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By Michele Meyer
Tracy Chang, owner/chef of PAGU, credits her determination in the man’s world of top Boston restaurant kitchens to playing soccer against guys while growing up.
“If they knock you down, you get back up,” says Chang, who struggled for four years to lease space for her Japanese and Spanish tapas bar, during which she hosted pop-ups and taught cooking.
“I was up against white males who were over 40 and had multiple restaurants and awards,” says Chang, who was 28 when she opened PAGU in 2017. “I had to lose many battles before winning one.”
“The path isn’t easy,” says Karen Akunowicz, James Beard winner for Best Chef: Northeast in 2018 and nominee in 2020 for Fox & The Knife, which she and wife LJ Johnson co-own, along with Bar Volpe.
“Many years I was the only woman in the kitchen. Women must keep their heads down and work twice as hard. And going out on their own, women have less access to capital.”
Chang found that choosing the right allies made her simmering prospects rise in the “game of professional cooking.”
Akunowicz, meanwhile, established her kitchen cred not only as executive chef for seven years at Myers + Chang – where she won the James Beard – but also as a pasta maker for a pivotal year in Modena, Italy. Her national profile also rose on Bravo’s Top Chef and Top Chef All-Stars. “TV is a huge opportunity. As a minority and a queer woman, visibility is so important.”
She tips her toque to Joanne Chang, co-owner of Myers + Chang and Flour Bakery + Cafe with her husband Christopher Myers, for mentoring her. A James Beard outstanding baker in 2016, Joanne Chang also rose through the ranks of female restaurateurs, including Jody Adams and Lydia Shire.
“It’s an industry of paying it forward,” Joanne Chang says. “Someone takes you under a wing, and you wait for when you’re not the duckling who doesn’t know how to swim. Then you share what you’ve learned.” To help emerging women chefs find mentors in the restaurant industry, like those who supported and motivated Joanne Chang, KitchenAid and the James Beard Foundation recently teamed up to launch Open For Good. The program is designed to create more possibilities for women in culinary arts, helping them become leaders in the space.
“The best thing we can do as women restaurateurs is to share our knowledge and help other women achieve the same goals,” Akunowicz says.
Now that they’re in charge, Akunowicz and Tracy Chang run kitchens and management teams brimming with women.
“People are drawn to work for us because of a female owner, not despite it,” says Akunowicz. “Our entire senior management is filled with strong, brilliant, and amazing females.”
As for their food, ingenuity in the kitchen is vital.
Joanne Chang points out, “So much of baking and cooking involves six or seven ingredients. But experimenting is enjoyable. You change it, and it becomes better. Pretty soon it’s amazing.”
For home cooks working with what’s in the fridge, “it’s how you prep, mix and cook [ingredients] that provide a whole that’s better than the parts,” she says. “I love the alchemy – taking elements and jumping into something else. Even if it’s not great, it takes you to another world.” A good reminder that the experience of cooking is often just as great as the results.
Ann Nolan, culinary training chef for Whirlpool Corp., also savors trying something new. “What’s the worst that could happen?” she asks.
“Cooking is good therapy,” says Nolan, who pencils in the changes she makes to recipes in cookbooks as she fine-tunes them. “Make it yours and don’t fear failure. It’s only food. It’s not permanent, like painting your house.”
To overcome cooking ruts, Joanne Chang recommends buying cookbooks that are “the farthest away from what you’re used to doing. Try something different. You’ll expand your mind and techniques.”
Akunowicz says her inspiration “comes from everywhere, whether a beautiful picture or a walk through a farmstand and seeing a type of basil I haven’t used in a long time.”
PAGU’s Tracy Chang discovered new motivations via meals at home with her husband and their two small children, “I haven’t always felt creative cooking at home, but my family has become my muse,” she says.
As a result, she’s added things to PAGU’s take-out menu such as hand-pulled noodles and squid-ink fried calamari pizza. “I was making them at home, so why not put them on the restaurant menu? The hand-pulled noodles are now our most popular item.”
With PAGU’s survival at stake during the pandemic, she’s also sought new revenue streams.
Realizing that the cooking activities she does with her kids could appeal to other parents, she now sells pancake mixes as a family activity, recreating the matcha, black sesame, and purple yam pancakes she made for her children. “That childlike playfulness isn’t something I’d practiced in a long time.”
When you’re cooking, your kitchen equipment also can feel like part of the family, too.
Akunowicz hung onto a bulky tigelle breadmaking iron from Modena, Italy for a decade, planning to build an eatery around it — and the resulting restaurant was a James Beard nominee in 2020.
Joanne Chang still has her first KitchenAid mixer, which has a place of honor in her home kitchen. “I also kept my first chef’s knife from Biba, more for nostalgia.”
Nolan’s “game changers” are her cordless food chopper, which allows her to roam while dicing veggies, and cordless hand mixer, which lets her whip up salad dressing and check on the oven across the room — at once.
Adding appliances that offer innovative features or help with multitasking can bring your cooking to the next level. Something as simple as a French-door refrigerator for easy access to ingredients or a smart dishwasher that can be turned on from anywhere in the house can make a major difference. “They save you time, which gives you time to create,” says Nolan.
The time that Jessica Burzycki, vice president of New England Appliance Group board of directors, used to devote to cleanup now allows her to experiment.
“I switched to an induction cooktop — and I’ll never go back to gas,” says Burzycki, who is also owner of Keith’s Appliances in Norwich and Mystic, CT. “It’s a huge time-saver.”
Her induction cooktop — an appliance KitchenAid offers — uses electromagnetic technology. “It heats pans 10-15 minutes more quickly,” she says. “But since the cooktop itself remains cool, food spatters don’t burn and cleanup is remarkably quick.”
In the end, it’s the memories around a great meal that matter most.
“What inspires me are specific moments when I’ve cooked and shared a meal with people,” Tracy Chang says. “I think about texture, flavor harmonies, and the emotions they evoke – that soul-warming feeling of being with family and friends and celebrating together.”
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