Podcast Episode 77

Celebrity Chef Jeffrey Saad on Building a Career Doing What You Love

Jeffrey Saad | 46 Minutes | January 31, 2023

In today’s episode, we speak with Jeffrey Saad, author of Jeffrey Saad’s Global Kitchen: Recipes Without Borders, and creator of several restaurants such as San Francisco’s Sweet Heat, Pasta Pomodoro, and the Grove.

Chef Saad started his culinary career at the young age of 13 working in a local diner. Once the hospitality bug hit him, he followed his passion all around the world, launching several eateries. With his bold culinary voice and intrinsic desire to teach everyday people how to cook locally, he began his TV career, appearing on Food Network’s Chopped All-Stars, Grill it! with Bobby Flay, ABC’s The Chew, and many more.

Listen as Chef Saad talks about creating a social media presence in culinary arts, his encyclopedic knowledge of spices and ingredients, and building a career doing what you love.

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Notes & Transcript


Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, I’m speaking with Jeffrey Saad, a successful chef, entrepreneur, author, and television host who is passionate about teaching everyday people how to cook locally and to eat globally.

Chef Saad started his culinary career at the age of 13, working in a local diner. The hospitality bug hit him hard, and his passion drove him to culinary school, and later to travels around the world. He has created and contributed to many successful restaurants, including San Francisco’s Sweet Heat, Pasta Pomodoro, and the Grove. He’s the author of “Jeffrey Saad’s Global Kitchen: Recipes Without Borders,” and he has appeared on Food Network’s “Chopped: All-Stars” and “Grill It!” with Bobby Flay, ABC’s “The Chew,” and “Dr. Oz,” as well as “The Rachael Ray Show” and many more.

Join me today as I chat with Chef Saad about building an encyclopedic knowledge of spices and ingredients that inspires people to eat globally and much more.

And there he is. Good morning! How are you, Chef?

Jeffrey Saad: I’m great now because you made me feel like I’ve done stuff. Wow!

Kirk Bachmann: I’m out of breath.

Jeffrey Saad: I’m thrilled with myself now.

Kirk Bachmann: I almost dropped an F-bomb there. I’m out of breath. What a resume!

Jeffrey Saad: You are efficient and focused. Thank you. I’m honored to be talking to you.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. The honor’s mine. I’ve got to tell you: I’m excited for every guest, but you have an incredible presence, and you’re a storyteller. You’re fun. I’m going to kick this off and get people really jazzed up.

I’m doing some research last night. I know you’re supposed to be talking, but I’m going to talk for a minute. I’m doing some research last night. I’m looking at all these videos. I pull my wife over, and I’m like, “Look at this guy! He is taking butter out of the refrigerator. He’s cutting it up in cubes. He’s putting it into a little vessel, putting the wrapper back on and putting it in the refrigerator. People are going crazy.” Frickin’ brilliant. My wife’s comment is, “Wow! He’s pretty good looking.” And that’s all I got out of it! That’s all I got out of it.

Man, it’s so good to meet you.

Jeffrey Saad: Thank you.

Kirk Bachmann: Don’t upstage me! Love your style. It’s addictive. Here’s what’s going to be really cool. You don’t know this about me, but you’re born and raised in Chicago, right?

Jeffrey Saad: Yep. Hinsdale boy.

Kirk Bachmann: No way. Same here. I was born in Grant Hospital in the city.

Jeffrey Saad: I love it.

Kirk Bachmann: We left. Headed west when I was 13. Where did you go to high school?

Jeffrey Saad: Hinsdale Central.

Kirk Bachmann: No way!

Jeffrey Saad: Yes.

Kirk Bachmann: Don’t you love Chicago people?

Jeffrey Saad: The best! I used to always joke because when I was in culinary school in New York, I’d go into the city and I’d be like, “Good morning!” And they all look at me like, “You’re not from here, are you?” Because in Chicago, I made some of my best friends at the bus stop. Everybody is full of joy. “Hey! Nice to see you.”

Kirk Bachmann: Everybody! Say hot dog. “Hot dog.” You’re Chicago! Right there! That’s how you say hot dog. I absolutely love it.

So tell us a little bit more. There’s so much. You grew up in Chicago. Lebanese family, right?

Jeffrey Saad: Yep. You’re good, yeah.

Vending Joy with Food

Kirk Bachmann: Food a big piece, right?

Jeffrey Saad: You know, it’s amazing. I always joke that I was in seventh grade, and when you’re 110 pounds and your sister can kick you’re but, you’re probably not playing football. In my mind, I was a linebacker, but in the mirror, the reality was it was not going to happen. So I went into this little diner behind my junior high school. I grew up with my siti which is “grandma” in Arabic [Lebanese] – making all this food. I smelled cardamom, phyllo dough being buttered before I smelled or remembered anything else.

But I walked into this little diner, and I got a job as a dishwasher. Then I go promoted to cook with my little paper hat, flipping frozen burgers. I’m like, “I’m a chef!” And from that moment, I was just addicted. There was such a joy to putting food on a plate, putting it in front of somebody, seeing them bite in, shut their eyes for a moment, look to the sky. You’ve just fulfilled their day with a piece of food.

Kirk Bachmann: Is that what did it? You were 10, 11, 12, 13. And then it’s in your mind. Then culinary school came into the picture. Tell me about that a little bit.

Jeffrey Saad: Yeah. Without a doubt, working in that diner, I said, “This is what I’m doing for the rest of my life. I’m opening restaurants. I’m feeding people. I’m vending joy with food.” Life is so crazy in general. It’s one of my tattoos: “Bring Joy.” If I can just make somebody light up for a few minutes, it’s the greatest feeling. So I said, “That’s it.”

