College Kitchen with Chef Wadi

Happy anniversary Saffron!

College Kitchenista Yena Lee learns how to make a kimchi quesadilla with World Street Kitchen's Head Chef Wadi.

Juliet Farmer

College Kitchenista Yena Lee learns how to make a kimchi quesadilla with World Street Kitchen’s Head Chef Wadi.

Yena Lee

Saffron Restaurant & Lounge, a downtown restaurant that specializes in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine, is celebrating the nine-year anniversary of its opening on Thursday.

With the celebration of its birthday, A&E talked to Sameh Wadi, the restaurant’s chef, about inspiration, food philosophy and a recipe that even a rookie chef can’t mess up.

In addition to Saffron, Wadi heads World Street Kitchen in Uptown. The restaurant, he said, bends the traditional concept of fast food with “chef-made fast food.”

What inspires you as a chef?

Each [of my] restaurants is unique. Saffron is inspired [by] my culinary heritage — so it’s the food that I grew up eating, plus the food that surrounds me. It’s seasonally and locally inspired Middle Eastern food. But it’s deeply rooted in [traditional] foods from the Mediterranean.

World Street Kitchen is a little bit different in terms of style of food, but it is still locally and seasonally inspired. But it is inspired by international street foods — foods that I like to eat when I’m not cooking myself.

What is your work ethic?

 [My] life-work balance is really terrible. It’s a difficult thing for a restaurateur, and one that is involved in the kitchen as well. It’s difficult to balance, as work takes over my life. I’d like to change it someday. 

How do you like to wind down?

After a long day, I typically go home and unplug completely in a dark room. [I] don’t talk to people and recharge my brain, maybe watch some TV, eat some cheese and crackers, or different cereals.

I heard that you don’t drink alcohol.

Only for educational purposes.

For me, I can’t handle it — me and alcohol don’t get along. Our entire wine list, [though], I procured myself. I sampled every single wine that’s on there.

Who inspired you to cook?

Both my mom and my dad inspired me to cook.

My mom is a phenomenal cook, [but] when my mom and dad got married, she didn’t know how to fry an egg. She was very young, and she just didn’t know how to cook very well. My dad taught her how to cook, and then she went and learned from my grandma, her mother. She start[ed] cooking traditional Middle Eastern foods, while my father traveled the world and learned new recipes.

Seems like you were raised in a culinary household.

It was always interesting, so [my dad] cooked without borders, and my mom cooked very traditional. Sometimes, they would collaborate on certain things, and it would be “traditionally inspired without borders.” It was a great upbringing in terms of that.

They started writing a cookbook when I was young. It was titled, “The Encyclopedia of Palestinian Cuisine.”

The book never got published, unfortunately. [During the] 1990s, we were living in Kuwait at the time, and something happened with the Gulf War … and we had to flee the country.

My brother found the entire manuscript about six years ago or so. I have it in the office, and it’s pretty fantastic to page through it, and look at it, and see the photographs of things that they did.

Do you think you’ll ever do anything with the manuscript?

There is a particular recipe that inspired me. [It] was my grandmother’s slow-cooked green beans.

It’s a recipe that defies what every single cuisine in the world tells you — cook green beans very, very quickly and keep them crunchy and green. [But] these are cooked for about four hours, until they melt, and they’re gray and not really appetizing looking. But they are some of the most delicious things I’ve ever put in my mouth.

That got me inspired. And it was about five years ago [that] we actually shut down [Saffron] and [did] a complete menu overhaul.

And last year, I started and actually finished writing my first cookbook, and there were a few recipes that were inspired from the manuscript that my parents had.

Wadi on:

Food philosophy

A part of my food philosophy is how people before me — generations before me — were nomadic. They would travel around from one part of the world to the other, and they would cook. They would use whatever ingredients were around them, but they would use their same cooking techniques, and similar flavors.

But if they are in a part of the world and they don’t have [a] particular herb, they’re going to substitute it for something else, and that’s how cuisine has evolved — people cooking foods that are from the regions that they’re eating these foods from, but inspired by the cooking traditions from where they learned how to cook.

Minneapolis food scene

The dining scene has exploded in the last five years or so. It’s just insane. Saffron opened nine years ago, and that year, I think there was about four or five restaurants that opened up, as opposed to 2014 when there [were] about 100 new restaurants that opened up. It’s a different market right now.

Also, people are a little bit more educated on food; they’re more adventurous, it seems to me at least. I can speak about my experiences in my restaurants, and I see people more interested.

Like Japanese food, right now, people don’t even say, “I’m going to eat Japanese food.” It’s like, “Bro, I’m going to go grab some ‘sush.’” They’ve abbreviated it. It’s no longer sushi, it’s “sush” — it’s an American thing.

Restaurants

People’s romantic notions of restaurants — that’s a huge thing. People think that restaurants are always fun because when most guests come to our restaurant, it’s to celebrate something; it’s to have fun, to eat.

It makes our jobs as restaurateurs a bit difficult because we’re looked upon as a place to have fun. And [we] better execute perfectly, or else you’ll hear about it on, god forbid, the “Y” word. So, that’s been the interesting dynamic to see how it’s changed even.

Kimchi quesadillas

“You can’t mess this up, it’s a [expletive] quesadilla,” Wadi said.

1 oversized tortilla

Enough cheese to cover half the tortilla (recommended: white cheddar)

Small handful of chopped green onions

Small handful of kimchi (well-fermented)

 

1.     Heat the tortilla up.

2.     Cover half of the tortilla with cheese.

3.     Add the chopped green onions and the kimchi.

4.     Fold the tortilla, and let it get crispy.

5.     Turn the quesadilla over to get the other side crispy.

6.     Cut and serve.