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Q&A with local chef and Top Chef contestant, Sara Johannes

Posted by: Marcus Michalik under Minnesota newsmakers, On the national scene, TV food shows Updated: October 20, 2013 - 7:31 PM

Let’s start with your superhero origin story. What first inspired you to become a chef?

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.

Where did you begin to cut your teeth in the restaurant business and how did you get to where you are now at Shoyu?

The very first job I ever had in the restaurant biz, I was fifteen and a half years old. My dad was very strict and insisted that us kids learned the value of work so he insisted we get jobs at that age. McDonalds 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.

At what point did you decide to make cooking your career?

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 and 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.

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?

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.

You mentioned in the first episode some of your experiences working with Wolfgang Puck and how you were hoping the show would allow you to step out of his shadow. Have you heard from him or Lee Hester since the show started airing?

I have heard from Lee Hester. He wished me good tiding and good luck. I won't tell you exactly what he said [laughs] but it was very similar to advice he has given me in the past.

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?

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 5 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 is made from scratch and chef-driven by the seasons. There’s anything that you would expect a regular brick 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.

Did you every feel any level of condescension or lack of understanding about working in an airport restaurant from any of the other contestants on Top Chef?

I think all of us were there because we love to cook. One of the coolest things about that experience was that everyone there was just as excited to learn from the person standing next to them as I was. You have to be kind of humble in this industry and realize you don't know everything and never will know everything. It was this great little workshop of some of the heavy hitters in the industry in the trenches and it's neat to be a part of a group like that.

Did you have any strategies going into the show or any level of self-awareness about how to present yourself for the cameras and producers?

In all honesty, you don't have any time to think about how you're presenting yourself. Things move so quickly there. The best advice I was given about being on the show was to be yourself, because it will come out on its own no matter what. I hope I can say I was myself or that I came off how I actually am in real life.

Have you been watching the show as it airs? What's it been like to see yourself on TV?

It's really fun. The rest of the contestants and I have been tweeting each other back and forth and it's been hilarious to watch some of these conversations unfold. For example, the episode this week, we couldn't shut up about Shirley's beets and what happened to them, which became this running inside joke between us. The show is done. There's nothing you can do except sit back and watch and if you don't have a good sense of humor about it, you probably shouldn't have gone on Top Chef to begin with.

It sounds like you've kept in touch with a lot of the contestants since you've wrapped filming.

Oh absolutely. They're like war buddies at this point. No one else understands what you've been through at this point!

What was it like to cook for Tom Colicchio and the rest of the judges? Did that ever get easy as it went along?

No! [laughs] No, it never gets easier! To this day it's not easy. I was sitting there watching judges' critiques this week sweating and nervous as I was when I first heard those words come out. You're not only cooking for them, but for any number of luminaries that might walk in the door at any particular moment. You go into a place like Commander's Palace for a nice meal and two hours later you're suddenly cooking for the head chef and every chef that's come before him. It's a trip.

How different is the cooking process in this environment compared to your own restaurant?

The best way to describe it is that it's highly concentrated. The way I like to formulate menus and go about my dishes is to do a lot of research and experimenting, and then run dishes as specials for a while and familiarize your staff with what the dish is and how it works. After that, you still workshop it a little bit more before it gets on the menu. In this particular case, you're going from concept directly to judges sometimes in just 30 minutes.

And then they throw in the team challenges too!

You know, the team challenges are realistic. I've always said that no one runs a restaurant on their own. You always have to work on a team, no matter what. You have to have that as a skill that you're just as good at as your culinary ones.

What are some of your favorite places to eat at in the Twin Cities?

A lot of the places I like are the smaller places. A really good friend of mine, and someone who's doing amazing things in the Twin Cities right now is Thomas Boemer over at The Corner Table. It's been really cool to see his journey from where he started in the Twin Cities to now. He was actually a sous chef with me at 20.21 and it's really cool to see what he's turning that place into. He's amazingly talented and someone I very much look up to and admire.

Do you have any advice for those who may be watching the show and are inspired to become chefs themselves?

My number one recommendation is to work in a restaurant before you decide to dedicate your life to it. I'd much rather you have some experience in a restaurant before you go into culinary school instead of doing it the other way around. I think people are sort of waylaid by the purported glamour of television. You're going to work long hours, all the hours you're friends are out playing and holidays too. It's down and dirty. People who are there are there because they can't visualize themselves anywhere else.

What's your favorite guilty pleasure convenience store junk food?

[Laughs] This is kind of embarrassing, but those Flaming Hot Cheetos. Oh my god, they're delicious. They have that little bit of lime in there too - so good.

Finally, we've been trying to keep track as the show's been airing, but exactly how many headscarves did you bring with you to New Orleans?

All of them. Very rarely do I get to dress up and look like a girl. As a female in the kitchen, nine times out of ten you're wearing chef's clothes cut for a man, so the opportunities you have to look girly you sometimes have to embrace and just go with. Today I'm wearing a red one.

Everyone is calling you Rosie The Riveter online!

It's an honor to be compared to one of those gals. There are a lot of insanely talented ladies on this season too.

Top Chef: New Orleans airs Wednesdays at 9pm on Bravo.

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