Born in Kuwait, Sameh Wadi brings the flavors of the Mediterranean to our Midwestern palates.
It was a week before Sameh Wadi planned to "flip the menu" at Saffron to spring cuisine. He had just returned from Spain and Miami and, inspired by their food, already had his new menu printed.
"I got this idea for falafel soup," said Wadi. "It's funny because I didn't have falafel on my trip. I didn't even have soup. But I thought the flavors that you find in a falafel would be good in a soup."
How many attempts had it taken to get the soup right?
"Oh, I haven't tried it yet," he said. "It's in my head. I know it will work."
A week later, on a chaotic night in which the kitchen crew took its first shot at the new menu, Wadi assembled his soup for the servers. It didn't look anything like a falafel. It was green and thick and contained a few strategically placed chickpeas. But it sure tasted like a falafel. "It was perfect the first time," he said.
It is Wadi's uncanny sense of taste, and genius with exotic spices, that have made him one of Minnesota's top chefs and put him on the national map. Wadi has won a slew of awards and high marks from critics. He was the youngest contestant to appear on the Food Network's "Iron Chef America," where he barely lost to culinary giant Masaharu Morimoto. Wadi's food truck, World Street Kitchen, has been a huge success, and Wadi has another restaurant in the works.
It's hard to believe that Wadi, 28, has run Saffron Restaurant & Lounge with his brother Saed for almost six years. Though he still wins "young chef" awards, Wadi says, "I'm an old man [by restaurant standards]. I've had a restaurant as long as people who are 50."
When the Wadis opened Saffron, some joked that two guys with no restaurant experience wouldn't last. "One person gave us three years," said Saed. "I wanted to hug him."
A heritage of good meals
The Wadis' parents are Palestinians who fled to Kuwait, where Sameh was born. He recalls waking up in the morning and coming into a kitchen that smelled of roasting spices. Dishes were arrayed on the counters. Wadi's father, an artist and calligrapher, had many important friends and often brought them home unannounced. So Wadi's mother was always ready with huge meals, a Middle Eastern way to show guests they were valued.
"For me, every day was a holiday," said Wadi. "We had three entrees for every meal. What if someone stopped by?"
His parents and uncle also had a culinary dream: to create an "encyclopedia of Palestinian food." They began with their own family and traditional recipes, but as word of their project spread, "recipes from all over the world started showing up in our mailbox," Wadi recalls.
They worked on the encyclopedia for about four years, photographing, documenting and testing each dish meticulously. When the family's life was upended once again by the first Gulf War, they fled to Jordan. The book, unfinished, now sits in Wadi's office at Saffron, where it continues to inspire his creativity.
"It's about the only thing I have left from that time," he said.
Early culinary lessons
The family kitchen in Jordan was called "the soccer field" because it was so large.
"As a 6-year-old, I can still remember sitting on the counter next to my mom as she cooked, asking, 'What's this?' and 'Why did you do it that way?'"
Wadi made his first dessert when he was 8 years old. His mother was away and Wadi and his father were looking for something to do together. Wadi didn't have a recipe, but he had watched his mother bake cakes before, so working from memory he concocted a walnut and date cake with dark spices.
"It turned out exactly like my mom's," said Wadi. "My dad couldn't believe it."
It was the first dessert he offered at Saffron.
Those vivid childhood memories continue to fuel Wadi's menu. His grandmother's green beans, slow-cooked with a light tomato sauce and served at room temperature, have become a legendary staple at Saffron.
In 1997, at age 13, Wadi came to the United States and his family settled in New Brighton. A relative had a grocery store at 38th Street and Nicollet Avenue S. in Minneapolis, and Wadi frequently worked there. He recalls friends' horror, then delight, as he cooked them lamb brains and chicken livers.
After high school, Wadi contemplated being an artist or photographer, but a friend suggested culinary school. His parents worried that Wadi would spend his life "flipping burgers."
He attended the Art Institutes International Minnesota, where a teacher bet that Wadi would be the first to drop out. "You are going to fail," the teacher told him.
Wadi was not only working in another language (his third), but he was also learning the language of the kitchen because he had no restaurant experience.
"Everybody looked down on that," he said, "until we started cooking."
"Up to that point, I had not seen a chef so passionate and so professional with his team,' said Wadi. "I'd never seen someone so calm and collected."
(When I asked a staffer about Wadi's temperament, he placed him toward the lower end of a spectrum from Minneapolis chefs Alex Roberts (mild) to Stewart Woodman (extra spicy).
Then, just four years after his teacher bet against him finishing school, Wadi got together with his brother, Saed, and said, "Hey, let's open a high-end Middle Eastern restaurant."
It was 2007, the start of the recession. "Brilliant," Wadi deadpanned.
Success in the dining room
Yet, on a recent Friday, Saffron was packed. Word of Wadi's acumen and his magic with spices has grown, enhanced by his impressive performance on "Iron Chef America." His menu has grown from Middle Eastern to a more expansive Mediterranean fare.
When asked how far he's come, Wadi smiles.
"My signature dish is still the green beans," he said. "You have to be a very confident chef to put overcooked green beans, served room temp, on your menu."
Wadi's simplicity, from the giant beans in olive oil ("ballsy," he says) to the whole roasted branzini (fish), is what makes his food stand out. It's food that "doesn't try to hide behind tons of butter or cream sauce," said Wadi.
Sameh and Saed make a funny duo. They constantly rib each other, and Saed brags that he's the reason Sameh can cook so well: "He had to learn to cook, because I can't," said Saed, smiling. "So none of this would be possible without me."
At the grill Zach Ostrowski was wrangling a new item, a massive, 11/2 -pound veal chop. "If anybody drops one of these tonight, you are going to get knifed," he said.
Later, Wadi seared a 5-pound block of swordfish, which he then sliced thinly and dressed with a romesco-style sauce. Soul and disco music blared as the orders started coming in. Funky town.
Wadi smeared a plate with the romesco sauce, then carefully plated the swordfish. It looked like a work by Piet Mondrian. He carefully put each dish out and assembled the crew to explain the new menu. Then he rallied the troops: "Go out and kick ass," he said.
A teaching moment
Even though it was opening night for the new menu and Saffron expected more than 100 diners, Wadi was confident enough in his staff to spend the next two hours going over each menu item with the two new waitresses, explaining its history, taste and nuances.
"I hate this part of the job," he said, "but it's essential."
The wait staff is the link to the customer. They have to know the food to sell it.
He talked about the branzini, which they get shipped fresh from Greece. "We push it like a drug dealer pushes drugs," Wadi said.
"OK, now the potato chips," Wadi said to the waitresses. "People ask, 'Why potato chips?' Because we [expletive] can.
"Fried cauliflower,'' he said. "King of the castle. We sell three times as much of this as anything else. Tempura-style batter with North African spices served with a Bulgarian feta.
"Green beans. It's a dish that speaks to generations of people trying to perfect it," lectured Wadi.
"It takes a lot of cojones to sell this. You are going to serve them a dish of overcooked green beans and they are going to give you six bucks for it.
"Why?" Wadi paused. "Because we can. Because they are going to love it."