Then I started working at my godfather’s [the chain or his godfather’s restaurant in Chicago, which was a riot. Basically, if you had a recording of that kitchen, it would be symbolic of every lawsuit there has ever been. It’s an HR person’s nightmare, but that was a different time.

But I said, “Hey, if I’m going to do this food thing,” – I had been to a bunch of restaurants – “I should probably make it official and go to hotel restaurant school if I’m going to open restaurants.”

So I went to undergrad at Iowa State University. Then when I graduated there, I thought, “Well, I’ve got to understand the kitchen.” As you know, Kirk, you work in so many restaurants and you see the owner being held hostage by the kitchen because they don’t know what’s going on. Or the chef’s frustrated because they don’t get it. I thought, “I’m never going to be that guy. I’m going to get it.”

So then I went to the CIA in upstate New York. Amazing. And it just continued.

Kirk Bachmann: So you were a Cyclone. Kind of a similar path. I went to the University of Oregon, and did everything I could NOT to be in this industry. My father’s a master pastry chef from Germany. The whole bit. So I’m going to be a lawyer. I’m going to do anything I can. But it sucks you in, though.

Jeffrey Saad: It chooses you.

Kirk Bachmann: It does choose you.

Jeffrey Saad: It is in your blood. People say to me, “Should I open a restaurant?” I’m like, “Do you wake up in the morning and the first thing you think about is, ‘What am I going to cook for breakfast? What should I do for lunch? Should I head to the farmers’ market? All I want to do is cook and take care of people and work 16 hours a day.’” And they’re like, “Maybe not.” I’m like, “Exactly.”

Because even when a restaurant goes really well, you’re not getting rich. You’re going to have a good life and you’re doing what you love to do, but that’s what I always tell people.

My last restaurant failed. I told my son and my daughter, “I’d do it all over again because I loved the journey.” I was happy every single day. If you’re only doing something for the outcome, it’s a sad life. If you’re fulfilled by the journey, then there is no losing. It’s great.

The Tenderloin District

Kirk Bachmann: Great role model. I love that.

So you ended up, I happen to know, at the California Culinary Academy, CA, as we all know it. A few years ago. Classic, classic West Coast culinary school back in the day. So I have to bring up a couple of funny stories.

It’s in the Tenderloin District. Polk Street, right. Beautiful, beautiful part, the heart of San Francisco. I can remember the first time that I went when I was working with another organization that was operating that school. People were like, “You’re staying at that Holiday Inn” – which I could see from the school, but they’re like, “Yeah, you’re going to want to get a cab.” I’m like, “What are you talking about?”

“Well, it’s the Tenderloin District.”


I got up in the morning, and I started walking there, and I realized, “Okay. I’m going to grab a cab. This is a little crazy.” Somebody told me that it’s called the Tenderloin District because back in the day it was a little tough area of town that the police department would give a full-on tenderloin – we’ve got to love this as chefs – to any cop that would work that beat.

Jeffrey Saad: No!

Kirk Bachmann: 100 percent. That’s why it’s called the Tenderloin.

Jeffrey Saad: The fact that the CCA and that’s why it’s called the Tenderloin. I had a lot of ideas of why it was called that, but they are not appropriate for a podcast.

Kirk Bachmann: Exactly. And even if we’re making that up, who cares!? It’s a beautiful story. Go ahead and use it.

Jeffrey Saad: I’ll take it. Well said.

Stories of Chefs

Kirk Bachmann: I’ve got to ask, too. Brian Mattingly, Chef Brian Mattingly, who I think is with Google now. You’re going to die, because I know he was there when you were there.

Jeffrey Saad: Yeah, he was.

Kirk Bachmann: I’m in London. I’m at the Connaught Hotel. French Chef, the second French chef who had ever been there – it’s a Gordon Ramsay place now, but back then, French chef running it. I’m in his office, and there are all these pictures of the Queen and the family and all of that. And then there is this cabinet, all oak, it’s beautiful. And there’s a list of names. And it’s every apprentice that he ever had there in 40 years, had taken a knife and etched their name into this door.

Jeffrey Saad: That is so cool!

Kirk Bachmann: And guess whose name was on there, number four or five? Brian Mattingly. Not mine! I might have bumped into it. Brian Mattingly.

Jeffrey Saad: How cool is that?! He was great. I learned a lot from him. That school experience was amazing. I always tell people, if you’re an inspiring chef, you have to go to culinary school. A lot of chefs will say, “What? That’s a no, man!”

But the truth is, like everything in life, you need all aspects. I worked in restaurants from 13 years old, so I had the real experience. But guess what? In a matter of 18 months, I got to drag my tongue across the globe because I’m with this chef who used to be cooking for the United Nations. I’m with this guy, I’m with this girl. All of a sudden, you are getting this Ph. D. in delicious in 18 months that would take you 20 years in the industry.

Like everything in life, it’s not about only doing one thing. The combination of real world experience with culinary school is mind blowing. But, like everything in life, are you the guy at the front of the class going, “No. Make me do that meringue again. How do I get it to hold? I’m sick of when it tears and it cries. I want those peaks to stand proud.”

Or are you the girl in the back of the class, or the guy that’s like, “Ah, I can just hang back here, the bell will ring, and I’m done.” It’s what you take out of it…

Kirk Bachmann: Is what you put into it. Yeah. Well said. It’s the advice you give your kids, too. It’s the journey. It’s the path that you take.

Speaking of London, spent some time there, too, with a pretty well-known dude, right?

Jeffrey Saad: Anton Mosimann. I waited on Princess Di. Every stage I did was half kitchen, half front of the house. I always believed that I wanted to understand the whole picture on both sides. Oh my gosh, I learned so much there.

