Chef Karen Akunowicz Rings In The Season With Fall Bounty Dishes - Exclusive Interview

Chef Karen Akunowicz is easily recognized for her buoyant personality displayed on "Top Chef" and other TV appearances. Her hair is usually a vibrant shade of pink or purple, reminiscent of coastal summer blooms, and her style is full of color and pop. You might not know that Chef Karen loves the fall and everything that comes with it. It may seem counter-Karen to lean into a season that can be dreary at times and the cuisine so ... brown, but as you might expect, Akunowicz puts a lively spin on the typical autumnal fare.

In an exclusive interview, Chef Karen spilled the beans on what diners can expect on the Bar Volpe and Fox & Knife menus and went into detail about the bounty of fresh goods she procures from local farms in the Boston area. Besides seeing her buddies Curtis and Willard, the American bison at one of her favorite farms, she waxes poetic about the stellar offerings New England delivers in the fall.

Fall into Karen's new dishes

Let's jump right into what you got going on for the fall menu. Do you have a favorite fall dessert?

My favorite fall dessert is our apple crostata with cinnamon gelato. Being in New England, we live so close to Harvard, Mass, which is a town full of beautiful apple orchards. New England fall is really our time to shine. Fall is one where we're the prettiest belle at the party. Our crostata is a beautiful way to showcase those apples, and the cinnamon gelato is out of this world.

Can you tell me a little bit about how you prepare it?

It's pretty simple. It's a standard crostata pie dough, and it gets topped with sanding sugar. You get those big crunchy pieces of sugar, the apples are simply par-roasted, cinnamon sugar, some lemon juice, and baked into the filling. Our gelato recipe has cinnamon steeped into it and we top it with a little bit of cinnamon as well.

Do you have any pumpkin dishes on the menu?

I don't have any pumpkin dishes on the menu, currently. We have a really strong shoulder season. This is when we are still getting great late summer produce, almost into October, depending on the year. We're still getting tomatoes, corn, herbs, eggplants and peppers. At the same time, we start to see orchard fruit. We see pears, apples, squash, [and] root vegetables.

The root vegetable often overlooked is parsnips. Fox & The Knife is largely inspired by the cuisine of Emilia Romagna. I lived in Modena and worked as a pasta maker and a chef there for over a year. We don't have a tortelli di zucca on the menu, but I will have a parsnip tortelli with bleu cheese finished with balsamic brown butter. It's paying homage to tortelli di zucca and looking at it in a slightly different way. In my cookbook that's coming out in 2023, one of my favorite fall recipes is parsnip white miso soup with green apple. That highlights the bounty of fall, too.

I never would've thought to put those ingredients together. How did you come up with that?

I was working on a parsnip dish and I was eating green apples at the time, and I was like, "It makes so much sense." Parsnips are so strong and they have that earthy, almost menthol flavor. How do you temper that but still let that root vegetable shine? You have the sweet and tart, you had that earthy flavor, and then you get the beautiful umami from the white miso.

That sounds really good. As far as meat, is there an underrated cut that you use for braising?

Lamb shoulder is awesome. It makes a fantastic braise, and I love to turn that into a ragu for pasta. We will have on the menu — soon — we'll switch our orecchiette and we'll serve it with a lamb ragu. [We'll be] braising that lamb shoulder with red wine, with tomatoes, with tons of herbs. We also add some coriander and a little bit of cinnamon to it, and we make a really beautiful braised lamb ragu to go with our traditional Puglian orecchiette that's always on our menu at Bar Volpe.

Talkin' turkey and Thanksgiving hacks with Chef Karen

I hear that there's a broccoli dish on your menu that your family insists you make every Thanksgiving. Can you tell me a little bit about it?

At Fox & Knife, one of our signature dishes is our grilled broccoli Caesar salad. This has been on that menu since we opened. Broccoli is easy to obtain. It's inexpensive. It's something that many of us grew up eating, but it's overlooked. This really makes this brassica the star of the show. I grill it, so you get this beautiful char on the broccoli, and we slice the stems super thin, so we're getting fresh, raw, crunchy broccoli stems, along with grilled stems and florets that we dress in a little bit of olive oil and lemon juice. 

We top with a Caesar dressing that's fortified with colatura and white miso. We top them with lots of migas, crunchy Spanish breadcrumbs that are toasted in butter and pimenton. We finish with parsley, a little Parmesan, and lemon zest, so even though it has the rich dressing on, it's still light and acidic and a symphony of textures. Everybody goes back for seconds, and it's a way to get everyone to eat something green on Thanksgiving.

On Thanksgiving no less.

I know everybody loves Thanksgiving food, and I know I'm in the minority here, but everything is sweet or brown. I'm always trying to figure out how to bring something to the table that everyone is going eat that's green and fresh and vibrant and crunchy.

I love how you kind of mesh your expertise with Asian cuisine and Italian cuisine, like your use of yuzu and miso along with these mostly Modena inspired dishes is really fantastic. Are there any Thanksgiving dinner hacks that home chefs should know?

I don't know how much of a hack this is, but these are the two tips that I give out the most. The first one is to do it ahead of time. My spouse and I've been together for 10 years. I probably started cooking Thanksgiving dinner for our family maybe five years ago. Historically, before Thanksgiving, I worked until close the night before. We drive up to Maine to have Thanksgiving dinner with our family. I would prep ahead of time, so that when you wake up on Thanksgiving morning, you have a little bit of an easier time. 

