“I remember they had a wedge of iceberg lettuce and drizzled salad dressing on it,” he says. “And I thought, ‘Whoa, these guys can cook.’”
Years later, Saad’s tastes are a little more sophisticated. He has created multiple successful restaurants in California’s Bay Area and is currently owner of The Grove restaurant group. He is the author of the cookbook Jeffrey Saad’s Global Kitchen: Recipes Without Borders. He has developed and sells a collection of spice blends. He hosts the Cooking Channel’s The United Tastes of America. He does restaurant consulting, live demonstrations, and television appearances. A typical week sends him across the country and often even around the globe tasting, cooking, and talking about food.
It’s all part of indulging what self-proclaimed “food nut” Saad (’89 hotel & restaurant management) calls his “culinary ADD” – a constant need to learn, explore, and taste. It’s a powerful force that led him to chuck a successful career in real estate and pursue his passions.
“I sold this celebrity home for gazillions and got the biggest check of my life,” Saad remembers. “And I looked at my wife and said, ‘I’m done. I want to get back into food.’ It’s not about the money. It’s about waking up and wanting to jump out of bed – and that’s what food does to me. It’s what the restaurant industry does to me. It’s what talking about food does to me.”
It wasn’t long before Saad found a new direction to take his passion and expertise. While preparing dinner for friends in his Encino, Calif., home, Saad eloquently explained the latest cooking techniques. The reaction? Oh my God. You’ve got to get on Food Network.
“I was like, ‘That’s it,’” Saad says. A television star was born.
Saad surfed the Web and found a casting call for season five of The Next Food Network Star, the Network’s popular reality series that launched the television careers of Guy Fieri, Aaron McCargo, Jr., and others. Saad was not only cast, he finished as runner up to Melissa d’Arabian (now of Ten Dollar Dinners) and was given first his own Web series and then a show on Food Network’s sister network, The Cooking Channel. The United Tastes of America has sent Saad around the country to explore the many nuances of traditional American fare: hot dogs, hamburgers, donuts, and the like. He has also appeared as a guest on Rachael Ray’s and Bobby Flay’s shows, and was the runner-up to celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson on the second series of Food Network’s Chopped: All-Stars, besting Iron Chef Michael Symon in the process.
Saad said the television experience has been wonderful, but it’s also incredibly difficult.
“You know, it’s one thing to have a good smile and a good personality and love to talk about food,” Saad says. “It’s another thing to be a great chef. But it’s an entirely other thing to do it all at once on camera and make it all happen.”
As for Chopped – a culinary game show in which chef contestants have 30 minutes to create dishes out of “mystery baskets” of hodgepodge ingredients, Saad says it’s as hard as it looks. Maybe harder.
“I always say nothing good happens in life until you’re super uncomfortable, and I was super uncomfortable,” Saad says. “You push yourself to a whole new level; it’s the real deal. You open your basket, you look at your chicken feet, and you start cooking. There was no chance to think about what you’re going to do. You literally have to be creating the dish in your mind as you’re chopping.”
Saad says he loves being a TV chef because of the opportunity it provides to reach a virtually unlimited audience, as opposed to maybe just 60 seats in a restaurant on a given evening. And while his current TV show explores flavors around the U.S., Saad’s true passion – and the subject of his 2012 cookbook – is traveling the world in search of flavor.
“Just like a song will take you back to a great memory, a flavor can take you back to a place,” he says. “People will say, ‘I really like that thing I always taste in Chinese food.’ They don’t know it’s Szechuan peppercorn mixed with cloves, cinnamon, star anise, and fennel seed. Why would they? That’s a lot to know. But for me, that’s what I live for. I’m a real traveler and inspired by people and cultures and food, which is the foundation of every culture. I’m determined to go to every country in the world and cook in every country of the world.”
Saad says his favorite country so far has been Thailand, and the one he is most looking forward to visiting is Morocco.
“I can’t wait to go to Morocco,” he says. “I just want to walk into the spice markets where the spices are piled up like snowdrifts in Iowa. I can smell that market, even though I’ve never been there.”
Saad says, really, he’s “visited” a lot of countries purely by experimenting with their spices and flavor profiles. He calls it “mind-tasting.” He’s also picked up a lot of cuisines through family and experiences at home. For example, the techniques he learned from his Iranian mother-in-law inspired the Middle Eastern chapter of his book.
The book is something Saad has dreamed of doing his entire life.
“The Italian chapter takes me back to my Italian restaurant; the Mexican chapter takes me back to my Mexican restaurant,” Saad says. “Everything in the book has special meaning to me, so much that if I never sold a copy I’d still be happy because I would have it in my arms as a kind of journal of my life. I love it; it has captured everything I’ve done.”
Saad says his career is hectic and it’s sometimes hard to travel without his family (he and his wife, Nadia, have two children – Isabella and Sebastian), but he couldn’t be happier with the decision to pursue his passion.
“It’s what I’m really meant to do,” he declares. “In life you need to do what you believe in your heart and soul you’re meant to do and what you love to do. And if you do that, you’ll truly succeed. When work and pleasure become the same thing, you know you’ve arrived. There is no line. It’s not like I’m going to work and I’m going home; it’s like I’m living life. I am inspired. I wake up and do what I do and there is no on/off switch.
“It’s just a way of life.”