Decisions are commas, not periods. It used to feel like if I made the wrong decision, my career would be over. Or an opportunity would never come again. It took me a long time to realize that every decision, big or small was just a pause- a turn in the path. Nothing was earth-shattering or career-ending. I put this mantra on my screen saver and repeat it often. I share it with friends and colleagues who are struggling with decision making as well.
For my series on strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Akunowicz who is the 2018 James Beard Foundation Award winner for Best Chef: Northeast, the Chef/Owner of Fox & the Knife enoteca in South Boston, recently named one of Food & Wine’s ten Best New Restaurants 2019, and proprietor of the fast-casual poke concept, SloPoke, in Downtown Boston Whole Foods Market. A native of Kearny, New Jersey, Akunowicz’s 16-year career began with jobs at local restaurants taken while pursuing a degree in social work from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. During this time she explored every facet of management, working both in front of and back of house. However it wasn’t until Akunowicz was applying for a Master’s Degree in social work that she decided to pivot and attend Cambridge School of Culinary Arts.
Thank you for joining us Karen. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The truth is, and I’m not afraid to admit it, cooking was an acquired skill for me. It was a circumstance of necessity, a means to an end.
Fifteen years ago there was this girl. I was working at a non-profit, just a few years out of college. I had a serious crush on a co-worker and I was trying to get her to go out on a date with me. Typically, I didn’t have to try that hard. But, it wasn’t working — not my lines, my offers of movies, invites for cocktails nor my not-so-subtle flirting. Cute skirts, high boots, arm touching and complimenting her haircut didn’t even draw as much as a second look from her.
Then, I had an idea. I told her I would cook for her. It was a last ditch effort, a hail Mary pass. “You should come over, and let me make you dinner, I’m an amazing cook.”
Her eyes lit up and, for a moment, she lost the ever-present aloof look she always wore. “Ok, what time?” I paused, “Eight?” I instructed her to bring the wine and gave her my address. What I didn’t know, at the time, was that her mother was Italian. Pasta was her weakness.
Then, reality hit. Hard. I can’t cook. I can’t even boil water.
I finished work and ran to my favorite bookstore to scour shelves for something — anything — that would transform me into a culinary goddess. I came across a recipe for Puttanesca. The whore’s pasta. Legend has it, that the ladies of the night would make the savory sauce to draw men into their houses. It was exactly what I needed.
I stopped at the grocery store on the way home and loaded my bag with salted capers, briny olives and fresh herbs. It was probably more money than I had ever spent at the market. I unpacked my bags in my tiny galley kitchen, with its electric stove and three square inches of counter space. I cracked open my new cookbook and I told myself I could do it. I carefully boiled water, followed the instructions and chopped and measured my heart out. As I made the sauce, I thought I was creating magic; I watched the shimmering olive oil, sauteing garlic as the flavors of the vibrant, spicy sauce melded together.
It was at that very moment I fell in love with cooking: the process and the act of feeding someone, the chemistry of it all. Looking back now, I know that sauce was terrible. I’m sure I didn’t rinse the capers. I used fresh tomatoes instead of canned. Undoubtedly, I overcooked the pasta. I did, however, get the girl.
Although cooking moved from a tentative hobby to a passion and then a career for me, my desire and drive remained the same. To make delicious, approachable, craveable food. To make you want another bite. I love big bold flavors and cooking that feels like home. Maybe not your home — but someone’s mother or grandmother’s! To make dishes that tempt, soothe and delight.
When I started my cooking career, I had already been working in restaurants for eight years. I had waitressed, tended bar and managed restaurants in Boston for quite some time. I loved the hospitality industry, loved bringing a little joy to someone’s day by recommending my favorite dish or making a perfect martini. I was applying to schools to get a graduate degree in social work. My girlfriend at the time mentioned that I never talked about what I would actually do as a social worker, but always talked about owning my own restaurant.
