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Chef’s Dish: Culinary Instructor Sara Johannes

Sara Johannes is having something of a full-circle moment. “Top Chef” fans may recall her name from the 2013 season of the reality show, but her passion for cooking lies fully in her Midwestern roots. Not adverse to the cold winters, she now teaches in the culinary school at St. Paul College, her alma mater. 

“The food scene [in Minnesota] is so fresh and vibrant,” Johannes explains. “It’s probably one of the most creative in the country.” 

It’s the local variety and passion for the craft she credits with pulling her back home—and of course those four distinct seasons. And already with a vibrant career, the choice to teach at her former college seemed like a natural progression.

“You should constantly be learning,” says Johannes, “that’s one of the coolest things about being in the culinary world. You will never know everything.” 

Still, her attempt to learn everything is evident in her resume.

After navigating executive chef positions out of state—including at Wolfgang Puck’s Five Sixty restaurant in Dallas and WP24 in Los Angeles—Johannes took a role managing restaurant concepts in concourse G at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where she saw first-hand the range of local Minnesota flavor. 

“[OTG] did an excellent job of going out into the community and making it possible to get the feel of the city without leaving the airport,“ Johannes explains of the company that developed dining concepts with input from local chefs such as Doug Flicker and Lenny Russo. That opportunity afforded her a diverse audience and wide range of cuisine, neither of which she took for granted. 

Her constant desire to learn guided her choices in the industry. Now, she imparts that knowledge to the next generation of chefs eager to learn. 

“It made sense for me to come back to education. One of the things I liked the most about being an executive chef was the mentorship aspect of it,” she tells me as she waits for a meeting with students.

As an executive chef, the experience of working with young cooks made Johannes understand the need for quality education in the Twin Cities. With this in mind, she was eventually drawn back to St. Paul College to teach. When asked what she wished she knew as a student, she replies with her best piece of advice, to “always make sure that people know you’re willing to learn.” And her willingness to learn led her directly to a spot on “Top Chef,” which she snagged while also working as the executive chef at Shoyu in the airport.

The most important lesson she learned during her reality TV stint? “Be prepared,” Johannes says. “You never know what’s lurking behind that door.” Johannes likened the time in the competition to a summer camp for chefs. For her, it was an opportunity to work among and with some of the most talented people in the industry. 

As for cooking, Johannes won’t be leaving the industry anytime soon. 

“It gets under your skin,” Johannes says. “I love working with food. Especially in the Midwest.” 

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