The wheel has turned full circle for Dr Sandro Demaio. The new chief executive of VicHealth – the state’s peak health promotion body – was a 21-year-old Monash medical student when he approached the organisation’s then-incumbent Professor Rob Moodie for career advice.
“I reached out to him more than 13 years ago as a young student trying to find my own way, and it’s a great reflection of him as a mentor and a person that he agreed to meet with me,” says the now 34-year-old Demaio. “Even though we now joke about him not remembering that brief meeting, it’s really what inspired me to go into public health.”
Demaio went on to train at Melbourne’s Alfred Hospital, but his subsequent career took him down a different path. Veering away from clinical care, he’s spent the past 10 years outside Australia in a variety of public health roles – from medical officer with the World Health Organization, to Global Health Fellow at Harvard University, and then high-profile chief executive of the EAT Foundation, an Oslo-based not-for-profit organisation focused on food and sustainability. In what can loosely be termed his ‘downtime’ he’s co-host of ABC TV’s Ask The Doctor, founder of his own Sandro Demaio Foundation promoting healthy and sustainable food for Australian kids, and the author of the 2018 cookbook The Doctor’s Diet.
The famous creed to “equip yourself for life, not solely for your own benefit, but for the benefit of the whole community” is in the Demaio DNA.
Armed with a Master of Public Health from Monash, Demaio went on to complete a PhD with the University of Copenhagen, focusing on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. It’s these impressive credentials that provided the foundation for a globetrotting career. But beyond the string of letters after his name, it’s Demaio’s preternatural ability to communicate positive health messages, without sounding like he’s preaching from a pulpit, that adds the X-factor – making him somewhat of an Antipodean answer to Jamie Oliver and Dr Michael Mosley.
All in the family
While that fortuitous meeting with Moodie may have helped direct his passion for public health, the solid foundations were already there thanks to his close-knit Italian-Australian family. His occupational therapist mother Lynn can still be found volunteering at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, while his GP father Pietro – also a Monash alumnus – has a passion for community health. At the vanguard of the then-revolutionary multidisciplinary approach, Pietro established Burwood Health Care in 1989, a practice that combines multiple services under one roof. When he retired this year, it had expanded to 32 doctors treating 4000 patients a week.
“I would have loved Sandro to take over from me, but he had his own journey to go on,” says Pietro, now 70. “It’s something I also understood because, as I got deeper into the study of medicine, it became apparent it was a vocation, not just a job. You do it because you love it.”
The similarities between father and son are striking. Pietro’s own cookbook, Preserving the Italian Way, is a treasure trove of Italian cooking lore steeped in the health-giving benefits of the Mediterranean diet, and has sold 45,000 copies (“More than John Howard’s biography!”) since its release in 1995. “I went to bookshops trying to find something on how to make the best preserves, how to make the best salami, and they’d say it doesn’t exist. I started collecting recipes and putting them in a booklet, and it went from there,” he says.
The healthy food message was shared by osmosis among the Demaio clan, which includes Pietro and Lynn’s three sons, who all still gather at their Balnarring farm where the family tends a mighty vegetable garden and keeps bees.
The ways passed down by Pietro’s parents – hardworking but illiterate Calabrians who migrated to Australia in 1937 – remain the family’s culinary north star. “You eat what’s in season, you eat what’s fresh, you eat very little meat, and what you don’t eat you put aside and preserve,” says Pietro. “Sandro’s book is really an extension of that same family philosophy in that he goes the next step, adding modern and everyday recipes, and removing salt and some of the salami.” Demaio, in turn, remarks: “Dad’s a great cook, but I often find him sneaking things into my saucepans, like pancetta and salt. He’s often right, but it’s the principle of the matter!”
Like father, like son – like Monash. The famous creed to “equip yourself for life, not solely for your own benefit, but for the benefit of the whole community” is in the Demaio DNA. It was those sentiments that saw the father and son spend three weeks volunteering in Sri Lanka following the devastating 2004 tsunami. This proved another formative event for the young Demaio, who was surprised to find himself dealing not just with acute trauma, but with NCDs which are also endemic in Australia: diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and mental health issues.
“It was really that experience of going to Sri Lanka, thinking we were going to see what most of us think the developing world is dying from, and realising actually they’re dying from the same diseases we are. I just remember thinking, these diseases are largely preventable so we need to get to work,” he says. “And here I am 10 years later, at VicHealth, where that’s our mission and purpose.”
“What really gets me excited is finding ways to increase the health of a population and getting that information in the right hands. Food creates change, that’s the bottom line."
Taking over the chief executive reins in late September, Demaio oversees more than 70 staff and a multi million-dollar budget for direct health promotion, sports and community arts grants, and health research.
All the while the independently run Sandro Demaio Foundation, still in its infancy, will continue despite its founder’s high-profile appointment. Based in Melbourne’s inner north but with a national focus, it has plans to soon launch a preventive health accelerator, as well as a school lunch project that will deliver affordable and healthy meals to primary school-aged children. It also convenes the biennial festival21, a zero-waste celebration of food and its power to create positive impact, showcasing guest speakers, workshops and good food.
The foundation, which is fuelled by Demaio’s income from Ask The Doctor, his cookbook and his public speaking work in Australia, is a ‘money-where-your-mouth-is’ scenario, and it embodies his driving passions. “What really gets me excited is finding ways to increase the health of a population and getting that information in the right hands,” Demaio says. “Food creates change, that’s the bottom line.”
Demaio’s achievements have been a source of great pride for his father. “It’s all very well to go belting the drum, but getting other people engaged in the journey … that’s very difficult,” Pietro says. “But he’s passionate and he’s genuine. And the new job means he’s back in Australia, so I couldn’t be more thrilled.”