What’s it really like on a TV reality cooking show? We ask Sara Johannes, one of the contestants, who happens to be from the Twin Cities.
Sara Johannes, executive chef at Shoyu at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, is vying for the big prize on Bravo’s popular TV reality show “Top Chef: New Orleans.” We chatted with her about her culinary inspiration, the show’s challenges and her distinctive look.
Q: Let’s start with your superhero origin story. What first inspired you to become a chef?
A: My grandmothers were a big part of it. My Italian immigrant grandmother on my mom’s side was a big inspiration. She was this old-school Italian. She had every inch of her yard cultivated, she grew the majority of her own foods, and she had all of her kids trained to go out foraging for mushrooms. I swear, whenever we came over, she’d walk into the kitchen, the door would swing open and food would just start flowing out of it. I don’t know how she did it, but she was magical.
Q: Where did you begin to cut your teeth in the restaurant business and how did you get to where you are now at Shoyu?
A: The very first job I ever had in the restaurant biz, I was 15 ½ years old. My dad was very strict and insisted that us kids learn the value of work, so he insisted we get jobs at that age. McDonald’s just happened to be within walking distance of my house. Say what you will, but it teaches you a lot. It teaches you how to work in a kitchen, it teaches you how to multitask, and it teaches you speed, all of the things that will help you down the road in the kitchen.
Q: At what point did you decide to make cooking your career?
A: That really came much later in my life. I was a theater major at the University of Minnesota for many years and I think that’s probably where a lot of my managerial skills came from. I was focusing more on things like stage direction and there are a lot of the same type of organizational skills needed in those types of things that there are running a restaurant. The two kind of blended for me. I wouldn’t say I became disenfranchised, but I’d say realistic about career opportunities in that particular field, but I realized it might be harder for me to make an actual living [in theater]. I started to look around at what really inspired me and what I loved to do, and I found that I just felt right in a kitchen. At 26, I put myself back into culinary school and started at the Nicollet Island Inn, of all places.
Q: So far on the show you’ve shown a lot of Asian influences in your food. How would you describe your overall style of cuisine?
A: I had a lot of experience cooking Chinese and Asian food while cooking for Wolfgang Puck. My first real job outside of culinary school was at 20.21 at the Walker Art Center and that was an Asian-inspired restaurant. Chef Lee Hester was the executive chef at all of Wolfgang Puck’s fine dining and he has a love affair with Chinese food, and it was really easy to be inspired by him because he’s so passionate and knowledgeable. I went from line cook to sous chef to executive chef at two of their restaurants all within their Asian genre. It was a very cool experience.
Q: You’re currently working at Shoyu in the airport. In the first episode, you mentioned you were hoping to change the perception people have of airport dining. What’s it like to cook in that atmosphere and what recent changes have you seen in that subgenre?
A: OTG Management [which runs Shoyu] has gotten a lot of press for what they’re doing in the airport. They’ve taken over G Concourse and put a ton of new restaurants in there. It’s very different if you haven’t been to the airport in the last year or so. There are five fine-dining restaurants now, all chef-driven, all inspired by local restaurants throughout Minnesota.
We’re running restaurants just like any street restaurant would be. We work with local farmers, and we have purveyors that source artisanal ingredients for us. Everything is made from scratch and chef-driven by the seasons. There’s anything that you would expect in a regular bricks-and-mortar outside of the airport, and I think that’s a nice change of pace. Normally, it’s dominated by fast-food and chain restaurants that have nothing to do with the city that they’re in; so to be able to get a real taste of local food in Minneapolis and never actually have to leave the airport is a very cool thing.