Saffron's Sameh Wadi: Chef Chat, Part 3

Sameh Wadi and his big red truck
Sameh Wadi and his big red truck
photo by Michelle Bruch

Today we wrap up our three-part series with chef Sameh Wadi of Saffron and World Street Kitchen. (If you missed them, read parts 1 and 2 here.) We discuss when the big red truck will be back on the streets, what's keeping him up at night, and the best meal he's ever eaten (it turns out there are two).

Are you ready to roll out the truck this year?

Yeah, I've been ready. Absolutely. It's so exciting.

Do you know when you'll be on the street? Not a clue. This is when I cry [laughs]. It doesn't show it right now as we talk, but I'm crying deep down inside.

How did last year's run go for you? It was good. It was strange. It was only two months long, toward the end of the season. We did it for shits and giggles, almost. We changed the menu every day; things would come off and on. I wanted to have some fun and just get out of this kitchen [at Saffron] and do something a little bit different.

What was the bestselling item on your menu? That's a really tough question. The only item that was on our menu from start to finish was the curried chicken banh mi, so it depends on what was on the menu. When we introduced the yum yum rice bowl, that was a huge hit. When we did the Bangkok burrito, that was another huge hit. It just seemed like every time we did something, it was like [whistles] fire all of the sudden.

What was your favorite dish? That's tough, that's tough, I don't know. The yum yum rice bowl was something that was special, because it connects the sensibility of a nice sit-down meal with "on the go." I crave that dish a lot. That and the banh mi are both kind of like my favorites.

Is there anything new that you're planning for this season? A lot of new things. It all depends on this ordinance, whether they're going to let us drive around and park in different spots, whether they're going to allow us to park in designated areas on the street, there are really so many different variations. It's keeping me up at night.

Really? Well, yeah. It's not cheap to build one of those trucks. There's all this money that I have to pay, you know, from last year, and here we are in April--that's six months with no money coming in from the truck.

Where do you keep the truck? Hidden in a very secret place! It's in a really well-protected area. We put it in a heated garage with security systems and things like that, because I don't want my new baby to get damaged before it's really seen a full season.

Any new menu items? Yeah, we're working on a few things. I'm not ready yet to say what they're going to be, because we're not so sure, but one thing that we're working on right now is a pho that we're really excited about. We'll see. Again, there's the difficulty of "How do you execute this dish in a kitchen that's this big [indicates with his hands] and you're feeding X amount of people in X amount of time?" There are challenges in every single way.

Were you on the truck every day? Yeah, I was! I think I missed one day, one day that I didn't go on the truck.

Are you the only one who makes the food? No, I have three cooks. One does the sandwiches, pastries, and desserts, and two do the hot food with me. It's a full kitchen. We don't treat it any differently than we treat the restaurant. We're using the same food that we're ordering for the restaurant. It's not like I'm buying cheaper cuts of meat and utilizing them for the truck. No, I'm using the same meat that I'm using here at the restaurant. Same chicken, same vegetables, everything is the same.

What are some of your favorite places to eat at in the Twin Cities? That's the hardest question I've had to answer! It all depends on what I'm in the mood for, you know? If I'm in the mood for a taco, it's Lake Street that I'm going to. If it's something more chef-y, I eat at my friends' restaurants. It's a loaded question.

Here's another loaded one: do you have any favorite local chefs? Of course.

Would you care to name any? The list is way too long to even list, so it's not fair to just mention one or two people. That's why I'm really proud to be a cook in this city, because of these people. They know who they are.

What do you like to cook for yourself? When I cook here at the restaurant, I tend to just eat scraps, whatever is around, because after you're cooking for everyone, you don't want to cook for yourself.

At home I like to play around with a lot of different things, and that's kind of where the World Street Kitchen thing came on. I like making Vietnamese food, Mexican food, especially in taco form. I really, really enjoy that. In the summertime, I tend to stay out of the kitchen in my house and cook on the grill outside. My days off are very few and far between, so if I'm not eating out at a restaurant or working, I want to be outside.

What is your favorite kitchen tool? Jorge, my prep cook [laughs]. He's my favorite kitchen tool. I can't live without him.

What is your best culinary tip for the home cook? I would say throw away all the spices that are in your cupboard. Go buy fresh, whole spices, label them with the date that you bought them, and toast and grind them freshly. They can transform something that's really kind of "yawn" into something that's really explosive and super flavorful.

And go and support your local restaurants. Don't cook at home [laughs]! And if you do cook at home, go to the restaurants that are selling their little things, like what Heartland is doing [with its Farm Direct Market] and what we're doing here [with Spice Trail]. Buy these items that these chefs are making and cook with them, because they're going to make your dining experience a completely different thing.

Do you have a favorite food? That is another loaded question. I go on kicks. If I had to just eat one style of cooking, and I couldn't eat any other style for the rest of my life, I think it would have to be Middle Eastern food, followed by Latin cooking, and then finally Asian. In that order. Forget about that Italian stuff. [laughs]

What do you think is the best food city in America? Shit, I don't know. Best food city in America? Whichever one that you believe it is. I mean, if you look for good places to eat in every city, there's something like that. And if you're looking for bad food, also it's available. So people always say New York or Chicago, and I say yeah, there are equally as many good restaurants as there are bad, if not more bad than good. If you look at our dining scene, I think there's the same correlation, that there are as many good restaurants as there are bad.

What's the best meal you've ever eaten? There are two. One was a technically flawless meal that I had at a top restaurant in New York, and the other was a whole roasted lamb that my mom made for Eid, which is our equivalent of Christmas. It was the first time that my family had gathered together in the same place for about seven or eight years. It was an amazing meal because of what it was, the spiritual meaning, and the company.

And can I ask the name of the restaurant? The restaurant was Per Se in New York. It was a flawless meal, and everything was perfectly executed, but there wasn't a lot of soul in some of the dishes. I mean, everything was just perfection--the timing, service, everything ... but there was no soul. We were far away from each other at the table; we couldn't interact with each other. But again, so you see, I'm a chef and I'm a normal human being, so these two things are interesting to me.

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