Oh my gosh. Was it Brian? I can’t remember now. There was a chef. I think it was the garde manger guy. There was a chef and the CCA that helped me make a connection, but I basically wrote a letter every day saying, “I’ll work 16 hours a day for free. I’ll work 16 hours a day for free.” And they finally replied and said, “Sure. Come on over.”

It was a great experience.

Kirk Bachmann: He doesn’t get enough press for the impact. I think he’s still alive. He made an impact.

Jeffrey Saad: He was the guy at the time. He was the first one. I think, and forgive me, whoever is listening, if I’m wrong. But I think he’s the one that inspired Jean-Georges because he was doing those juice vegetable sauces and reductions.

Kirk Bachmann: Way back then. Speaking of which, Chef, let’s have you talk about how your travels not only impact your philosophy around food, but specifically your palate. Ultimately, what you wanted and still want to cook. Because you’ve been around.

Jeffrey Saad: We should do a podcast with 80-plus episodes.

Kirk Bachmann: We should just talk every day.

Jeffrey Saad: I’m in! I’m in!

Kirk Bachmann: I’m going to start cutting butter and putting it in the refrigerator.

Jeffrey Saad: Exactly. Your wife will fall in love with you all over again.

Kirk Bachmann: You’re good looking.

Eating in the Present

Jeffrey Saad: Another 20 years together.

But that’s the right question. Like everything in life, I always say I know nothing, because I’m constantly learning. As I drag my tongue around the globe, I’m re-inspired. And what’s so cool is eating is kind of like life should be. Be present. Take it in. I’m not worried about yesterday or tomorrow. I’m just going to be the best I can be today, whether it’s what I’m cooking, eating, doing for work. Then all those great days put together is a great life.

When you’re eating, it’s the same thing. You want to be present and really think about what you’re eating. Yes, there are those moments where you’ve just got to fill that hole in your stomach and you eat so fast, like we both have, and you’re like, “I don’t even remember what I tasted. What was that I ate?”

But the right way to eat is to be thinking about what you’re eating. When you’re traveling the world and tasting, you’re automatically more present. When I went to Thailand, and I kept tasting this taste. I’m like, “What is it that I’m getting?” Then I finally realized it was galangal. And galangal is the ultimate back-up singer. It is this undertone of flavor and aroma that is so beautiful when in balance. That inspired me to reconsider how I’m creating balance with each and every dish that I do.

It’s those global flavors that spark that flavor wick and make you think differently about how you’re cooking and how to balance ingredients and how to make things.


Kirk Bachmann: So Chef, you’re totally – it’s so clear you’re a pro at talking about food. It gets me excited. I don’t know if my octane has been this pumped up in a while. Watching your videos, reading about you, the time that you competed on “Next Food Network Star” – and we’ll get to that in a minute – you have this really unique, exciting, high-level way of not just speaking about food, but narrating what you’re preparing.

One example I saw, it was so simple. You had some whitefish in the saute pan. And I love when you’re talking about, “Heat up the pan. Heat up the pan. Then hit the oil.” The fish is in the saute pan, and all you did was take a little spatula, and you just kind of lifted the fish a little bit. You could see that it broke. It’s a tough one for people. Don’t feed me translucent whitefish. I don’t want it. It’s an art, right.

You’re a storyteller. Let’s just say that. What’s the process been like? You’re a Chicago guy. You’re a CIA. You went to CA. You’re opening all these restaurants. When did this hit you? “Man, I can talk. And I can talk about food.” Was there a process? Did you study more? Or is this just who Jeffrey Saad is?

Jeffrey Saad: I appreciate that. Thank you so much. It’s because I love it so much. It’s because my goal, whether it was on TV. I’m looking at that screen, that lens, and I’m not thinking that it’s about me. I’m thinking, “I’ve got to get in there and get to everybody because they need to know this stuff.” Obviously, same thing. You’re a chef. You’re an educator. You’re an entrepreneur as well. You want to make a difference in people’s lives with this stuff, but the only way you’re going to do that is if you can articulate it.

I’d love to explain some impressive process, but I think it’s partly just who I am. But what I’ve also done – as I was saying earlier – when I’m eating something, I really stop for a minute. I try to slow down and go, “What am I tasting? What’s that first flavor?” Even before that, if it looks good, it’s going to taste good. How’s that presentation? What am I seeing? Oh, wow, look at the crust on that. That’s going to change the way it tastes. How did they do this? Then I take a bite, and I’m thinking about it. Where’s the acidity? Where’s the sweetness? As you know, that acid elevates all the other flavors. Is the finish just bitter enough to make me die for another bite, or is it too bitter to where I’m starting to pucker, like a wine that you shouldn’t be drinking this soon?

I do this mind-tasting, and then I try to break it down – pun intended – digestible parts for people so that I can help them recreate the same thing. My cookbook, that was my biggest challenge. I wanted 68 pages on how to know when the onions are the right color and texture. But of course, the publisher is like, “No. This recipe only gets three pages.” It’s about thinking about what it tastes like, what it looks like, and then how I share that with people.

It’s also, as I’m cooking, I think about – I love my sister in Chicago. She’s super passionate about food and cooking. So if I think, “What would she want to know when I’m doing this? What would be the thing, the tipping point for her?” With eggs, I’m passionate about eggs, but you’ve got to keep them moving. Light and fluffy. When they get those crispy edges, that’s when the sulfur comes out and they’re nasty and they dry out. My wife laughs at me because residual heat is one of my favorite topics.

Kirk Bachmann: I’ve heard it. I’ve heard it. I love it. We also call it carryover cooking. But residual heat. Brilliant. More eloquent.

