Growing up in the 1980s, Julia Danno spent many hours glued to the TV in her North Riverside home watching “The Frugal Gourmet” and Julia Child on PBS.
But now, Danno’s friends and family are the ones riveted to the small screen as she competes on the latest season of Fox’s hit cookoff show, “MasterChef.”
And she’s doing great, by the way. One of the final 14 cooks left on the show, Danno was the star of the most recent episode on July 25, winning raves from the show’s judges and her cooking partner for the night. The next episode is Aug. 1 at 7 p.m.
Danno’s passion for food and cooking began when she was a student at Komarek School. At the age of 10, her interest in watching cooking shows and reading cookbooks led to Danno replicating recipes in the family kitchen for the family to enjoy.
As a teenager, Danno honed her craft in pastries, developing different recipes for cheesecakes and cookies, eventually selling the treats out of her home.
“Desserts are something that I absolutely love to do,” Danno said. “I just gravitate towards any kind of desserts.”
After graduation from Riverside-Brookfield High School, Danno said she wanted to attend Kendall College for formal culinary training. However, her father advised her to follow a more traditional career path, so cooking remained a pastime for Danno.
While following a career as a sales trainer and manager, Danno never lost sight of her passion for food. She continued to enjoy watching culinary shows and cooking and baking in her free time, never thinking she would actually become a professional.
But all of that changed last year, when Danno, now a resident of the South Loop, followed her cousin’s advice to audition for one of their favorite shows, “MasterChef.”
“I have always been a big fan of any types of cooking competitions and cooking shows, and ‘MasterChef’ is something that I’ve always watched,” she said. “My cousin had actually auditioned a few times and didn’t get selected, so he told me about the audition. … So, I said, ‘You know what? I think I’m going to give it a shot.'”
On her day off, Danno headed to the audition in downtown Chicago. To showcase her work, she walked in with two chocolate-covered cannoli cakes in a unique container — a shoe box.
“I didn’t even think to myself what kind of container I was going to bring them in, and a friend of mine who had passed away a year ago and knew I always wanted to do something like this always used to tell me, ‘You buy so many shoes, you have all these shoe boxes — just stick it in a shoe box and get down there.’ So, that’s really what I did.”
To her surprise, Danno was picked as a contestant for season nine of the program. This spring, she flew out to Los Angeles to begin filming.
On “MasterChef,” award-winning chefs Gordon Ramsay and Aaron Sanchez and restaurateur Joe Bastianich choose their favorite home cooks and mentor them through a variety of unique elimination rounds from which only one comes out on top, earning the title of MasterChef and winning a $250,000 grand prize.
While the season is still in progress, Danno said the journey has been nothing short of amazing.
“To be in front of [Ramsay, Sanchez and Bastianich] and to actually have them eat my food and judge it is just the most amazing experience,” she said. “I’m always very talkative and don’t really not talk, but when I come to see them and they actually eat my food and they’re about to critique it, I just can’t stop staring.”
Along with the pressure of competing for famous culinary professionals, Danno said a big challenge for her has been downsizing her portions.
“I used to have Christmases at my house with my family … an easy 50 to 60 people … so I don’t feel nervous when it comes to the challenges, because I’m used to thinking on my feet,” she said. “My biggest challenge doing this competition was [having to] tone it down and say, ‘Hold on, I just need one.'”
Danno said another thing she has enjoyed about the whole experience is feedback from her family and friends back in Chicago.
“Every time [my nieces and nephews] watch it, they tell me, ‘JuJu, that’s exactly how you act all the time.’ I’ve never been somebody that’s quiet. I’ve always been somebody that speaks my mind and speaks my opinion, and they’re all just getting a kick out of it.”
Regardless of Danno’s outcome on the show, she said maybe, being on TV again is something she’d like to do.
“Being in this type of competition, no matter what happens in the end, I feel like I’ve met so many amazing people in the industry and made so many great connections with people that it would be my hope to do something like that,” she said.
As for advice for young, aspiring chefs, Danno’s message is simple — have confidence.
“I wish that life didn’t get in the way with other jobs and everything else, and I applaud everyone else who has done it sooner,” she said. “If this is something that you really want to do on a food level or any other platform, you really just have to go for it and be yourself.”
For now, Danno is happy to be living out her true passion.
“If you find something that you love in life, it’s not work, and it’s never been work for me,” she said. “It’s always been such a love for me. I’m really happy that I never let it go and I always just kept going with it, because it’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do, so I’m glad I stuck with it.”
To see Danno on “MasterChef,” tune in at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays on Fox. If you want to catch up you can watch past episodes at www.fox.com/masterchef/episodes.