An Interview with Self-Taught Italian Chef: Sandra Del Greco
Sandra surprised herself, and probably her friends and family too, when she turned out to be the person she is now.
While everyone knows first-hand that Italians have a fervent love for food (both cooking and eating!) Sandra Del Greco, a former successful accountant and now owner of Italian cooking school, La Cucina di Sandra didn’t begin to explore the Italian cuisine until after she moved to Australia, and not until her 30s. She didn’t find huge success in it right away, what with the shortage of Italian cuisine books or classes to learn from. She ended up instead studying other cuisines with resources readily available like French and Spanish.
That is until she discovered a recipe book on the Abruzzo cuisine. (Abruzzo is a local region and one of Italy’s little-known treasures) This seemingly petty instance served as an impetus of a crescendo to Sandra’s career. It ignited her longing to re-connect with her Italian heritage. She spent hours learning from others, researching new Italian recipes and testing new dishes. Her shift from being a successful accountant to a chef was entirely self-made, rooted from her decision to re-invent herself and finally follow her passion. Three years later, Sandra has soared since making this bold choice. Her story and her authentic Italian courses has since been featured in several publications, including The Broadsheet and The Australian.
Her many guests and students, on the other hand, keep coming back to her kitchen because, aside from the place being wonderful, is because it is home to a bespoke and truly hearty Italian cooking experience.
Can you share with us your background? Tell us something about yourself.
I was born in Italy in Pescara, Abruzzo. I was raised by my mother, grandmother and aunt - strong women who loved to cook for their families. I have had a passion for cooking from a very early age. As a child, I watched my grandmother cook every day and loved spending time in her kitchen.
I studied in Italy and graduated as an accountant. I migrated to Australia in 1971 where learning English and establishing a career as a Senior Finance Manager became my passion. I was very successful in managing a number of businesses. Cooking was a hobby but cooking Italian food remained a dream as I had no family here to learn from. I had no recipes and no one that could teach me how to cook the dishes I grew up with.
What is your earliest memory of cooking in Italy and what did you make?
When I was growing up, I just watched my nonna, zia, mamma and my father cook. I was grown up when I first cooked in Italy. I was there on holiday and cooked for my family, including my aunt (scary!). I made pasta e ceci, (pasta with chickpeas). My aunt was not impressed!
What do you miss the most about Italy?
Lots of things. All of my family. The ingredients and the food. The passion the Italians have for everything they do, and of course, the beauty of the country. It is not called “Il Bel Paese” (the beautiful country) for no reason. And the Abruzzo mountains as well!
How has having experienced two cultures impacted your life?
In every way imaginable, I am different. I think differently, feel differently. The loss of my country and family has been a character-building experience, and in many ways it has made me who I am today. I am two people - an Australian born in Italy. I am just as proud of being Italian as I am of being Australian. I adore my Aussie family. Being bilingual has given me a different dimension on life, on learning and on what I can achieve.
Is cooking a passion that you have always had?
Yes and no. I loved watching my grandmother and aunt cook, but I did not realise how much I loved cooking until I was in my very early 30s. I became involved with people in the [French] hospitality industry, spent time in restaurant kitchens and cooked a lot with a group of friends. That is when my passion for cooking developed. I started collecting cookbooks and magazines, and started experimenting with different cuisines. The multicultural restaurant scene, and the available produce in Melbourne made it even more possible for me to try new and adventurous dishes. I could never have enough books and magazines, and I tried something different every time I had a spare minute and could cook.
How did you turn your passion into business? Why did you decide to share your passion through teaching?
Early in 2014, I was made redundant and realised that it was time for me to do what I had always wanted to do for some 20 years. I was NOT going to work for anyone else any more - setting up my own business was the way to go. Sharing my love and knowledge for cooking by running classes was the only business I wanted to be involved in.
Why do you love doing what you do? What drives you everyday?
Lots of things. I love my guests. The groups of people who come to my classes are all gorgeous and so, so appreciative of everything I have to offer - my home, my food, my recipes, my tips, my recommendations, my stories, and my personality! This makes everything else fall into place. It goes without saying that I love the hours I spend shopping, preparing and cooking. But I also love researching new recipes, testing and cooking new dishes and sharing them on my Facebook and Instagram page.
I am driven by me. I am just driven. I must do, work, cook, make, research. There is no time to be idle.
Where is your business today?
In May 2017, I will celebrate the 3rd birthday of La Cucina di Sandra. In over three years, I have more than doubled La Cucina’s number of people and classes and I will have had more than 1400 guests and close to 300 classes. I have been reviewed by bloggers, foodies and magazines and have established a name in the food and cooking world in Melbourne! The 5-star reviews on Facebook, Google, Trip Advisor and WeTeachMe are a testimony of my hard work and what I offer for my guests. Something no one else in this field does in Melbourne.
Is this what you would have thought for yourself 3 or 5 years ago?
Absolutely not. Five years ago, I was totally dedicated to the online business I managed. And three years ago, I did not think it possible that I would even start - let alone be where I am!
What is the best advice you have received?
You can do it, you are a natural. This is also the same advice I would give anyone else thinking of starting their own business. It is hard to start, but the best thing you will ever do.
What, so far, do you feel most proud of?
Reinventing myself twice in the last 13 years has been, by far, my greatest achievement and what I am most proud of. In 2010, I was promoted to the role of E-Commerce manager by my last employer and in that role I project managed the built of two E-Commerce sites and sales growth of 650% over 3 years. In 2014, I founded La Cucina di Sandra and was able to establish, in less than 3 years, a reputation as Melbourne’s best Italian cooking classes. That’s no small achievement!
Where do you see your business going in the next few years?
From strength to strength, establish an even stronger reputation, be booked out all the time, guest cook at other venues and cooking schools, lead food tours to Italy, Abruzzo and Puglia and maybe a cookbook deal.
What else do you want to share with our readers?
I believe everybody needs a supporter to do they love and run a business. Anyone who does it solo is a genius and a miracle worker. None of what I have done would have been possible without the support, help and constant devotion of the person I love most in my life - my husband.
To learn and have a taste of real Italian cooking, visit Sandra and hear her stories in her beautiful Richmond home. Click below to read about one of her popular Italian cooking classes in Melbourne.
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