A small-town chef has big plans
She tightens her apron, leans over the kitchen table, and places drops of a creamy orange sauce around the perimeter of the blue plate, setting a colorful base for the black chickpeas tossed with vegetables and freshly picked spices. She always had a flare for the dramatic, but she never thought to combine her two loves: cooking and theater. Amidst the constant motion of Milan, she read textbooks during the day and waited tables at night, but ultimately she moved back to quaint Fermignano, where she runs a knick-knack store.
Everything changed in the summer of 2016.
Giulia Brandi had always cooked, but it was mostly in her own home. Then a friend decided Brandi wasn’t using all of her potential. She saw that Brandi’s cooking was worth more than a small family meal—it was worth the small screen.
“It’s been a little strange because I had never seen MasterChef on television,” says Brandi, now 31, recounting her journey to television. She laughs sweetly. “This friend of mine told me ‘Giulia you have to go to MasterChef, you have to go to MasterChef,’ and so this friend of mine just signed me up for the show.”
Brandi had grown up in Fermignano in the Pesaro-Urbino province of Italy, but left for Milan in 2004 to study theater at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera, or Academy of Fine Arts of Brera. Brandi first took the stage growing up in Fermignano at a small local theater company, interested in everything from acting in traditional plays as she was starting out to singing Amy Winehouse as she got older.
She learned to cook at a young age as well, as both of her parents worked and she needed to be able to feed herself.
“I needed to start cooking lunches and dinners for myself, and I started cooking with what I had in my fridge,” Brandi says. “I liked cooking. My grandparents showed me how to do things, how to make pasta, and so that’s how it began.”
Prior to studying in Milan, Brandi mostly stuck to traditional Italian cooking with homemade pasta and lots of meats. While in Milan, however, she opened her mind to different styles. She waited tables at restaurants, cooking only for friends or coworkers when not at work. Despite the happiness that comes from seeing people you love enjoy your food, she says, cooking didn’t seem like a career as much as a hobby.
In 2009, after several years of studying theater, homesickness took over and Brandi decided to return to the comfort and familiarity of the Fermignano mountains. Six years ago, her father helped her open a knick-knack store, Très Julie. She lovingly refers to Très Julie as “shabby-chic,” proud of her collection of bright and fun yet comforting household products.
With a particular fascination in Danish and French products, she sells mostly home decorations, pastel candies layered in glass vases, and children’s toys. She holds up a plush animal and recounts one particular customer that buys any stuffed bears that she comes across. A wooden frame with a bright red heart hangs not far behind the counter. The frame is one of a few things in the store she has made herself, but she takes pride in all of her products.
“It’s been giving me something to live for,” Brandi says. “I also like it very much because I’ve never been the type of person that can be behind a desk working.”
In addition to helping her open Très Julie, Brandi’s father served as an inspiration when she was learning to cook. He is a carpenter, but is known among friends for being an impassioned traditional Italian cook. After he helped build a house for a family in Urbino, he cooked them a meal so flavorful they instantly asked him to stay and be their chef. He gracefully declined, but suggested his daughter in his place—insisting she was just as good.
“My father is better than me, absolutely,” Brandi says. “It’s something about how he loves doing it. He’s practically invincible. There’s no way to beat him.”
Brandi’s entire family is tight-knit and cooking-oriented. Both sets of grandparents and her parents cook. So does her brother, Paolo, three years her elder. He originally went to culinary school to become a cook, but prefers baking now. She and her brother have always challenged one another in and outside of the kitchen.
In the comfort of Très Julie near closing time, Brandi nudges Paolo, remembering when they grew up and first learned to cook.
“He surely influenced me because when we were young, we used to cook together,” she says. “He probably gave me the passion for cooking.”
Paolo explains that even now, the entire family lives and works within the same town. They still meet up for special occasions and cook together, even if it isn’t on a daily basis like it used to be.
“Now when we go home, even before ‘Ciao,’ she says ‘Go cook, go do this, do that,’” Paolo says about their mother.
Giulia surrounds herself with family as well as friends who feel like a part of the family. Elena Cancelli and Brandi have been friends since they were both small children, when their families would often meet together to celebrate holidays.
