Step into the Mediterranean—right here in Minneapolis—at Saffron Restaurant and Lounge. The Wadi brothers, Sameh and Saed, from Palestine, turned our Norwegian taste buds on their heads and put a fire in the belly of the Twin Cities’ restaurant community when they established their flagship venue in 2007. The Wadi Empire also includes the more casual World Street Kitchen (established in 2012 after years of peddling their signature Yum Yum Rice Bowls and Bangkok Burritos from the back of a cramped food truck); Spice Trail, Sameh’s line of gourmet spices, and The New Mediterranean Table, his first cookbook, published in April.
If Sameh looks familiar, you likely saw the James Beard Award semi-finalist on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America,” as the youngest chef—at age 25—and the first Minnesotan to compete on the popular cable show.
Sameh recently sat down with Robyne Robinson, arts and culture director for the Airport Foundation MSP, to talk about food, family, and his next flight.
RR: When did you first develop an interest in cooking?
SW: I’ve had an interest in food from as far back as I can remember. I used to shadow my mother in the kitchen and help her bake cakes. My parents, along with my uncle, started writing a cookbook in the mid-1980s. I have vivid memories of them taste-testing recipes and photographing the dishes. This, coupled with my mother’s love of cooking, unquestionably influenced my love of cuisine.
RR: If you could only have one spice on a desert island, what would it be and why?
SW: Cumin seed. It’s extremely versatile and has amazing health benefits. It is said to increase energy and aid in digestion among other things.
RR: What’s your “elevator speech” on food?
SW: Eat well, eat often. That’s my motto.
RR: You’re of Palestinian decent and spent your childhood in Kuwait. What do you miss about that part of the world?
SW: I yearn for fig trees. I used to climb our fig tree and take naps in its branches. I would love to do that again.
RR: Are there any differences between there and here with regard to the cultural outlook on cooking and eating?
SW: The sense of community in the Middle East is much stronger. People don’t eat alone. Food is considered a celebration best shared with others. That said, every now and again, I appreciate eating solo.
RR: You founded Saffron at a time when fine dining was on the decline. What made you take the leap?
SW: The beautiful thing about being young and naïve is that you don’t see the risks. You only see the potential.
RR: If you could eat your way through any country in the world, what would it be and why?
SW: Palestine. I’d love to learn more about the sub-cuisines of my ancestors.
RR: Where are you jetting off to next?
SW: Somewhere sunny with a beach or two. I’m a sucker for the Yucatan, Tulum in particular. I love the confectioners-sugar-like sand and the spectacular coastline.
RR: You’ve just won five days off and 300,000 frequent flyer miles. Where do you go?
SW: I would start in southern Spain (Seville and Málaga, followed by Granada) for a mixture of beaches, flamenco dancing, and architecture. From there I would head to Morocco to pick up exotic spices and textiles from a souk (an Arab marketplace), and have a bite in the street stalls. Next up: The Middle East, including Amman, Ramallah, and Beirut to see family and friends, eat some amazing food, and have an overall amazing time. Then I’d head back to Minneapolis to sleep in my own bed because I’d miss it.
RR: What’s an absolute must in your travel bag?
SW: My Beats headphones and good music—lots of Manu Chao, reggae, and some rap.
RR: What’s your advice for those visiting Minnesota?
SW: Take a restaurant tour! We have an amazing scene that is both vibrant and relaxed. There’s no pretense, just good food and drinks, hospitality, and energy. Some of my favorite ethnic eateries include: Pho 79, On’s Kitchen, Shish, and Los Ocampo.