F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Saffron Restaurant & Lounge, World Street Kitchen (Minneapolis)
Experience: Worked at Solera under chef Tim McKee before opening Saffron with his brother at age 22.
Education: The Art Institutes International Minnesota
What are you known for?
Bold flavors. For the longest time, I was known for Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food (I’m from the Middle East). But my food truck and new street food place, both called World Street Kitchen, serve foods from Southeast Asia, Mexico, India, even America.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
For every period in my professional life, I’ve had a different favorite. In culinary school I must have read The French Laundry Cookbook at least a half dozen times. Right now I’m obsessed with a book that’s never been published, something my mom and my dad wrote in the early 1980s: an encyclopedia of Palestinian cuisine. It documents recipes for dishes we hadn’t seen in ages, some my great-grandmother made. It’s inspired me to add more rustic dishes at Saffron.
What’s one technique that everyone should know?
How to slow cook. I obviously live in the frozen tundra of Minnesota, where everyone wants stews in the wintertime, so I’ve gotten really good at it. But generally speaking, whether braising a piece of meat or a vegetable, keep it low and slow and let everything kind of melt, to concentrate the flavors. To give you an idea of how low—my mother is famous for her braised lamb shoulder; if you ask how she makes it, she says, “I cook it over a candle.”
Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
Any good spice blend. We have a line of spices and I like to layer flavors by blending them. I might mix cooling spices like cardamom or coriander with spicier ones like chiles or peppercorns. Or I’ll mix floral fennel seed or black cardamom with some earthy spices like cumin or caraway.
Best-bang-for-the-buck food trip?
Minneapolis. Two people can try amazing high-end places here with four or five courses, a bottle of wine and the tip for less than $100. Victory 44 and Café Levain are two great places to try.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Tony Bourdain or Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be?
I would take all three on a food tour of Minneapolis. Somewhere in there we would need to stop at my mother’s house to eat her cooking, and at one of our many excellent Vietnamese places, like Pho 79.
What is your current food obsession?
Vietnamese food. You wouldn’t equate it with anything Middle Eastern, but I see striking similarities in the spices, the layering of flavors, the yin and the yang. Neither cuisine relies on super-expensive cuts of meat, either. In Vietnamese food you can take short ribs, oxtails, flank steak and brisket and cook them together to make pho. Flavor it with charred onions, charred ginger, star anise, clove, black cardamom, and all of a sudden you have an amazing dish that’s not only aromatic and hearty but luxurious, even sexy.
Name a dish that defines who you are.
The cuisine we serve at Saffron reflects the food I’ve eaten most of my life. We’re known for our lamb dishes, so I might pick a slow-cooked lamb shank, braised in a tagine with a saffron broth, white beans and quince, flavored toward the end with dark spices.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Cheese. What can I say, I live in the Midwest! Even though I’m lactose intolerant, I usually have at least five different kinds of cheese in my fridge. It’s usually a mix of whatever our cheesemonger has brought to us at the restaurant, and always a white cheddar. I like simple things.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.