Jeffrey Saad: Exactly.

The Double-Edged Sword of Social Media

Kirk Bachmann: I love that “mind-tasting.” I thought about something as you were saying that. From your perspective, you’ve got a great presence on social media. You’re good in front of the camera and all of that. What has changed since you and I went to culinary school? We didn’t have Instagram. Hell, we didn’t have phones back then. I see so many people, and I don’t mean this in a negative way. It’s all beautiful. I was at a beautiful restaurant in Chicago not too long ago. I’m the first one to whip out the phone and get some stuff on Insta, but has it changed? Are people more concerned about that Insta post than what you’re talking about? Being in the moment, experiencing that acid, experiencing the bitterness. Are people too hung up on getting it posted as quickly as possible because then it’s evidence that you were there? I worry about that.

Jeffrey Saad: It’s a really great point, Kirk. It’s like everything in life. Are you doing it because it matters to you, or are you doing it because you think you’re supposed to? I always say, “Who could you be if you weren’t who you thought you were?” Everyone has an image of what they’re trying to be, but who is the real you?

And you bring up a great point. When you and I went to culinary school, people looked at me like, “Why do you want to be a cook? That’s weird. You might as well be a ditch digger.” Who wants to be in a kitchen? The truth is, all of us back then – when I was at the CIA in New York, it was like Camp Culinary. I was up in the school’s kitchen at 5 a.m. playing with eggs and I was there at the end of the day re-learning how to sear a piece of steak that I learned all day. You did it for the sheer joy and passion.

Now, I think you and I both know, a significant percentage of people are doing it just because they’re like, “I want to be the next TV chef. I want to be the next Instagram star or social media star.”

I think that’s a double-edged sword. People ask me, “What’s your favorite wine?” And I say, “White Zinfandel.” And they go, “What?!” I go, “I would never drink it, but it’s my favorite because it got people drinking wine.” That’s what’s brilliant about it. [People] go, “This is sweet and easy. Ooh.” Then, what happens is you start digging deeper. It opened up a whole world to people about wine.

I think it’s the same thing with all this social media stuff. The downside is, are you doing it for the right reasons, and do you really care about it? But the upside is it has allowed a lot of people like you and I and all these hardworking chefs and people who are in education and the love of food to have a bigger platform and be able to make a greater living with it. It’s like anything in life; there is some bad stuff about it, but there is some good stuff about it. Like everything, it’s how you find that balance.

A buddy of mine said it when I was partners at The Grove up at San Francisco. He’s a really passionate guy, and he said one thing to me years ago when I was doing his menus that I loved. He said, “Roast me a perfect chicken, and then tell me about all your fancy crap. Make me a chicken where it has retained all its juice. The skin is super crispy. Snappingly crisp. You go through it, and then when you open up the breast, the juice starts to puddle out. That is really understanding food and how to cook. And it’s salt, pepper, and a bird.

The Benefits of Local Food

Kirk Bachmann: It’s so simple, like a beautiful omelet or a risotto, where you can stop in the middle of making the risotto, pull out a grain of rice, and crack it open and show the insides to a student.

The questions just keep coming. How has local sourcing, sustainability, better benefits, how has all of that played coming out of the pandemic into your impression and how you speak about the industry?

Jeffrey Saad: I started going to Europe 30 years ago, and fell in love. It’s comical, because if you say to them, “Farm to table, local sourcing,” they’re like, “What else is there?”

Kirk Bachmann: Good point.

Jeffrey Saad: Again. I think it’s great that people are becoming more and more aware of it. I’m constantly re-learning myself. I have a busy life. I have a family. I got in the habit of running down to the local grocery story. But now, for the last year, I’ve been back every Wednesday at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market on Arizona between Second and Fourth. Oh my gosh! Kirk, you know this. I get these spicy mixed greens from different farmers that I like. Or arugula. That stuff is standing proud two weeks later if it’s in your fridge. It’s still good, versus the plastic-sealed greens that you open it up, and it smells like a moldy basement or something. Ew.

Listen. Everyone listening out there; you’ve got a busy life. You can’t always get to the farmers’ market on a Wednesday. I get it. Or even a Saturday. But when you can, it will be so inspiring and you’ll eat much better. So I guess the short answer is it hasn’t changed anything for me as much as been a constant reminder of how important it is.

I joke sometimes to friends, and they all think I’m nuts. I’m like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if they passed a law if you were not allowed to have anything travel more than 30 miles?” You’d have no choice but to cook seasonal because it was illegal to get produce from South America in the winter. Again, practical? Probably not. But how cool would it be?

And that’s what’s great about the farmers’ market. I’m buying persimmons because that’s what’s in season. I come home and make this persimmon flan that was so inspirational and so delicious because it was in season and that’s what happens.

I think there is a lot to be said for doing your best to do that. My wife’s like, “I’ve got this chicken from…” I won’t say the name because I’m going to say something negative, but “from this really popular chain.”

“I know it’s from that chain.”

“How did you know?”

“Because I just tasted it.” Let your palate tell the truth. If you don’t believe it, go get something that’s really local and farm raised and good husbandry, and then get something that’s mass produced. Taste them, and you’ll see the difference.

Kirk Bachmann: I love how you’re an evangelist. At the end of the day, Amazon will figure out how to keep things within 30 miles. They’ll figure it out.

Jeffrey Saad: Again, there you go with the good and the bad of big. That’s a really good point, Kirk. I think they could, ironically, be the ones that figure it out for us.

How to Be Yourself

Kirk Bachmann: Whether it’s a drone, or otherwise.

