In the search for the Twin Cities' best culinary creations, we often come across dishes that stop us mid-bite and force us to reflect on the level of thought and artistry chefs put into their work. The efforts of the chefs are often laborious, and the end results are regularly consumed before the full concept can be appreciated. We've been tracking down some of these dishes to get the chef's side of the story; their thoughts, motivations, and processes. It's our hope that we can give you a deeper insight into the talents of Twin Cities chefs and to have a better understanding of what you're getting when you sit down to dinner.
For seven years the downtown Minneapolis restaurant Saffron has been redefining the way Twin Cities diners think about and experience Middle Eastern cuisine. At the helm is restaurant chef and co-owner Sameh Wadi, whose passion for food has earned him recognition not only with local food fanatics but on the national stage.
At the age of 29, Wadi has accomplished more than a lot of chefs will in their entire careers. He's the co-owner of three successful businesses: Saffron, the newly opened World Street Kitchen, and Spice Trail, Wadi's own line of handcrafted spice blends.
Wadi grew up surrounded by food. "When I was younger, my father and my mother were writing a cookbook, The Encyclopedia of Palestinian Cuisine, so, from age six or seven, I remember waking up and they were testing recipes and taking photographs, documenting everything that they were doing. So I grew up in a house were food was the center, the focal point, it's the attention that everyone gets. Hanging out with my mother in the kitchen, I was able to pick up a few tricks, not realizing that this was something that I was actually going to be good at," Wadi says.
Wadi recalls an experience at an early age while his mother was away on a trip: "We were living in Jordan at the time. I must have been 10 years old, and I called her, and I had made a recipe exactly the way that she makes it just from memory, not having anything written down. I was 10 years old. I remember that day because I was so excited because everything turned out so well."
After moving to the United States when Wadi was 13, his parents opened a grocery store, where he worked for a long time. "While I was working there, I had realized that it wasn't for me, it wasn't something that I wanted to be doing. Somebody said, as a joke, 'What about culinary school?' As a joke they said it, and a light bulb went off in my head," Wadi says.
After high school Wadi enrolled at the Art Institute in downtown Minneapolis. There he learned basic techniques, but he managed to reconnect with an old family friend who led him back down the path of Middle Eastern cuisine. While in school he started working at the Chop House, where he was eventually promoted to sous chef. For his pregraduation internship, Wadi also spent time working at the Bayport Cookery, a restaurant in Bayport, Minnesota, that centered on rotating theme concepts. There he got to further explore ingredients and techniques in depth.
After leaving the Bayport Cookery, he found a home at Solera. He worked every station, trying to challenge himself and further his abilities, but then his father passed away. He explains that after that, "my head got a little twisted, and then I just didn't know if I wanted to continue cooking anymore. I wanted to go help my family out at the grocery store. My brother and my father worked there together, and so they needed help. So on my days off from Solera, I would go help them with the grocery store. Right after that, I met this gentleman that reminded me a lot of my father. He had a restaurant that was kind of having some problems. So he approached me and said, 'We want somebody to come in and fix it.' So they hired me on. I was so sad to leave Tim [McKee] and all the great things at Solera, but this man just really reminded me of my father," he explains. "So I left to go help out at a failing kitchen."
After time spent helping out the distressed kitchen, he got word that the restaurant had lost its lease, so he took the opportunity to move on. It was then that he decided he was ready to set out on his own. He talked to his brother, a real estate agent at the time, who was also interested in new pursuits. While hanging out downtown one night, his brother came up with the idea of looking into the old Jasmine's space directly across from the 112 Eatery.
"So we walked over here, and there was a little ledge, so I jumped up and looked inside, and it looked like a restaurant space. My brother, being the real estate agent, picks up his phone and calls the number and says, 'Hey, I have somebody that's interested in your space'," jokes Wadi.
Eventually they got the money together, persuaded the landlord to lease them the space, and Saffron was born.
Wadi's dish is something that's been on the menu at Saffron from the very beginning. It's an interpretation of one of his mother's staple dishes, a family favorite, and is ripe with a rich Middle Eastern history. The dish is marinated, pan-roasted chicken and is served with an eggplant lavash and a yogurt, tahini, and black onion seed sauce. The dish is as complex as it is comforting. The spice blend in the marinade is both floral and lively and penetrates the meat of the chicken, impregnating it with flavor. The skin is seared crisp, and the meat is finished in the oven, receiving a final basting of butter before being set aside to rest. The lavash is a thin flatbread that is filled with a rich mixture of roasted eggplant, onions, and tomatoes that have been slow-roasted in a bath of olive oil, producing what is essentially an eggplant confit. It's then drizzled with olive oil and roasted until crisp. The combination of flavors and textures in this dish is unique, and it's the essence of comfort food elevated to the level of fine dining.
Wadi has been recognized by the James Beard Foundation on multiple occasions and was, at one point, the youngest chef to have ever competed on Food Network's Iron Chef America. He's a Twin Cities staple who not only continues to innovate a style of food that encompasses flavors from around the globe, but he also innovates the way high-quality food can be approached. Whether it's at his flagship fine-dining restaurant Saffron or at his new fast-casual concept, World Street Kitchen, Wadi will deliver food that's certain to make you rethink the way you look at the flavors of the world.