I make a whipped potato that goes into a casserole dish and gets baked with a parmesan crust on it, and all of these things that hold up really well or do the prep ahead of time so that when it comes to Thanksgiving morning, all we're doing is we're popping the turkey in the oven and then making a fresh salad. Thanksgiving can be an incredibly hectic morning. Spending time with our family, that's actually why we're all getting together, so how do you cut that process in half?

The other hack that I always say is to spatchcock your turkey. You're taking out the backbone, pressing it flat, and you are going to cut your cooking time in half. If you have a smaller table, get a duck. Roast your duck breast and slice them medium rare, confit or braise the legs. That's a great way to take down that cooking time, have something that's a little bit different, still really seasonal and festive, and feels celebratory but changes up that dinner a little bit.

Farm fresh

Can you tell me about some of the farms you work with in New England?

Allendale Farm is a great farm in Brookline, Massachusetts. It's about eight minutes from my house, so I go there a lot. I buy my Christmas tree there every year. I go there weekly when they're open during the season, whether I'm buying plants or flowers for the garden [or] buying vegetables. They also stock a ton of local products, whether it is farm orchard grown peaches that are jarred, and pastas, sauces, meats from different CSAs, they're so wonderful. 

They have two American bison on property. Their names are Curtis and Willard. I sometimes go and I'll buy a plant, and then I go, "I went to see my friends today." My spouse will be like, "Oh, you went to see Curtis and Willard?" I hang out and watch them. We live in the city, so it's still Boston proper. It's this urban area and it's magical that I can be there and hang out with the chickens and the bison and buy all these beautiful fruits and vegetables. I did a big farm dinner there August 16th, with Outstanding In The Field.

We also work with Siena Farms. [They are] fantastic. I worked for Ana Sortun at Oleana Restaurant in Cambridge many years ago as their sous chef, and they also own Siena Farms. I have a Siena Farms tomato CSA share right now. I pick up two shares of tomatoes every week that I distribute between the restaurants. We use their baby squash and zucchini shaved really thinly in our summer tortelli in brodo.

On the fall menu, you showcase a lot of mushrooms. Do you use a foraging group or a mushroom farm?

I have an awesome mushroom guy. He is so fantastic; he just opened a shop as well in Somerville called Mushrooms For My Friends. His name is Tyler Akabane, and he has the very best stuff. Mushrooms are so beautiful and perfect as they are, so I try and showcase them in all of their glory. 

On the menu now is a funghi fritti, a very Tuscan dish with crispy fried porcini. We use a mix of whatever Tyler is bringing us that week, fried in a really light Tempura batter. I serve them with a yuzu brown butter aioli and a lot of fresh mint. We finish them with a Sicilian spice blend called Ferla Spice that our friends at Curio Spice in Cambridge make for us. You have these mushrooms that are dusted with this beautiful sage, oregano, mint, with a nepetella kind of flavor. 

Next week, we'll put our fungi malfaldine back onto the menu. It's a farro malfaldine pasta that we make fresh in house and toss with a mushroom ragu and finished with a black truffle butter. When we start getting those fall mushrooms in, it's such a beautiful and cozy way to welcome the fall.

Deeper into fall, we will start making more braises, polenta, and stews. Mushrooms are such a great way to welcome all of those flavors in a vegetarian meal, and have a little bit less meat in your diet. I'm married to a vegetarian, so I'm always thinking in that way. We often have a lot of vegetarian dishes on our menu.

What's on tap?

Is [the cocktail menu] going to change in the fall as well?

We're working on fall cocktails now, as we speak. We'll be changing a few things up, probably not for another couple weeks or so. We always look at how can we make our cocktail menu seasonal. The biggest thing we're doing for fall at Bar Volpe is we are putting a Negroni flight on the menu. We have different styles of Negroni on tap. They were all created in house. It's pretty fantastic. When I bought the restaurant, it had only been open for about two years, and one of the things that the place before us had invested in was a 30-tap system.

We don't sell a lot of beer. That's not our thing. We really wanted to see how we could utilize this system. What if we had eight [or] nine different Negronis [and] put them all on tap? We have a new white Negroni coming on the menu in a couple weeks. We have a black truffle sfogliatto, which is very fall and so delicious, and we'll be introducing a Negroni flight. We will have our house Negroni, we will have our new white Negroni, and we'll start off with our tropical Negroni and we'll probably swap that out as it gets a little cooler.

Can tell me a little bit about your pasta company that's in the works?

We are up and running. Our pasta company is called Fox Pasta. We have a pastaficio, where we make all of our pastas in house. We have a market where you can come in and buy our fresh pastas. Right now, we have bucatini, we have rigatoni, and we sometimes have casarecce, radiatore, and spaghetti. 

We have three different sauces, currently. We have amatriciana, a tomato basil, and our wild boar bolognese — talk about fall. That's Tuscany in a jar. We also sell our house made ricotta. We sell our Taleggio stuffed focaccia, and we ship all of this nationwide with Goldbelly. We can ship our fresh pastas and sauces as well as our focaccia and t-shirts and merch, and things like that. You can get a little bit of our pasta magic anywhere in the country.

Visit Fox & the Knife's Goldbelly page to order Chef Akunowicz's Boston flavors and have them shipped directly to your door.

This interview has been edited for clarity.