Some people might, slightly preciously, claim that cooking is in their blood. For Dara Klein this statement could not be more true. The daughter of a successful restaurateur in Wellington, New Zealand, Klein not only grew up in her parents’ restaurant, but also with strong roots to her family’s native Italy, something that informs both the way she cooks now, and her family’s initial eatery, Maria Pia’s, which became something of an icon in Wellington.

“The restaurant was basically our home,” Klein tells me, “I don’t have that many memories of actually being in our house.” Her mum was an immense talent in the kitchen, and although Klein tells me she described herself as a ‘home cook’ rather than a ‘chef’, her recipes went on to appear in The Silver Spoon cookbook, and she would be asked to represent New Zealand at chef forums held by the Italian government. While growing up entrenched in such culinary talent no doubt influenced Klein, her route into cooking wasn’t straightforward – in fact, she actively pursued other roles until her late 20s.

“My mum had a really hard time being a chef. I saw the struggle she went through both mentally and physically,” Klein tells me. “Seeing the way the stress and pressure eroded at her, and also, you know, to be quite honest, the challenges she faced as a mother and being a chef and not being able to be a present mother. Yeah, it was really tough. So while she opened up this whole world of food to me and I was very blessed to grow up with the traditions and the recipes and the exposure to food that I got was a real blessing, but also it was a bit of a cautionary tale. So I was quite hesitant to pursue it as a career.”

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After finishing high school, she moved to Melbourne to study for a degree in cinema theory and creative writing. She graduated and moved to Sydney to attend drama school, but dropped out after eight months, moving back to Melbourne and taking up a job in a restaurant for a few months before moving onto New York – near to where her dad grew up. She continued to work in restaurants while pursuing acting, although, she admits, “not very seriously”. Towards the end of 2013, she moved back to New Zealand and “got sucked into the world of offices for about five years.” It was the stability and routine that drew her in, an enticing concept after some “rocky years”.

“I worked as an administrative assistant, marketing assistant, office assistant and social-media person for about five years, always in short-term contracts. I tried every single industry: government, tech, creative arts trusts, I worked for an advertising company for a bit, but I hated everything. I was really miserable,” she tells me. Realising this route wasn’t working for her, she moved from Wellington to Ahipara at the top of the North Island, and lived with a beekeeper on her land for seven months. “I wasn’t working, because I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with myself. I had always been a very creative and very driven person growing up, and I always had something to focus on. So when I got into office life I just felt existentially lost,” says Klein. With an excess of free time on her hands, she began to cook. It was a period that ultimately shaped what would end up becoming her purpose.

The exposure to food that I got growing up was a real blessing, but also it was a bit of a cautionary tale. I was hesitant to pursue it as a career

She eventually moved back to Auckland and back into corporate jobs, slipping back into the same feelings of frustration that had driven her to seek change in the first place. But this time, things were different: her mum, semi-retired, was living there, too. “She and I always cooked together,” Klein tells me, “and I said to her, 'Mum, let’s do a pop-up. You’re such a good chef, and you’re not really doing anything with it – let’s just do something.' A friend's mum very graciously lent us her house, we had 30 people and we did this five-course tasting menu. And I just had so much fun.” She was still working in her office job, but slowly that pop-up turned into catering gigs that “progressively got bigger and bigger.”

By the time Klein had decided to move to London, her time working with her mum had allowed her to entertain the thought of “giving proper kitchens a go.” She arranged a stage upon her arrival in the city and the rest, as they say, is history. “I was just like, 'Yeah, I think this is it,'” Klein tells me, of her feelings at the end of her stint. She started sending out her CV, and eventually got a job at Rubedo in Stoke Newington. It was a tiny kitchen, with room for just Klein and head chef Tom Ryalls to cook for 27 covers. The intimacy of the team meant Klein got a quickfire masterclass in cooking professionally, and it’s an experience she says “set the tone for my roadmap in kitchens.”

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After 11 months there she moved to Brawn, a job she took on in January 2020 that unsurprisingly was impacted by the pandemic. She then moved on to Trullo, where she met Diarmuid Goodwin, who not only became a good friend, but also went on to step into the role of head chef at Sager + Wilde, bringing Klein along with him as his sous chef. “I was really excited, but I still felt like I hadn’t been cooking for all that long, and I had a moment of thinking, 'Am I really up to it?'” she tells me. “But I was. We got to Sager + Wilde at the end of May this year, and we’ve just been building up our kitchen and our little world since then. It’s finally starting to feel like we’re where we want to be.”

Alongside Goodwin, Klein has brought her Italian roots to the kitchen at Sager + Wilde. I have dined there many times over the years, but increasingly so in the last year as I moved to a new flat across the road. The wine bar has generally always served Italian-accented dishes, but under the current duo the food feels refreshingly different. There is an attention to detail that has been lacking before, and an approach to cooking that makes it the kind of place you genuinely want to eat. As for the future? Klein is coy about the specifics, but emphatic on one thing: Italy is home, and it’s the country she’ll eventually hope to return to. Like I said: it’s in the blood.