Chef Jeffrey Saad started his career in a Chicago diner at the age of 13, and today shares his love of food with millions. As a Cooking Channel host and cookbook author of “Jeffrey Saad’s Global Kitchen: Recipes Without Borders”, Saad is an expert on global cuisines. But he doesn’t go anywhere without what he calls his 12 little sous-chefs: eggs. Saad’s cookbook explores dishes from around the world and features an entire chapter dedicated to the convenience, versatility and affordability of eggs.
If you missed Saad’s appearance at Maya Del Sol on Saturday, here is some of what he told me about his own culinary journey.
Please tell me about how your story began. Your first job was in a Chicago diner at age 13? Tell me more.
“I was too skinny for the football team and the spice rack I built in shop class for my mom didn’t turn out so hot, so I transferred from shop class to home ec! Right behind my junior high-school was a diner called The Picadilly. I walked in and said I was looking to learn how to cook. I got a work permit and he said congratulations and put me in the dish room! Welcome to the restaurant biz!
I was a naturally hard worker and quickly worked my way to the line where I first learned how to make a cheeseburger. I was amazed at the simple process of transforming beautiful raw ground beef into a golden, juice patty. I loved watching the four corners of the cheese surrender and wrap themselves around the sides of the burger as the bun became toasted and golden on the same griddle. A wedge of iceberg lettuce and thousand island dressing. I thought, WOW! This is as good as it gets. Little did I know, it was the very beginning of an insatiable quest for food and cooking that still burns as brightly today as it did 32 years ago.”
When did you know you wanted to work with food?
“From that first experience in the diner, I decided I would open a restaurant and be a chef. In addition, my mother cooked almost every night, so I was exposed to lots of different foods. I remember seeing chopped bacon on the counter and I would guess “we’re having spinach salad tonight.” I was learning to ‘mind-taste’ from that early age. When she wasn’t cooking we were going out to nice restaurants, so I thought it was standard to be eating shrimp cocktails (I still remember the incredible sensation of the tart/spicy sauce and the snap of the sweet salt shrimp!) snails, lobster, and all kinds of goodies.
I never remember trying a food I didn’t like. I would only wonder how it was made and how I could do it. It was a ritual to go to Sunday brunch as a family. I would put on my suit and dream of the endless table of goodies. Eggs Benedict was my favorite. I would think “what is that magical cape of sauce making those eggs so delicious, perched on top of crispy English muffins.” You find a great version of Benedict in my restaurant The Grove in San Francisco.”
How did you come to be host of the Cooking Channel?
“I was crushed that I did not win season 5 of Next Food Network Star on Food Network, and I decided I must find another way in. I spent almost a year knocking on the network’s door. I made this video while on vacation in Mexico (C- video) and upon watching it they said “We have a show for you” and connected me with the producers of United Tastes of America. We made 40 amazing episodes. It was incredible!”
What are some good memories of that time?
“The food was great, the travels were great (from NYC to LA on a red-eye, right into a shoot on maple donuts with a shot of Bourbon) but the best thing of all is always the people. Every person (grandma, cook, famous chef) was the master of their domain. They were so passionate and articulate about why they do what they do, the way they do it. It was the most rewarding part of the job. I will never forget the Busy Bee in Atlanta – the glowing woman with her hair wrapped in a colorful bandana, cooking fried chicken in a room that was 115 degrees.”
Your experience is with global cuisine. Have you found anything that we all share regarding cooking and food?
“When you learn about a cuisine, you learn about the people of that cuisine. Food is the gateway to understanding the world as well as the culinary pleasure that comes along with it.”
You won’t go anywhere without your 12 little sous-chefs: eggs. Why?
“Eggs are an oval miracle! I call my dozen eggs my ‘twelve sous-chefs’ standing by in the fridge at all times. If you have an egg you have something to eat. Eggs are one of the very rare foods that are great for you as well as delicious, inexpensive and versatile. Six grams of high-quality protein, packed with vitamins and minerals, a 30-day shelf life in the refrigerator and most importantly, delicious. I have yet to meet a spice, herb, or protein that doesn’t taste great with the egg. I use eggs to jumpstart my day and my kids’ days. Eggs can be used for a quick meal and to dress up an otherwise simple meal (i.e. putting a fried egg on a pizza or burger).”
What is your favorite meal?
“Impossible to answer! I have culinary A.D.D. I love to eat everything. My favorite meal is the one that is perfectly prepared. One of my decadent, go-to meals is a croque madame (which I have a version of in my cookbook. It’s a fancy French way of saying ‘grilled ham and cheese with a fried egg’. I love to pop the yolk and watch it sauce the golden, nutty Gruyere cheese that has been broiled on top. The egg white is a flavor sponge and the perfect protein partner to the ham. Delicious.”
If someone were visiting Chicago, what would you suggest they try, (in addition to the hot dogs and pizza)?
“The Purple Pig for a small plate selection that will blow your mind. If you want comfort food, you must have a Chicago beef sandwich (dipped, of course).”
Would you share a story about your travels learning about global cuisine?
“It was 5:30 in the AM, and I had just flown from LA to Hong Kong. I walked into a dim sum restaurant that was packed as if it was 8:00 at night. Huge round tables with people sitting shoulder to shoulder. We squeezed our way in (no host and no English) and figured out how to grab what we wanted off of the passing carts. I had chicken feet, fish heads and the most delicious array of dim sum all before 7:00 AM! I went into the kitchen (a 10×10 room), filled with steam baskets from floor to ceiling being fired by some type of powerful steamer unit below. Delicious, beautiful.
One of the best tacos I ever had was made on a hub cap turned upside down on an open fire in the desert, outside the gates of the Herradurra distillery in Tequila, Mexico. I could go on for days on this question…”
Any favorite ethnic food?
“Thai, Chinese, Mexican are my top three.”
Most challenging part of what you do?
“Being away from my family. My favorite moment of the day is bringing my wife a latte in bed, hugging my son, having my daughter say “don’t bug me, dad” and cooking three meals a day. When I am on the road, it’s hard, missing that.”
What is the best part of what you do?
“The people! Inspiring people. Food is my excuse to inspire people to make the most of their lives, to find joy in everything they do, and be grateful for what they have, while aspiring to fulfill all their dreams!”