Staying on this, I’m fascinated by the literacy. The literacy. Any advice for a young culinarian who is trying, like you say, to balance a lot of stuff today? Transportation. Relationships. Housing. All of this stuff. Then you come to culinary school, and you’re inundated by stuff on social media and what other people are doing. “God, I forgot this.” Any advice as they are trying to find their voice around foods? Just that topic.

Jeffrey Saad: That’s another great question, and I think it’s the most important one, now, per our previous topic. I think the answer is: do what resonates with you. For me, when there was that craze about all these foams and things, it never resonated with me. I wasn’t going to say, “Oh, I’m going to do Jeffrey’s version of foam.” No. It doesn’t resonate with me. Be true to yourself.

But the only way to be true to yourself is to be super open-minded in the beginning. I always say, read every cookbook you can. Not to copy the recipe, but read a cookbook like a novel. How do the characters interact? Ooh. Look at the way the rosemary and pomegranate played. I like that combo. I like that flavor idea.

That’s what I still do to this day. I never copy a recipe per se, but what I do is see this great thing that Kirk posted, and I go, “I love the way he played with cornmeal, pecans, and catfish.” I just write those three words down in my notes on my phone. I have a thing called, “Cook.” I just write three word combinations, flavor ideas, and then I build off of that. That way, it becomes authentically you, because you are creating your own mind-tasting database. You’re experimenting, and then you see which land you land in. For me, I was at Anton Mosimann’s in London, and I loved him. I was so inspired. But I was also like, “You know what? No. I don’t want to be this fancy. I want to be rustic.” That’s why I went back but opened gourmet, but Mexican. It was casual and fun. That was who I was. I wanted to put gourmet flavors into a daily delivery vehicle.

Find your lane, and then just speed up.

Kirk Bachmann: No, I love it. Coming to that Mexican concept – Sweet Heat: what a beautiful name. What a perfect name for a restaurant.

It’s interesting. What I heard was “do you.” Last night I had orientation for a bunch of new students who were starting with us online. That’s kind of the message. It takes a while to get there. There’s no perfect way to be a great student or study hard. Just do you. I do love that. I’m probably stealing that from someone.

To echo your comments about where you get inspiration, cookbooks can be expensive. Coffee table books can be really expensive. But I’m just like you. Whether it’s Noma’s new book or Fava Can or you get some cool Scandinavian restaurant, it’s about the inspiration that you get by turning the pages. I don’t even need to read the recipe. That’s the joy. Some people like golfing 18 holes every other day. Some people like jet skiing. I like to go through cookbooks. It’s a vice. It’s terrible, but I’m right there with you.

Let’s get really excited here, Jeffrey, about you. This auditioning. It’s one thing to be a great cook. It’s one thing to be passionate about food, know where your food’s coming from, being able to talk about it. But then, this whole other thing where there are 13 cameras in your face, and you’re sweating. I was talking to Curtis Duffy the other day. He was on “Iron Chef.” You don’t see that. You don’t see that. So talk a little bit about the impetus for auditioning. Obviously your personality pulled you in, but “Next Food Network Star.” What’s the secret to being authentic but also dramatic that they [say,] “Get that guy! I want that guy! Or I want that gal.” How do you do that?

The Reality TV Experience

Jeffrey Saad: I’ve got to tell you, I feel so blessed. It was my final exam. It was the ultimate challenge, and it was, as a result, the most rewarding thing.

I’ve been a martial artist my whole life. When I was 18 years old at Iowa State University, Master Pak stood there. He was 65 years old, and he put his leg straight in the air and held it straight up as he was talking to us. Slowly brought it down, stuck it out, back to the floor. And he said, “You know what? If you get in a fight, you’re not going to be able to say to the person, ‘Hey, let me stretch, just a second. Okay, I’ve got to warm up.’ If you can’t put your leg straight in the air when you’re cold, you don’t have a chance, because it’s extending yourself beyond your reach that allows you to then perform in an instant and be great.”

I always love that analogy, because it’s the same thing with food. The reason I thrived on those competition shows – and I didn’t know it at the time – was because I’d worked so hard to build that mind-tasting database, to be open-minded about everything. Then, when all of a sudden you’re under pressure – and you said it perfectly. I will never forget being on “Chopped: All-Stars.” We got that basket. I’m standing next to Michael Symon and these amazing chefs, and I’m like, “Oh my gosh!” It was no joke. They go, “Open your baskets.” I thought after we pulled out the ingredients they’d shut the cameras down and you’d have a minute to think. No. Go! And you’ve got 20 minutes to make your first course with a basket you just opened. It was the real deal. But I loved it. It was like crack for me because it’s like this is where you get to see, had you really spent the time mind-tasting. When I pulled out pancake batter and chicken feet, what do you think everybody made when they got pancake batter?

Kirk Bachmann: Oh my God! Blinis! Pancakes!

Jeffrey Saad: I just got back from cooking in China, so I made a congee. You know, the rice stew? They put seafood and stuff in it. I made a congee out of the pancake batter and I had the crispy chicken feet sticking out of it. I won that one, but it was only because I had pushed myself, and I had traveled. Not everyone can travel, I understand, but you can travel in your mind. You can travel online now. Like you said, you don’t even have to spend a ton of money on cookbooks because you can google the heck out of everything and really get what you need without spending a penny.

The very long answer to your short question: it was the ability to have done so much that I could tap into that quickly, in the moment. It was the sheer love of it. If you don’t really love it, when you’re under pressure, you’re going to crack – which I watched a lot of people do. They didn’t necessarily love it. They hadn’t pushed themselves really far. They didn’t have a recipe or anything to use as a guide. They just start crumbling. And ultimately, you’ve got to look at that camera as if it’s your sister in Chicago. You can’t go, “Oh my God, I’m on national TV!” You’ve got to be like, “Hey sis, here’s what we’re doing. We’re putting this together, and this is what we’re going to do.” And it was really the combination of all that made it work for me.

