also on their lists. Akunowicz raves about Flour’s carrot cake in particular. “It’s made with magic and love,” she says. “It’s not too sweet with the perfect amount of moist.”
Each chef frequents the same fishmonger — New Deal Fish Market in Inman Square — for pristine, sushi-grade fish. While each has a different butcher — M.F. Dulock in Somerville for Akunowicz and Savenor’s Market in Cambridge for Dooley — both prefer pasture-raised meats brought to them by masters of their craft.
Relationships go the distance
Longstanding relationships with the same purveyor are par for the course. For Dooley, the Cambridge location of Formaggio Kitchen is special. “I worked there in high school,” he shares. “It really opened my eyes to a whole other level of quality cheeses and condiments.” Nowadays, he drops by thinking he’ll pick up a wedge and go, but ends up chatting with the cheesemonger for an hour. “They really let me nerd out on cheese,” he admits. Akunowicz swings by Formaggio’s South End location year after year. “I do 80 percent of my Christmas shopping there,” she reveals, talking up the “phenomenal selection,” despite the shop’s diminutive square footage.
Enduring patronage is, of course, about more than delicious products. It’s about how a place makes them feel. On the way to their wedding at Boston City Hall, Akunowicz and her soon-to-be spouse only had time to stop for either coffee or the florist. Caffeine won. At Jamaica Plain’s Canto 6 Bakery, they spied vases on the table. “I asked [the baristas] if I could take the flowers to get married,” recalls Akunowicz. “Of course they said yes!”
Similarly, Dooley and his wife had just moved into their new condo, and everything was still in boxes. They swung by a favorite wine purveyor, Violette Wine Cellars, located inside Sofra in Cambridge, and the owner packed up a box with “an awesome bottle” plus the thoughtful addition of glasses and a corkscrew so they could celebrate without unpacking a thing.
Hard to choose just one
Both say it’s hard to pick favorites among so many places that consistently deliver deliciousness. Akunowicz rattled off several wine shops before settling on The Urban Grape in the South End; Dooley mentioned a number of places for coffee and then chose Nine Bar Espresso in Somerville’s Davis Square. As for places with terrific products for the home cook, Akunowicz suggests KitchenWares in the Back Bay for everything from “fish tweezers to knife sharpeners,” while Dooley says he has found ring molds and cast iron pans at — surprise! — Goodwill in Cambridge.
Some places naturally rise to the top. Akunowicz calls Coppa Enoteca in the South End her “happy place” that lifts her spirits every time she takes a seat at the bar. Dooley loves the “craveability” factor of every dish at Giulia, near Porter Square. “I go and sit at the bar, get a Negroni, and life is good.”
Want to dine like a Top Chef? Here's a map to help you eat your way through the city, cheftestant style.
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