Saffron's Sameh Wadi: Chef Chat, Part 1

Saffron's Sameh Wadi has a lot on his proverbial plate. He was named as a semifinalist for the "Rising Star Chef of the Year" James Beard Award and was invited to cook at the awards ceremony this May. He's also collaborating on a family book of Palestinian cooking with his brother, a project initiated by their parents nearly 20 years ago. At the same time, he's working on new dishes for the upcoming food truck season with his World Street Kitchen and waiting impatiently for the word on when he can get the bright red truck back on the streets. He's also managing his signature line of gourmet spices, Spice Trail, in addition to running his critically acclaimed Minneapolis restaurant. Can you blame him for recently discontinuing the restaurant's late-night happy hour, citing on Twitter that the "chef needs some rest"?

Wadi immigrated to America in his early teens after living in countries across the globe, including Kuwait and Spain. Though food and cooking had been influential in his life from the time he was young, Wadi originally had big plans to move to Spain after high school and become an artist. When the realities of the artist's lifestyle hit him, he changed course and enrolled in culinary school. His decision proved fruitful: By the time he was 23 he had opened his own restaurant, and he's been on a roll ever since. We recently sat down with Wadi and discussed what he's cooking for the James Beard Awards, his work on the family cookbook, and what he really thinks about the American school cafeteria lunch.

Congratulations on your invitation to be an awards gala chef at the James Beard Foundation Awards in May. How did that come about? Thank you. They just called and said, "Can we get your email address?" and sent me an email inviting me to be a gala chef. After freaking out for 15 minutes, I said, "Of course." It's a huge honor.

Do you know what you'll be doing exactly? So, basically, there will be chefs from around the country who are each responsible for doing a dish or two, or a drink, or whatever they want to do. They kind of leave it up to us, with a few guidelines. People will be walking around with glasses of champagne, celebrating whether they won or lost, and we're responsible for providing the snacks for all of these people.

Do you get to choose the dishes you're doing? Yeah. I'm going to do a play on a very traditional Palestinian dish. It's called kibbeh nayyeh. It's like a lamb tartare. It will be finely chopped, with some bulgur, some spices, garlic. It's going to be a re-imagining of the classic dish. All the flavor profiles are going to be there, but it's going to be more modernized.

I also hear that you've been working on a book of Palestinian cuisine. Yes. My mom and my dad, in the early '90s, wrote this cookbook and it never got published. It's been, for me and my brother, a long-term goal to publish it. It's all about preserving the culture and the cuisine of our heritage. It's called The Encyclopedia of Palestinian Cooking. It truly was an encyclopedia in its raw form, just pages handwritten by my mom and my dad.

Wow. Yeah. It's huge, just epic. When we started digging into it early, we thought, there's no way we can translate this into English and do it justice. There's absolutely no way. My father was a writer, and so the words that he used to describe certain things, it just doesn't do it justice to translate it into English.

So now we've scaled back, and we're starting to work on a book that is basically a "then," which is what they were doing back then, and a "now," which is what me and my brother are doing right here in this restaurant, and comparing our recipes. I'm very proud of my heritage, but I'm American, so there are certain things that I do straight up out of the book, and there are other things that I take more liberties with. This book will be able, I hope, to show this.

Did you develop a love for cooking early on? I would say so. Every day for us was like Thanksgiving: Everyone got together, everyone ate lunch together. Lunch was the biggest meal of the day. It wasn't just sandwiches, it was a full meal. It wasn't just one type of dish, it was two or three different dishes. And this was every single day.

So was there a lot of cooking done in the morning every day then? Yeah. There was always something simmering on the stove. Food was not just for nourishment; it was a time for us to all sit down and talk. By the time we were at dinner, we'd be talking politics, because for breakfast you talk about lunch, for lunch you talk about dinner, and at dinner you talk about politics. That's really the way that I grew up.

I found it strange when I moved to the United States, that people weren't sitting down and eating. I was like, "When do you discuss politics? When do you have time to talk to your family members?" And, of course, now that I own my own restaurant, me and my brother, we hardly ever see our family.

Was it a big culture shock? You know, we'd traveled a lot, so we knew what we were getting ourselves into. My brothers were all living here before me, and I had come and visited them before. But it's different once you've fully submerged yourself in a culture. Then all of the sudden you have to make friends. All of the sudden you have to do things a certain way. I have to eat at certain times because this is when people are eating. That was strange in the beginning.

Did you have to eat school lunch? Yeah, that was weird. That was weird! Oh my god. I remember my first school lunch. I was in ninth grade, this was my first year in the United States, and I walked into my first school lunch, and I was terrified. There were hundreds of people just everywhere eating pizza. I was like, "Ew! What's going on?" My cousin was with me, and he said, "All right, this is what we do: We get in the line...," and I said, "I'm not eating any of this. No! Look at that!" We had two lines in our cafeteria: One had whatever cafeteria food they slopped onto your plate, and the other one sold cold turkey sandwiches and pizza. I stood in line for cold turkey sandwiches and pizza for two years.

So what did you eat on that first day? It was a turkey sandwich.

Did you ever bring your own lunch to school? Very seldom. Because again, to me, lunch was family time, so this was breakfast. This was how I looked at it, and it took me a really long time to change my ideals about it.

Were you cooking at that time? I started cooking at a really young age. When I was a little kid, probably 10 or 11, my uncle said, "Why don't you become a chef?" and I said, "I'm not fat enough! I can't be a chef!" It never really crossed my mind.

Really? I cooked for my friends in high school. My friends would come over and I would make chicken livers and tomato sauce for them in the traditional Middle Eastern way, fried potatoes, really traditional items with garlic and cilantro. They'd all come and eat at my house, and I'd be making these elaborate meals, but never in my life did I think "cooking is the thing."

So how did you make the shift? I took a year off after high school and just worked my ass off at the family grocery store. Then a really good friend of mine said, "Hey, I'm thinking of going to culinary school. You want to come with me?" I was like, "Sure!" And a light bulb just came up at that point. I had never thought of it. I walked into the first culinary school, the Art Institute, and I saw a friend of the family who was a chef there as an instructor, and I thought, "Okay, this is a school that I want to come to. I know you, you're here, you're a good person, I want to come here."

I remember going to tell my family that I had figured it out, that this was what I wanted to do. I went to my dad, and I said, "Dad, I'm gonna go to culinary school to be a chef," and he said, "Oh, shit, you're gonna flip burgers?" My dad was really worried. [laughs]

Did you have to calm his fears? It was a little comedic at the time. Everyone was like, "Okay, he's going to forget about it in about a week." I came back with all my knives and books and everything, and they were like, "Okay, this guy is serious. He's not kidding."

What did your mom think? She was like, "Yeah, okay, do whatever you want." She knew that if I wanted to do something, I'd do well at it. They're all very, very supportive, but there was a lot of initial shock there.

Before going to school, the only time I was ever in a kitchen was when I fried falafel for a few places, like at the Festival of Nations. That's it, that's the only food service experience I had other than eating food. I had no clue. So I walked into this school with people who had been cooking for years; whether it was at Applebee's or Perkins, they knew how to hold a knife correctly. I'm walking in there going, "Uh, never worked in a restaurant." Months down the road I became really good friends with one of the chefs there, and he told me that they took bets on who was going to be the first one to drop out of school, who was going to make it through, and he said five out of the five people were betting bet against me, that I would be the first one to drop out.

Check back tomorrow to find out Sameh Wadi's reaction to his classmates' bet.

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