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. 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 Channel's "Iron Chef," 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 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."
Wadi's parents are Palestinians who fled to Kuwait, where he was born. Wadi recalls waking up in the morning and coming into a kitchen that smelled of roasting spices. Wadi's father, an artist, 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 recipes, but as word of their project spread, "recipes from all over the world started showing up in our mailbox," Wadi recalls. When the family's life was upended once again by the first Gulf War, they fled to Jordan. The book, unfinished, sits in Wadi's office, where it continues to inspire his creativity.
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., where Wadi frequently worked.
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."
While in school at the Art Institutes International Minnesota, Wadi worked at Bayport Cookery and at Solera, "where I got the taste of really good food" working for Tim McKee.
"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."
Then, just four years after a teacher bet against him finishing school, Wadi got together with his brother and said, "Hey, let's open a high-end Middle Eastern restaurant." It was 2007, the start of the recession. "Brilliant," Wadi deadpanned.
Yet, on a recent Friday, Saffron was packed. Word of Wadi's acumen and his magic with spices has grown. 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, referring to the slow-cooked version his grandmother made.
"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."