Jeffrey Saad, first runner up on the Food Network’s The Next Food Network Star in 2009, and host of the Cooking Channel’s United Tastes of America is the new owner and head chef of La Ventura in Studio City. And, he unconsciously reveals his secrets simply by the way he speaks of food.
On Cooking: “Bring back the joy!”
When you ask a top chef and restaurant owner about today’s trends and he tells you, “I ignore trends,” you lean in and wait for him to reveal his secret.
Anyone would jump at the chance to hire a young kid like Saad, who during junior high school took his first restaurant gig at a Mel’s Diner-type of joint complete with paper hats and greasy burgers. But Saad recalls the transition from washing dishes to running the grill as an enormous turning point in his life.
“I literally found it amazing to see raw ground beef transformed on a flat-top grill into a juicy burger topped with melted cheese,” says Saad, admitting he’s infatuated with ingredients and food. That first diner experience had him entirely hooked.
Over the years he remained a diligent student of culinary experiences…working at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf to learn first-hand how to clean and filet a variety of fresh fish, and then turning out breads in a local bakery to glean techniques from the experts.
“As a chef I am a ‘pleaser.’ So it brings me intense joy to see people’s satisfaction when they eat what I prepared,” he says. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘look at their happiness.’ I did that!”
And now you’re starting to see…there’s something different about this guy.
Get back to the joy
His menu has changed from the diner days; today Jeffrey has traded the “Supreme Burger” for delicately plated duck confit served over a light mole sauce. To this day the 46-year-old still finds joy in that reaction.
Ask him about his favorite dishes and he perfectly answers that there is a “mood for every food.”
Strolls through local markets fuel his mood and inspiration. “I’ve dragged my tongue across the globe from Thailand to China, France to Spain and Italy to Mexico. I’ve always simply found inspiration by what’s around me at the moment,” Saad shares. “I love Mexican flavors that leave your mouth zinging. I think the flavors of Mexico yield some of the most dynamic cooking in the world. People want to taste that world.”
With such deep passion for cooking, it’s no wonder he is continually featured on celebrity cooking shows. Just around the corner and airing this spring on A&E, The World Food Championship, will be hosted by Saad, who teases the six-episode event as “Iron Chef on steroids,” and “television exploding with insane flavors.”
“Television is exciting to me. The Next Food Network Star was a total rush; you are pushed to the limit and under such pressure to whip up something delicious,” Saad says.
A future full of flavor
Opened in mid-December 2013, La Ventura serves authentic Mexican with modern interpretations. Saad’s goal is to convey the passion he has for flavors and for creating to his guests. With dishes like calamari tacos with sweet and spicy habanero pineapple salsa, he’s doing just that. “I’m pleased with the reaction. We’re playing up the flavors here with ideas like sweet plantains in a tamarind chipotle sauce,” he adds.
And in that way, it’s very possible that trends find Saad.
“When Jordano’s shows up with something locally grown and new like a watermelon radish, it’s an exciting challenge,” says Saad. “My mind starts reeling and I’m thinking, what can I do with this to make it unique?”
His tattoo reads, “Be present.” And he means it.
His secret is his joy-filled passion for living and cooking in the moment. Imparting simple advice on younger chefs, Saad tells them to stay excited about the food and be joyful about creating it. “It’s too easy to get caught up in the business, the inventory and lose focus. Once that happens, the guests can taste it.”