That led me to take a good hard look at my life, and two weeks later enrolled in the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. I wasn’t sure that I would cook for a living, but I thought that knowing the basics of food and cooking was a worthwhile endeavor if I planned on opening a restaurant some day.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The night before we opened I sat down and cried hard. My team was all in the building, and we were putting the last finishing touches on everything (ok, they were more than finishing touches, we were definitely in the weeds) and I lost it. I thought that the menu was silly, the concept was unclear and “everyone” was going to laugh at me, if anyone showed up at all. The next day we opened the doors. The minute guests stepped into the building my anxiety fell away. Everything clicked. I may not have known how to open a restaurant, but I knew how to run one. In that moment everything crystallized and I knew we were going to be okay.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The day I got the keys to my first restaurant I walked in and turned on the lights to find the basement was completely flooded, as was the prep kitchen, offices and dry storage. I walked back upstairs and sat down and cried. I thought, wow, I have made a huge mistake.
Then I made some phone calls, got the cleanup process started, and went home. There was nothing I could do and sitting there crying wouldn’t help. I moved forward, realizing there will always be a flood, there will always be an issue, but I keep moving ahead, always.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think that we are the little restaurant that could. I only raised and borrowed what we needed. We opened for $700 K which is NOTHING to open a restaurant today. We did so much of the work ourselves, and we worked our butts off. I had a really specific vision that I felt was perfect for a neighborhood restaurant. I created a space and a restaurant that I felt was missing in Boston. It was an idea for a restaurant that had lived in my heart since I lived in Modena, Italy. While big, fancy restaurants opened around me for millions of dollars, I remained steadfast in my vision, keeping my ‘true north’ in sight. Less than five months after opening we have been named Best New Restaurant in America on two national lists (Food & Wine and Eater National), in addition to receiving the same title locally from Boston Magazine. We are not the biggest, or the most stylish, but man, we have heart and soul, and you can feel that when you walk in the building — in the food, and in the hospitality.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’m starting my second book! I love writing and it allows my brain to function in a completely different way from my day to day operations. It jump-starts creativity and allows me to focus more clearly on everything. My goal is always that sharing recipes and stories not only demystifies cooking, but builds confidence in learning to do something new.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Hire, promote and mentor women. Period. And then show up as your authentic self. I was taught to compartmentalize myself, my personal life and any real feelings I had as a leader. I think showing up in a real way (while still being professional), is more impactful to those around you. This allows your team to show up authentically and that is when folks really start to grow.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Break it down. Manage large teams as multiple small ones and then break that one down to the individual. Everyone needs something different, needs to be managed differently, needs different things to grow and thrive. See the forest for the trees, and your connections will be deeper and more impactful.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My former business partner, Joanne Chang, has been my mentor, friend and support system for 8 years. She gave me an opportunity to find my voice as a chef, but then helped me grow into a leader. The latter was so much harder- those growing pains are deep. It’s one thing to be the “boss” it’s another thing to learn to teach and help others grow. We had loose plans to open another restaurant together, and they didn’t pan out, but when I wanted to go out on my own, she supported me and gently pushed me out of the nest. My greatest goal is to do that for the women on my team someday.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I focus efforts on Charities like No Kid Hungry and Lovin’ Spoonfuls and use food as a way to give back. My undergraduate degree is in social work and there has to be an outlet and a way for me to help and give back in some way, since I didn’t pursue that path directly.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Aim high. Then aim higher.
2. Define what success means to you. And then do it again every 6 months. Don’t look to others to see what that measure is, and don’t allow others to tell you what that means.
3. Apologize when you are wrong.
4. Look to your team to teach you.
5. True North. Find yours and share it with your team. Let it guide you.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
There is enough food in this country for everyone, there is no reason for any child or person to go hungry.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Decisions are commas, not periods.
It used to feel like if I made the wrong decision, my career would be over. Or an opportunity would never come again. It took me a long time to realize that every decision, big or small was just a pause- a turn in the path. Nothing was earth-shattering or career-ending. I put this mantra on my screen saver and repeat it often. I share it with friends and colleagues who are struggling with decision making as well.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Ariana Huffington. I not only appreciate her as a business woman, but admire her dedication to meditation as well as her books on sleep and thriving! We all need more of this, and to drop some of the notion that to succeed we need to deprive ourselves of all of our basic human needs and become superhuman.