Kirk Bachmann: You’re humble. Some of that’s a gift. Some people can really practice a lot and still freeze on camera. I love the quote, totally stealing it, going to share it everywhere. “Extend yourself beyond your reach so that you can perform in an instant.” We could be in a boardroom in front of students, or in front of my son’s baseball team. Absolutely brilliant.

You probably can’t share secrets, but most interesting, least interesting about being a contestant on a show like that?

Jeffrey Saad: The most interesting thing has nothing to do with food. It was the ability to keep calm. It was a test on your anxiety levels, your worry levels, your stress levels. Because when you’re in that environment. It’s funny: a lot of people make fun of reality TV, but after being on it, sure, a lot of this stuff is exaggerated, or as the editors would tell me, “We can’t make a good person look bad, but we can make a bad person look horrible.” You can exaggerate what’s there, but they can’t create it.

But you have got to keep your head. That was what it was really all about. I swear. It’s no different than martial arts. I could beat a fighter that was better than me because I had more endurance and was calmer and was thinking in the moment and watching his pattern and what he was doing. That was the biggest, the most rewarding wild part of that. It was a test of “Who Am I?” as a person. I learned to work on a lot of things after that as well.

The least interesting part. Is that what you said, the least interesting?

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. If there’s anything that stands out.

Jeffrey Saad: It was probably the sheer boredom sometimes because all the waiting and waiting. You, me, most people in this industry are A personalities. You have one speed and it’s full throttle until the engines are smoking. When you have to wait around and that kind of stuff, it can be very trying.

Kirk Bachmann: And that adds to the anxiety for people, too.

Jeffrey Saad: Which they do on purpose, by the way, that’s all part of it.

Kitchen Tips

Kirk Bachmann: Sure. Brilliant on their part.

Let’s talk a little bit. You’ve owned restaurants. You’ve launched brands. Dreams. You’re working on two things that every chef dreams about, every person probably dreams about. But a couple of things jumped out that I’ve just got to ask about. Please talk a little bit more about the Magic Triangle. I frickin’ love the Magic Triangle. Here he is, after he put the butter in the refrigerator, he’s over here in the corner. He pulls open the knife drawer, and he calls it the Magic Triangle. I’m like, “This guy’s a frickin’ genius!” How can you take something so simple and turn it into…? And I have a Magic Triangle in my kitchen at home, by the way.

Jeffrey Saad: It’s funny, because my first restaurant, Sweet Heat, I’m a 25-year-old guy. I didn’t know anything. I signed a lease, and then I decided, “What should I make the concept be?” It was a narrow, teeny space. I had to work in this really little kitchen. Then I realized these big fancy kitchens sometimes make it harder, because really it’s just the three-foot pivot. You want to be from sink to stove to fridge, sink to stove to fridge. Right here, one, two, three. It makes you so much more efficient, whether you’re cooking professionally, trying to bang out 1000 dishes an hour, or whether you’re just at home. I joke, my kitchen here, you probably are referring to that one video – I have to walk around the butcher block area to get to the fridge. Again, first world problems, but it’s not as efficient. When you’ve got everything set up to where it’s those three points, everything just flows in the kitchen more easily.

The other thing I did during covid that got a lot of traction, like the butter was: open up every one of your kitchen drawers, and if there’s anything in there that you have not touched in the last three weeks, get rid of it. And when I say get rid of it, you don’t have to throw it away, but put it in a box, label it, put it in a lower cabinet in that corner cabinet, in the garage shelves, wherever you can access it. Oh my gosh, all of a sudden, clean spaces, clean mind. It makes you so much more efficient. You realize how many wasted toys you have, too.

Those are the little things. I always say: When you make the cooking experience more efficient, it’s more fun. When it’s more fun, you’ll do it more often.

A Rebel in the Kitchen

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. I’m going to actually have my wife do that in her closet. I think that’s brilliant.

Rebel Chef. I saw a few really cool things on Rebel. Are you a rebel in the kitchen?

Jeffrey Saad: I don’t think I am, man. I’m more of a lover than a fighter in the kitchen. I just want to bring joy. But I think that Rebel series was a great idea, but unfortunately it was just underfunded. It just didn’t work out. They really wanted to do this app that was going to be exercise and food. I had so much fun and met so many great people doing that app. It was really about digging in and doing all kinds of different things.

But I think “rebel” is a good word because what it really means is “Close that book. Throw the recipe away. Go for it.” Because nothing in this world worthwhile is ever easy or without pain. I always tell people, if you’re comfortable, you’re failing, because the greatest things in my life have happened when I’m sick to my stomach. When those butterflies turn into rocket fuel, that’s when your life changes. Be a rebel, meaning, “Don’t feel like you have to follow the recipe.” I have this one friend that cooked this [thing]. We went over to her house and she goes, “I knew I shouldn’t have done that, but the recipe said it.” I said, “Next time, I want you to close that book and do what your gut says, because you were right.”

You don’t learn until you fail as well. When you’re following things too carefully, it takes the joy out of it. It throws the energy over here instead of in the pan. Do your best to glance at the book. Again, if you’re a brand new cook, of course you want to follow recipes. You can’t break the rules until you understand them. But don’t be afraid to just go with your gut and say, “You know what? I grew up in X place, and we used X ingredient, so I’m going to mix that in and see how that tastes with this.”

Fusion is funny cooking, right. My buddy said, “Fusion? The definition of fusion: is when you insult every country involved.” That’s the bad version. But the good version is, how do you learn to grab chili peppers and put them in cuisines that aren’t typically spicy and create something totally new?

