Saffron's Sameh Wadi: Chef Chat, Part 2

Categories: Interview

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photo by Mike Feltault
When Sameh Wadi's classmates were betting on him to drop out of culinary school, they probably never thought that one day they'd see him on the Food Network battling celebrity chef Masaharu Morimoto on Iron Chef America, in an episode that aired early last year. Wadi was not only the first chef challenger from Minnesota to compete on the show, but, at age 25, he was also the youngest at the time. Today we continue our talk with Wadi and discuss what went through his head when he found out about his classmates' bets, his first professional cooking gigs, and two key people who have shaped his culinary world. (If you missed it, read part 1 here.)

How was cooking school? Did you like it?

I did, I really did. I had a giant Afro. It was probably a 12-inch Afro, and I went into school the first week with it all braided--I didn't care! I did what I wanted to do. And there's this guy telling me that all the bets are against me, and I'm like, "Oh, shit." All of the sudden it's become a personal thing, and I have to prove that all of these people are wrong. He said, "I even bet against you." I took it really seriously. My learning curve was so much higher than most of these people that I was in school with. Some of them were already sous chefs and executive chefs. I was irate, like, "How can I be this bad next to all of these people who are just amazing?" But I knew that I had the basics and that I knew good food. All my life I had been eating good food. I didn't realize I was eating good food until I moved here, and then I had to eat really, really bad food, like cafeteria food at school, and that's when I realized, "You know what? We eat good. We eat fresh, we eat healthy, this is good food."

While I was still in culinary school, I got my first cooking job.

What was that?
I was a line cook at this place called Nick and Eddie's. It was a chophouse. The only reason I went to work there is because my mentor, the chef [from culinary school], took a position there as an executive chef, and he needed a cook. I walked in the first day having never worked in a restaurant a day in my life, and he handed me the grill station and said, "It's all yours." I was like, "What? This is a chophouse! The grill is three-fourths of this restaurant. You're making a big mistake, sir."

How did it go?
After getting a few steaks thrown at me for being over- or undercooked, mainly overcooked, I was like, "All right, maybe I need to even get better." But he was a badass chef. He was a really, really solid chef and a good cook who taught me a lot of basic techniques.

Can I ask his name?
D.P.C. We'll leave it at that.

Okay. Are you still in contact with him?
We're still in contact, yeah. I would consider him one of my first mentors. He opened my eyes to the business as it is, as I know it right now.

Did you know what you were going to do after you were done with school?
I come from a family of really strong-willed people, so I've never wanted to be a follower, I've always wanted to be a leader. From the very start of my culinary education, I wanted to open up a restaurant. What was the restaurant going to be? I didn't know at the time. As I was in culinary school, I started understanding myself and my style, and I started to embrace my culture even more: I'm no longer just an American now, I'm an Arab American who's very proud of his heritage. When I started doing research while I was in culinary school, there was absolutely not a single soul in this town who was cooking Middle Eastern food in the way that I wanted to be a part of. The closest thing was Tim McKee. He was doing, with Solera, some North African and Spanish food, which all stems from the Arab influence from North Africa on to Spain. That was the closest thing to the food that I grew up on. So a month after school, or two months after I graduated school, I started working at Solera.

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And then how long was it until you opened Saffron?
We opened in 2007, and I graduated school in 2002, 2003, somewhere around there, so super fast.

Were you cooking in different restaurants during the interim?
After Solera, I took a position as an executive chef for this really sweet, old Greek man. I had a nice job working for Tim McKee, you know, one of the most recognized chefs in our city. I was on the fast track with him, but when I first met this other guy, Bill Nicklow, I just had an instant connection with him. He reminded me of my father. He really gave me another push, like, "I want to be like him." This was a 70-year-old man who was still working every single day, at least six to seven hours a day, minimum, and he was the reason I left Solera. I was very happy at Solera, everything was going just as planned, but I met this guy, and I was more drawn to his personality than my career all of a sudden. All of a sudden it felt like family again.

How long were you there for?
I'd say about two years. Two months after I left, the place was closed. They lost their lease. And at that point I was ready to open up something with my brother.

Our chat with Sameh Wadi continues tomorrow.

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