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Food

LAist Interview: Food Network's Jeffrey Saad Spices Things Up

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Jeffrey Saad at the Los Angeles Magazine Food Event, Oct. 2009 (Elise Thompson/LAist)


Jeffrey Saad at the Los Angeles Magazine Food Event, Oct. 2009 (Elise Thompson/LAist)
Change is never easy for most of us, even if we're looking for something a little different in our lives. But Jeffrey Saad makes change--big or small--look easy. In fact, he makes change seem like something we all can do, just a little, to spice up our lives. Of course, for Saad, the big changes came when he gave up his career to give being The Next Food Network Star a shot in the show's highly successful 5th season. As a result, the self-proclaimed "Spice Smuggler" is now able to make home cooks all over feel like they can take on something new in the kitchen, by adding a little spice to their food. Recently we sat down with Saad to talk about the show, his upcoming endeavors, eating in Los Angeles, and spices.The Next Food Network Star may have changed Saad's life entirely, but what might surprise you is that was a case of change by design. Says Saad: "It changed my life completely because I actually did it to change my life. I wanted to transition into food--that was the goal."

Having left behind his work in real estate, Saad is now able to focus solely on food, which is his true passion. As a result, his interactions with the people he encounters on a daily basis are proving to have the unexpected benefit of allowing him to hear their food stories about family, including one cab driver in Chicago who confessed to Saad that while his family struggled through tough times they were able to stay bonded and share quality time together by watching The Next Food Network Star.

All this has Saad exactly where he wants to be: "I’m back to what I love which is food," he says, smiling.

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Not only has the show led to great food moments in conversation, but also opportunities for Saad to work for the Food Network despite not being crowned the victor on the series.

Shortly after the show ended, they approached Saad with the concept of him doing a web series about spices for the home cook. So who's been--or should be--tuning in online? "I want it to be everybody," admits Saad. "Anybody from 20-60 who just wants to be inspired through food," he suggests. The webisodes really allow the viewer to experience food through spices, he explains. For those who find spices to be overwhelming, Saad hopes he can help people use spices to transcend borders in cooking. By learning how to use a few spices you can "taste the world without having to learn 100 cuisines."

Unlocking the mystery of spices is the concept of a book Saad is working on, aimed at giving home cooks insight into single or combined spices that will relieve the pressure many people feel hit with in the kitchen when it comes to spices. "You don't need to know everything," Saad assures, "A few combinations can make it easier." He hopes to be able to provide readers with charts that break down "the holy [spice] trios of every cuisine" and a "cheat sheet to basic flavor profiles" so that making an Indian or Chinese-inspired meal at home can be less of a struggle. [Check out this Spice Smuggler Food Network video to learn how to make a 5 Spice Stir Fry with Chicken]

Of course, just the word "spice" conjures up for many a trek through mysterious aisles and shop walls lined with jars filled with the exotic and the unknown. Sure, there are indeed a plethora of global flavors to sample, but Saad's aim is slightly more realistic. "I want to create recipes for the ten most common spices that you walk by the grocery store," he explains. "If you’re willing to buy these ten spices, I'll have for you 3-5 recipes per spice."

Take for example something we might see winking at us from the shelves of our neighborhood grocery story like 5 Spice. It just so happens that one blend will give you an "unbelievable depth of flavor" that's just like a "taste of China." 5 Spice is the flavor of a dish like Peking Duck, where chefs use it to create that sweet external coating. Saad, however, would ideally inspire you to give it a shot by tossing it with some shrimp, and serving it alongside some spicy cabbage slaw you can marinate quickly right on your countertop. Saad recently prepared these Shrimp Sliders, and shared the recipe on his blog. If you're brave enough to give something like 5 spice a shot, suddenly there's one less spice to be intimidated by, and you'll open up your meals to a whole new level of flavor. "If you buy 5 spice you’ll really feel like you’re cooking!"

For Angelenos, we're lucky to be able to encounter spices not just in the bright aisles of a Ralphs or Vons, but rather in ethnic neighborhood markets and specialty shops. Saad and his family have lived in Los Angeles for a few years now, and he is particularly loyal to Santa Monica's Penzeys for spices. "They have everything. Each jar you can open and smell, from the sample jar in front of the stack. It's so neat to be able to smell it, touch, it, experience it, and buy it. If you live in Los Angeles it can be your one stop."

Saad explains that his method isn't necessarily to "do anything authentic," however. He's not creating traditional recipes that would match what would be served at an ethnic restaurant, but rather he's creating world cuisine by simply blending spices like those he finds at the supermarket or spice shop and with ingredients he finds when he makes a regular visit to a farmers' market, like Santa Monica's Wednesday market.

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Saad does a live demo as part of the celebration of farmers' markets in Los Angeles (Lindsay William-Ross/LAist)
We do have an abundance of remarkable produce available to us here in Los Angeles, particularly at the many weekly farmers' markets (Saad also took part in this summer's celebration of LA's farmers markets), but is Los Angeles a culinary city? Recently, on Saad's blog, he mentioned that on a recent rip to New York City he felt he could truly "eat without borders" there. "Los Angeles is tricky because it’s so big and there’s so much—yet because of that it’s really hard. You have to be a really dedicated foodie to track it all down, and people tend to stick to their own neighborhood," he observes. "There’s nothing you can’t get here, it just depends how much energy to you want to put into it."

When it comes to food, many believe L.A. suffers from an internal identity crisis, but is perceived by those on the outside as being all about flash and trend. This perspective can also influence how residents feel about the local dining scene. "I don’t know what LA wants to be known for," reflects Saad. "As a local I still feel like it’s a gem when I discover a little cool spot. You’re more likely to have people talking about a big name restaurant than a funky pho spot in Van Nuys."