Kirk Bachmann: Speaking of that, and going back to the triangle again, any advice for pantries? Pantries can be a disaster. Unless you’re going to scrap everything, go plant-based and start from scratch.

Jeffrey Saad: If you saw my pantry and fridge, you’d probably think I don’t even cook, because there is so little in there. But that’s because I’m lean and mean. I don’t like to stockpile and waste. Of course, I have my different rices, my different grains, because I’ll cook with them. Dried beans, whatever. But for the most part, open your pantry: same story. If you haven’t used it in a couple weeks, either donate it, get rid of it, or be inspired and do something with it.

For example, I had some baby black lentils. “These have been sitting in here for months.” So I did these beautiful Moroccan-style lamb chops and I put them over these baby lentils with a little bit of mint. It was like the mint lit up the spice and it played nicely in the lentils. They were creamy because they were so small. They were like little bursts of creaminess, these baby lentils versus a bigger starch. Play around.

But I think the pantry is about, “What am I going to use? What do I need? What can I clean out that I’m not using?” Have it be very efficient. Kind of like your desk: have just on your desk what you’re actually using.

A Passion for Products

Kirk Bachmann: That says a lot about your style as a cook, too. If we’re going to evangelize that we’re buying local and we’re sourcing local, and all of that, then we shouldn’t have a bunch of stuff stockpiled. I’m totally with you.

Hanging on this. You’ve done a lot. Any advice for young culinarians or anyone – half my family listening to the podcast – on launching a product line? I know there’s a lot. I’m not trying to simplify it. Any quick advice on what to do, whether it’s chutney or some other cool product?

Jeffrey Saad: You’re such an amazing host. You’ve done your homework so well.

Kirk Bachmann: A little bit.

Jeffrey Saad: I’m flattered and pretty grateful. I would say the most important answer is that I’m probably not qualified because it’s not an expertise of mine. But what I can share is that you don’t have to be an expert to make it happen. I’m 25 years old, and I was doing these seared scallop tacos with green chili chutney. That was the inspiration for the name Sweet Heat, because I just loved that with every bite you got this sweet bit of scallop and the sweet chutney, and then all of a sudden the heat kicked in and went, “Whoa!” It cleansed your palate and reset you for the next bite.

I made these chutneys, a red one and a green one. At the time, Macy’s had this amazing food seller in San Francisco. You probably remember that. They were really well known for it. They wouldn’t return my calls, wouldn’t return my calls. So I got some hot chips right out of the fryer, threw them in a bag with a little bit vented so they wouldn’t get soft, grabbed the bottle of chutney, jumped on a motorcycle, went down to Macy’s, illegally parked on the sidewalk, went down to the food seller, walked straight into the buyer’s office without an appointment. I said, “I’m so sorry to interrupt you. I’m sure your day is busy. Can I put one thing in your mouth and I’ll leave?”

She started laughing. I dipped the chip into the chutney. I gave it to her. She ate it. She ordered 30 cases. Then I went to Williams-Sonoma and I said, “Tell you what? You guys are doing these cooking demos. If you will buy my chutney, I’ll do some free cooking demos to show people how to use it.“

Kirk Bachmann: Brilliant.

Jeffrey Saad: And my restaurant’s right here in the neighborhood. It’s kind of ancient. I’m not making this up. Guerrilla marketing was famous 30 years ago, but I think it’s important for people to remember. Open the jar, the box, the bag, whatever you’re doing, put it in somebody’s mouth and get started. The reality is, don’t ever let, “Oh, I’m not a big merchandiser” stop you from your dream. The CCA, to this day, one of my favorite quotes the CA speaker said at our graduation was, “The only difference between dreams and reality is how bad you want it.”

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, I love it.

Jeffrey Saad: And I always loved that because it’s really true. Don’t let anyone ever tell you – I graduated, and I was 24 – “You’ve got to work for other people before you open your own restaurant.”

“No thanks. Now I’m doing it for sure.” And I opened my restaurant. I had my challenges, but we killed it. If you want it bad enough, you’ll figure it out.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that ambition. In a similar story: I’ve got a good friend here. He’s got a little start-up hot spice company. It’s called Seed Ranch. He does a great job. Super, super smart guy. We went to lunch. We both had chili. It was cold outside. He literally pulls out a sample of his [product], and he literally reaches across the table and goes, “Now try that chili.”

Jeffrey Saad: Love it!

Kirk Bachmann: Brilliant! I’ve seen a couple of other things. Where I’m going with this sort of angle, Chef, is you can do so much more as a chef. You’re a marketer. You’re a brander. You’re an evangelist. You’re a prophet, right. I saw some stuff on infomercials for New Wave, a cool kitchen equipment. I think I see that you’re in real estate, too. How do you pivot constantly, and do you compromise anything by shifting back and forth, or does it become even better. “Look at this guy!” I believe the butter, and I believe what he does with the fish, and I believe the triangle. I bought into the Rebel Chef. So I think I’m going to try this equipment because Jeffrey said so. Is there a method to that madness, or is that dangerous?

Jeffrey Saad: I’ve always said, if you look at most people who love their life – and I’ve got to tell you, if I could change one thing about my life, I wouldn’t. It has been an amazing journey, but I also could have never scripted it. As you probably couldn’t. As most successful, happy people couldn’t. They say, “I could have never told you this was what the story was going to look like.”

I think, for me, the short answer is – and it’s an important question you’re asking, especially for younger people. I think more than ever, it’s great to be a slash. I love being a slash. I’m a chef/Realtor. I can do both really well. It was funny, because my wife’s like, “Oh, don’t let our real estate clients” – we’d been doing real estate for 22 years – “Don’t let our real estate clients know that you’re a professional chef and have restaurants. They’re going to think you’re not as a good of a Realtor.”

