In a way, it shouldn't have come as a surprise that Sameh Wadi would find his career calling with food. From his extended family (who own Holy Land Deli) to his siblings (his brother ran a neighborhood grocery story for over 20 years) to his own parents who wrote an encyclopedia of their cuisine, he grew up surrounded by the love cooked into a great meal. "Food was the language we were most comfortable speaking," he said.
In general, I don't like to follow 'rules.'
Almost immediately after graduation from the culinary program, Wadi told his two older brothers that he was ready to open his own restaurant. It shouldn't have worked. Saed, who Sameh says he grew up idolizing, was working in real estate at the time and mentioned that the former Jazzmine's space was available in downtown Minneapolis. He got on the phone with the building's landord and said, "a client" was interested in the space. Wadi fell in love and nine years ago, opened Saffron.
His decision to go to culinary school was rather spur of the moment. "I had a friend ask me if I wanted to go to the Arts Institute to look at school with him. I said, 'For art?' He said, 'No, for culinary school.'" While there, Wadi ran into a family friend, an artist who was also a culinary instructor. His mind was made up.
Food was the language we were most comfortable speaking.
His journey to that point is both extraordinary and an American success story. His parents fled Palestine and settled in Kuwait, where Sameh was born. The family came to America piecemeal. First his father came over and started a business in the late '80's. His older sister followed in 1989. Saed arrived in 1991, Rami in 1994 and finally young Sameh in 1997. His father moved back to be with their mother for a time, before they both finally reunited with their children. It wasn't until 1998 that the entire family lived together in one place, when they all occupied the same apartment building.
It was with the support of his family, that he embarked on the adventure of opening a restaurant at a time when fine dining was failing. As Saffron spread out the white tablecloths, Levain, Auriga and Five all closed. "And we're opening a fine dining restaurant," Wadi scoffs at the memory. "We're serving food that people have no idea what to do with, too. I had lamb brains on the menu! Everything else all over town was a gastropub. No one wanted the whole branzini with a head on!" It was difficult.
Plus, naming the restaurant after the most expensive spice in the world and putting that spice in almost all the dishes might not have been a wise financial move. "I should have called it cumin or something more reasonable."
But, they made it through. For a while, the only employees were Sameh and Saed, until one fateful call from the Food Network had the young chef flying out to battle Morimoto on Iron Chef. The second the episode aired, the phone began to ring.
Now, it's hard to keep lamb brains in stock and I sell out of the branzini every week.
Nowadays, he can barely keep up with the demand for the lamb brains mezze course. People also can't get enough of the octopus a la plancha, another first course. For those dying to recreate that flavor at home, the recipe for the vinaigrette that it's tossed in, is in his new book.
The book, The New Mediterranean Cookbook is inspired not just by his family's long history of food. (The velvety hummus recipe is in there.) It also includes modern ideas and flavors from all around the Mediterranean. There is Spanish influence, North African and more.
"Have you ever wanted to write a cookbook?" was an innocent question and all it took to send Wadi down a rabbit hole that resulted in a quickly written, straight-from-the-heart table of contents. It turns out, this is the book that he's been waiting to pour a lifetime of experiences into.
It is laid out much like the menu at Saffron, and the way Wadi loves to serve a meal. Small courses or mezzes, salads, soups, large plates, a side dish section that he concedes is an American influenced section, but filled with an intoxicating array of spices and desserts. At the back of the book is The Larder, an integral part of cooking to capture these flavors. Wadi has including specific directions for creating all of his spice blends. Some have a couple of versions: a chefy way, with hard to source ingredients like grains of paradise, a more approachable version for ambitious home chefs, or you can always purchase the spices online or in his restaurants.
Home cooks are the focus for these recipes and the instructions are meant to encourage everyone to get in the kitchen and feed themselves, friends and family.
Speaking of family, with the introduction, there are pictures of the original cookbook his parents wrote, in their handwriting. These recipes and all he has put into this book comes from him family, his heart, and soul. The New Mediterranean Cookbook will be released April 14 and will be available at all major book outlets. The chef promises signed copies at Saffron and World Street Kitchen. Pre-Order is available on Amazon.