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But whether you follow trends, seek out food-ventures, or stick to your own zip code, one of the great things that seems to be happening now is a growing "culture" of food. Saad attributes this in part to the Food Network and the people there who are doing such a great job of making cooking and eating more exciting. When it comes to a show like The Next Food Network Star, Saad sees that momentum as emblematic of the food movement as a whole. "I think Season 6 is going to be even bigger," he predicts. "The tidal wave is still cresting."

For Saad, his personal momentum has been growing since he was little. He explains that he learned early on that "you need to eat to live," so he decided that it "better be a darn good journey." That journey right now in America seems to be about the curious crossroads of global and local. " I think the cool irony is that at the same time it’s about being being super local, palates and tastes are worldwide. We're increasingly knowing about world flavors but using local ingredients." As a result, Americans are achieving a pretty incredible food feat: "Global in flavor, local in sourcing."

Bringing the world closer to home is being more readily achieved thanks in part to technology, which Saad seems to be embracing. "I think we all live in a blessed world. Being in a big city--for me there’s no such thing as 'I can’t find an ingredient.' We can Google sources and have [items] delivered to your doorstep."

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Promo shot from this summer's Season 5 of The Next Food Network Star
Luckily, in Los Angeles, we can either get global items sent to our homes, or step into the city itself to have a global adventure, the latter of which being the premise of a show Saad had once considered putting together for television. The idea would be to "do a global tasting adventure and never leave LA." With the current economy, this sort of staycation adventure could really give people the chance to "have a cultural experience," without spending a lot of money to travel, just by going, for example to Chinatown and taking in the sights and eating the cuisine. There is that level of interaction with our environment, but there's also the incredible connectivity afforded to us thanks to blogging and social networking. "Food information is the new fast food," declares Saad, who is a blogger, and is on both Facebook and Twitter. "The availability of information is challenging us cooks to make it interesting," he explains, noting that with something like Twitter people are able to disseminate details about food or restaurants in an instant.

The future involves food and technology for certain, but the future is now for those of us who are going to be in the kitchen this week making Thanksgiving feasts for family and friends. "Being a food person, I’ve never been a big turkey fan," Saad confesses. "Turkey is the least return on efforts, although I love [turkey as the] symbolic item." But turkey still makes an appearance on his Thanksgiving table, mainly because his Iranian-born and Rome-raised wife insists on having it.

For Saad, however, Thanksgiving isn't just about family, it's also about friends, and the experience of sitting down to eat in good company. It also means it can be a great opportunity to introduce an element of adventure to the traditional meal. This is where Saad's spice savvy comes into play. "I’m the guy who wants to do that additional thing," he explains. Not eschewing the expected holiday flavors, Saad wants to encourage cooks at this time of year to look for ways to make food that lets "you taste the same flavor profiles you want to taste during the holidays, but in a more interesting way."

Saad's blog offers lots of suggestions for ways to spice up the holiday table, like a Non-Stuffy Stuffing or a Fall Risotto. But that doesn't mean he's endorsing abandoning everything traditional! A cook who wants to shake things up a little bit can "just start with one thing," he suggests.

Some ideas? "Try something like 5 Spice. Put it on some butternut squash or pumpkin along with olive oil and salt and roast it, then drizzle it with some spiced cream--you can make cinnamon cream, or stir chipotle into sour cream." The result is a spicy, sweet side dish that's "holiday-esque." And there's always fun with the leftovers. "Throw a scoop of those with some mushrooms into a taco for the next day," Saad offers.

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Spice up turkey with a harissa-flavored cranberry sauce (Photo via Jeffrey Saad's website)
Home cooks can easily bring in spice during the holidays without denying diners what they're expecting. "I think the way to do it is baby steps." For example, you can make a new and spiced-up version of cranberry sauce, but still serve a traditional version as well--make them both, and hopefully people will at least try the new one." Do a slightly different version of something they recognize," he suggests, like a North African-inspired cranberry sauce. But no matter what, remember that the goal is to share food with friends and family. "I'm passionate about food, and quality," Saad elaborates, but "sometimes it doesn't matter what it is we're eating--but that it brings people together."And what about the post-Thanksgiving future for Saad? Right now it's possible the Food Network will make the call to order more "Spice Smuggler" webisodes, and Saad is working on putting together material for his book, and he is busy making appearances where he can showcase his culinary and hosting skills. Those abilities shone recently at the Los Angeles Magazine Food Event, where Saad served as co-host in the demonstration tent and make both the chefs onstage and the audience feel right at home.

Saad says he enjoys both hosting and preparing food for an audience, and sees himself doing either or both completely on television someday--hopefully soon. He thrives on the energy of and interaction with a live audience, and recalls that in his involvement in the restaurant industry he's always preferred being the guy out of the kitchen and in the dining room, engaging with people and answering questions. "If I can be talking about food I’m inspired and excited. I can’t stand the kitchen--I've got to be out there talking to the customers. At the end of the day that’s what it’s all about."

Angelenos can see what it's all about for Saad next month when he opens for the Food Network's Guy Fieri, who is doing a food "roadshow" that stops in L.A. December 17th at the Gibson Ampitheater in Universal City. Saad describes Fieri's event as a "food concert" that is "changing food," due to its "over the top entertainment" qualities. As the opening act, Saad will be doing a live "Spice Smuggler" demo onstage.

Even if you can't make it to the show, you'll likely being Saad on your small screen and on the shelves of your local bookstore. And hopefully you'll be inspired to spice things up in your own cooking, too!

The Guy Fieri Roadshow with Jeffrey Saad is December 17th at the Gibson Ampitheater (tickets). Watch Saad's "Spice Smuggler" web series via the Food Network.