You know what? I sold more houses by saying, “Wait, you’re doing osso buco tonight? First, dry it really well. Season it. Dust it with flour, but let that flour fall out. Sear it golden. Take it out. Then add the tomato…put it back.” They’re like, “Can we write an offer on [the property]?” I never asked if they wanted to write an offer on a house, but I connected sincerely because of my passion for this stuff.

Kirk Bachmann: It was genuine.

Jeffrey Saad: It’s really about the story you tell yourself. Everything in life is this story. If you’re going to tell stories, tell good ones. The stories I chose to tell myself is that I can be great at both. Both will help the other one.

The infomercials: if you would have asked me about an infomercial when I was on Food Network or when I had my restaurants, I would have said, “Infomercials? Are you kidding? What is that? That’s so cheesy. I’m a real chef. I’m a restaurateur. I’m not doing infomercials.”

The infomercials have been one of the greatest things I’ve ever experienced because…

Kirk Bachmann: I bet! I bet.

Jeffrey Saad: I meet these passionate engineers. The guy who owns New Wave. He is so passionate about how he’s engineered this air fryer. He loved it because I called it a cyclone of heat. You have this cyclone of heat swirling around, and it is crisping from every angle. The chicken doesn’t have a chance of not being perfectly crisp because it’s coming from every side.

Then I could take my passion for food and the way I cook, and I could think, “How would I sear this at home? Then put it in the convection and then broil it. How is this machine accomplishing those three things that I do with three different pans, making a huge mess, and it’s all happening in this vehicle?”

I did six of those in the last few years, and it was such a joy. A) I had people come and say, “I just saw you on…!” It ties everything together. I’m proud of the products. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t believe in a product, because then it would feel insincere.

Kirk Bachmann: In life, if you’re branding super cool products that you believe in, why wouldn’t you ask a subject matter expert to talk about it?

Jeffrey Saad: That’s what I respected about them, too. Well said, Kirk. That is the most important point. New Wave saw the importance of that. Who better to integrate what this machine can do than somebody who can taste what it does? I could taste the Bravo oven broiling the top. I could experience how, after the center was moist, the top heat blasted down and gave it the sear like you and I do in a pan with high heat. I was like, “Yes!”

Kirk Bachmann: Because you understand what is supposed to happen. They could have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a PR company, and they would not have come up with cyclone of heat. Three words! I frickin’ love it.

Jeffrey Saad: Flavor chamber, baby.

Putting Himself on a Plate

Kirk Bachmann: The flavor chamber.

I’ve got one really important question left, but before that, what’s next? What’s next for you?

Jeffrey Saad: I think life is about not what happens, but about how you react. It is the only thing we actually control. We own that completely as our reaction. I have learned, yes, you can put it out there, “I’m going to go do this.” And you make it happen. But I’ve landed in such a beautiful place.

Being totally transparent: the kitchen hurts. Restaurants are hard. But my love for food? I have to put food on the plate daily. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t cook. But I have found this grateful, magical place where I can do my real estate, which funds my travels and my passion for food around the world. As these opportunities come, I do them. I will let you know what comes next because I will be all over it with all the passion in the world.

But will I open another restaurant one day? Probably. But it will be 20 seats. It will say, “Open when open. Menu is what it is. Welcome.” And I’ll just be putting myself on the plate and what inspires me that day because I have to vend that.

Yeah, so we’ll see.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. And I want that 20 seat restaurant, too. Maybe 12. Maybe 12. I’ll send you the business plan. The name of it, Jeffrey, is Chaos.

Jeffrey Saad: I love it.

Kirk Bachmann: No one will ever question it. My fork’s different than your fork. Welcome to Chaos.

Jeffrey Saad: That’s great.

Jeffrey Saad’s Ultimate Dish

Kirk Bachmann: Hey, the name of the podcast is The Ultimate Dish. This is the point in the episode where we just ask, what, in your mind – it could be a memory. It could be a specific dish, type of cuisine. But I’m really interested in hearing what the ultimate dish is.

Jeffrey Saad: The ultimate dish, for me, is very personal. It is osso buco. The reason why is because my first restaurant, I was living above the restaurant. I had my Ninja motorcycle, and thought life could never get better. I had this hot girlfriend, who is now my wife. I met her walking down the street when I was building my restaurant. I said, “That is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my life. I must stop and say hello.”

As we started dating, I found out she grew up in Rome. “Ooh, she’s Italian. She’ll appreciate osso buco.” I had her over for dinner. I made this osso buco. All of a sudden, she was quiet. I look over. She’s got the wine opener, and she’s digging out the bone marrow and taking it right off the corkscrew. I thought, “That’s my wife! I’m with you for the rest of my life.”

For me, that dish will always be the ultimate dish. Not only is it what, again, almost like the roasted chicken. It’s actually a very simple dish, but when done right, as you know, with that glowing saffron risotto that looks like a sunrise on your plate. So for me, tying in the love of my life to it, that will always be my dish.

Kirk Bachmann: So beautifully said. I don’t know. We’ve done about 84-85 episodes, and that might be – I think you just podium. I think you just podiumed, buddy. That was beautiful. Our best to your beautiful family. I hope that we talk more. I have so enjoyed meeting you and chatting with you. You are an amazing storyteller and a super cool person.

Jeffrey Saad: The feeling is mutual. You are the real deal, and that’s what makes a podcast great. Thank you for your time.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it, buddy. Thank you.

Jeffrey Saad: Thanks man. Be well.

Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely.

And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.

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