Cancelli has always been one of Brandi’s biggest supporters, and was the one who originally encouraged her to go on MasterChef.
“She perfectly combines the art of the kitchen and being a ‘character’ in a real natural way.
She really cooks with her heart.”
“She has always loved cooking and I have always thought that she might do much more with this passion,” Cancelli says. “Ever since the first season of MasterChef I thought she might be one of the contestants, because I think she perfectly combines the art of kitchen and being a ‘character’ in a real natural way. She’s not just another person, she’s so funny—she really cooks with her heart.”
Brandi auditioned and was selected for the sixth season of MasterChef, which was filmed in the summer of 2016 and aired from December of 2016 to March of 2017.
The theatrics of cooking on television were far different from any form of cooking Brandi had done before, as she had to repeat actions to get the best shots on video, but she adapted and thrived.
“More than affecting my way of cooking, it just awakened a passion that I already had,” Brandi says. “So if before I would just cook for my friends, or something for me in the house, now I have more of the idea of going to look for what else I might cook.”
Inspired by her experiences on MasterChef, Brandi and her brother plan to open a modern Italian restaurant called La Bersighena, which she describes as a type of extinct grape her grandfather loved. She glows thinking about the currently empty space they have found and hope to use when they officially open their doors in December of 2017 or January of 2018.
Brandi plans to do the cooking, while her brother will bake. She expects to hire someone to be a waitress, but nobody else, to keep it more or less a family business.
“That’s a dream we have, we hope it’s getting real in the near future,” Paolo says. “I would deal with the baking, but of course I would take a look at the cooking too.”
As the siblings reflect over who would be in charge of the restaurant, Paolo puts his arm around her shoulder and playfully taps her cheek, reflecting on the times in their younger days when they fought all the time. They both insist they are leader of the duo, wagging their fingers ‘no’ and shaking their heads at each other’s claim to leadership. They do acknowledge, however, that they are better together.
“We see things differently,” Giulia says. “I’m more practical; he’s more of an intellectual kind of a person. He’s more reflexive; he’s deeper. I’m more concrete and I want to do things sooner. Even without me there’s nothing to be done, you need me to do things. We’re a team, we’re the perfect team — we’re just like a machine.”
Giulia thinks about what’s next, beyond the restaurant. She hopes to purchase a food truck and take it on the road in the summer of 2018. She pictures stopping in large and bustling cities, soaking up all the excitement but then returning to a welcoming home at the end of a trip. She laughs and says she’s just like Heidi — she’ll always want to come back to the mountains.
While Très Julie and La Bersighena are both family businesses, Brandi wants to enter the food truck world with one of her closest friends, a co-contestant on MasterChef, Antonella Orsino.
Orsino recalls the large crowd of people auditioning for MasterChef in 2016. In the midst of all the other lively personalities, she saw Brandi with flowers in her hair and holding a hand basket. The two became fast friends and to this day talk several times a week on the phone and visit one another as often as they can.
They both were interested in food trucks, so it felt like fate. One night Orsino had the television on and heard the classic soul of Al Green’s “Tired of Being Alone” in the background, looked to the television, and realized the movie “Chef” was playing.
“The next day I called Giulia and told her, ‘Giuly, let’s leave everything behind, buy a food truck and travel around Italy,’” Orsino says. “Her reply was, ‘Anto, I was going to call you to say the same thing.’”
The two look forward to making this dream come to life as they meet up to travel while cooking together during summers. “It’s interesting,” Orsion says, “how among 150 people, destiny chooses to position you next to a person that will always be in your life.”
Until the opening of La Bersighena, Brandi is running Très Julie, working part-time as an in-house chef just outside of Urbino, and planning the future of the restaurant and food-truck. She finds that she is always busy, but that it’s worth it. She says she has found her place, even if it’s not in one physical location. She says others look in shock at her busy schedule and big dreams, wondering how anyone can take on all their dreams at once.
“People ask me, but I don’t know how I do it,” Brandi says. “For a very long time I’d been doing things I don’t like, and I didn’t feel happy, didn’t feel in that place. But now I started doing only the things I like, and I feel very happy.”
This article also appears in Urbino Now magazine’s Mangia Bene section. You can read all the magazine articles in print by ordering a copy from MagCloud.