Sara Danesin Medio is an Italian born chef and a 2011 MasterChef finalist. She lives in York where she runs ‘Sara @St John’s’, York’s first dining club and her own cookery school. Sara has diners booking several months in advance in order to experience her own unique brand of fine food and hospitality. She tells us how MasterChef helped her to turn her love of food from a culinary dream into a way of life.
“…Always think of who you want to be in five year’s time and stick to that dream…”
Please can you tell us how your passion for food developed?
Since an early age, I have always been passionate about food. My father was, and still is, the person who I can connect with most about food. When I met my husband, David (who is a real connoisseur of fine food and ingredients) my enthusiasm grew steadily until it became a real ‘obsession’, during and after MasterChef.
How did you learn to cook?
As a child I used to sit and watch my mother prepare meals. She is a fantastic home cook and can make very humble ingredients sing on the plate. Food in Italy is a serious affair for housewives, so her repertoire of recipes is almost infinite.
What brought you over the UK from Italy?
I met David whilst in Egypt and we moved together to York where he was studying for his PhD.
What made you decide to take the plunge and apply to take part in MasterChef. What was the selection process?
I applied for MasterChef after a bad day at work and was rather half-hearted about it. I loved my job, but for a series of circumstances I felt I could not progress further in the ranking, so I sent the email, and never thought I could be even considered. The selection process was initially over email, and as I progressed I had various phone interviews. For the 2011 series, 20,000 applications were sent, and thankfully I got picked first time round!
What were the high points…and the lows?
The high points of the programme were all the amazing places we visited and the fantastic array of Chefs I worked for. The lows were: the incredible stress, the lack of sleep and the lengthy process of filming.
You were a well-known character from the show. What sort of reaction did you get from the public afterwards?
The majority of the responses from the public were that I had been ‘robbed’ of the title and that I was the one who deserved to win. I was and still am very much liked because of the job I was doing during the programme. I still get stopped in the UK and abroad three years on: a great feeling.
What was the best piece of advice you were given and how have you acted on this?
The best advice was given to me by the executive producer of the programme. “Always think of who you want to be in five year’s time and stick to that dream.” When fame hits you, it can be easy to sell your image, your food and who you are in exchange of monetary remunerations, and by doing so, you can jeopardize your ethos.
How did taking part in the show change your life?
Being on the most viewed and loved cookery programme on British television was a golden opportunity to plunge into a career that would have otherwise been only a dream and with a push, a hobby. MasterChef gave me the credentials and the chance of showcasing my talent in front of the judges and in front of millions of Britons (and beyond, since the show was and still is broadcasted in 124 countries).
Commercial kitchens are a stressful environment. How did you cope?
After working 17 years in the NHS I survived the professional kitchens by just doing as I was told, without asking too many questions, as well as by keeping in perspective that the job I was doing was not as stressful as being in Intensive Care during a cardiac arrest!
The majority of celebrated chefs are men. Why do you think this is?
Kitchens are a harsh and crude environment and men usually survive it better because they are physically stronger. The few female chefs around probably fought twice as hard to be there, and they also have to be wives and or mothers… Maybe that is too much to ask of females!
How can talented female chefs best showcase their skills?
They need huge determination, courage and stamina! Basically they need to think like male chefs.
How has your Italian heritage shaped your style of cooking?
My style of cooking is best described as modern European. I love lots of ingredients from all over Europe. The relatively few cooking processes, some French techniques and lots of fantastic vegetables and superb extra virgin olive oil from Italy and the Mediterranean make it the perfect concoction… The best of Europe’s heritage and Italian ethos hand in hand!
What made you leave your career in nursing?
The huge platform that MasterChef gave me needed to be exploited and made real. My dream (and my husband’s) had always been, “to do something with food”.
Tell us about Sara @St John’s
The first Dining club in Yorkshire, a very democratic way to feed the public without the stress of owning a restaurant in your home. It was recently described by a client of mine as, ”…the bees knees of York..,” in terms of dining out.
Dining clubs are a very personal experience. How does it feel to have so many guests visiting your home?
To run a dining club, you must be a people’s person, since you open your house to strangers every week. Since opening I have so far fed more than 2300 clients and I can confidently say they were all fantastic to have for dinner (apart from a very few exceptions), and I even made friends with some of them and got invited for meals! It is a special gift to be able to cook at professional level and to do it from your home. It is quirky and for clients since it is a very different dining experience altogether.
What is it like working alongside your husband?
My husband is de facto the engine of Sara @St John‘s. Being a scientist in his other job, David is a meticulous planner, manager and a very charming front of house.
What drives you?
The passion for entertaining, the eagerness to please people with my food, the “we are what we eat” motto and, last but not least, the conscious awareness of my very balanced palate and talent.
How do you relax when you’re not working?
Relaxation isn’t an easy thing for me. I am a keen long distance runner, and I relax during my beloved vital yoga session once a week.
How important is work / life balance and how do you ensure you maintain this?
I am a total workaholic and David is the one who ensures I have proper rest, sleep and holidays to keep sane and healthy.
What advice would you give other women looking to follow their passions and embark on a new career?
I would say follow your dream and work hard, and be determined to ride the storm and to sacrifice some sofa time for a lot of hard work.
As an entrepreneur, how do you decide how to prioritise your time?
It is all about how better to use your skills, and what pays you more… I ditched ironing, and a lot of house work, because for instance, by doing recipes development or other food consultant activities I not only earn more money, but I keep my brain active and always stay a step ahead!
What was the most important lesson you have learnt?
With food it is definitely, stick to what you know best, in life, believe in yourself and your abilities.
Who are you most trusted professional advisors (e.g. accountant, lawyer etc.?)
My accountant is precious since I hate maths and tax returns, my husband and my book agent for believing in me and my talent.
Who has helped you most?
David my husband without a doubt, in everything I do. In the recipe testing my daughter who is a real connoisseur of food and overall my harshest critic.
How can women build their confidence at work?
Working hard, keeping focused and find some self-motivation and support from their loved ones.
What does the future hold for you and Sara @St Johns?
The future is bright for the dining club. We are healthily fully booked and we have not yet needed to publicise or think of how to promote it. The word of mouth has been doing the job for us! It would be great to become a very exclusive dining experience… And why not get a Michelin star?!
What about your new adventures in travel?
From October I will be embarking onto a culinary adventure with a new brand called MasterChef travel. I will be taking up to 15 people at the time to Italy (Amalfi or Tuscany), where we will explore ingredients, places connected to food and so on. All these fantastic trips will be organised by one of London’s top tour operators, Cox and Kings. The trips are for all those keen foodies who love Italy, MasterChef and me!