Q&A: 'United Tastes of America' Host Jeffrey Saad

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Jeffrey Saad has one of those jobs that we all fantasize about. As host of the Cooking Channel’s United Tastes of America—produced by upstart Knoxville television studio Lusid Media—he gets to travel the country and eat both the best versions and the most experimental versions of iconic dishes like pizza, hamburgers, or ice cream. Saad is a restaurateur himself, with Sweet Heat in San Francisco and Pasta Pomodoro Italian locations throughout California; he also was runner-up in season five of The Next Food Network Star and has a book coming out in the fall, Cooking Without Borders. He’ll be in town for some cooking demonstrations at the Women Today Expo.

When did you first realize that food was your passion?

I’m really blessed because I was 13 years old and literally decided this was gonna be my life. I grew up in a house where my mom cooked constantly so there was always food around, and I was always intrigued and gravitated toward the kitchen. If I saw bacon on the counter cooling, I knew she was gonna crumble it and make her hot spinach salad dressing. I got a work permit to work at this diner behind my junior high school and I was absolutely thrilled with the idea of watching people smile as I made them this simple food. It’s such a pleasurable way to exist: to cook great food and give it to people to make them happy. So I just said, “That’s it.”

What kind of food have you been gravitating toward in terms of cooking?

I always say jokingly I have culinary ADD because I go to China to visit and I come back and all I can do for months is stir-fry and Asian ingredients, and I go crazy with that. I’ve had my Mexican restaurants and traveled all over Mexico, so I was really into Mexican food and still am. My wife is Iranian but grew up in Italy, so I learned how to cook Persian food from her mother and then I started making lots of Italian food because my wife loved that from her years living there. To me, food is about life. Cooking is like being a painter. It doesn’t matter what you’re painting, it’s that you want to have your hands in the paint and you wanna see people smile. I just want to have my hands in the food and enjoy eating what’s made. My book that’s coming out in the fall is called Cooking Without Borders and that’s exactly what the book is based on. You might flip to a page and have some seared scallop tacos with green chile chutney, shredded cabbage, and chipotle sour cream, and then you might flip to the chapter that talks about Indian spices and have a tandoori-style chicken on basmati rice, and then you’ll flip to the Italian section and you’re gonna have a wonderful risotto. So it’s really all over the place.

Through the show, you get to travel around the country eating amazing food. How did you get a job like that?

I know, I know, it’s truly a dream. It’s like if I could change one thing about my life—I wouldn’t. It’s just that I’m so grateful. Really it started because I went on the The Next Food Network Star season 5. I went to the open-call audition and was selected and went through the process and ended up being one of the 10 people on the show and then I ended up being the runner-up on the show and that really just launched all these new opportunities. From that show I became a spokesperson for the Incredible Edible Egg and now I’m doing spokesperson work and recipe development with Bush’s Beans and then sure enough the network connected me with the producer who had this United Tastes of America show idea and said I was the perfect fit and it just went from there.

What’s been the biggest surprise on the show?

I think the surprise is that the secret ingredient is always complete love and passion for what you’re doing. Whether I’m with this wonderful old woman in Atlanta making this simple fried chicken because that’s the way her grandma did it or I’m at Ad Hoc in Napa Valley, one of Thomas Keller’s famous restaurants, making fried chicken with one of the most celebrated chefs in the country—both of them are equally amazing because they have mastered their process, and that’s what I love. It’s never that there’s one right answer; it’s about doing what you do with all your heart and soul the best you can do it. That’s what’s been so amazing and inspiring to me on this. You start off thinking, “Ah, we’re gonna go around the country, have fried chicken, burgers, whatever, it’s all the same, right?” It’s just not.

Can you say what your favorite dish has been so far?

That’s a really common question, and I understand why, but it is the hardest one to answer because when I’m in front of this perfect griddled dog on a 90-degree day on Coney Island and all it’s got on it is mustard because that’s the way they eat it, it seems like the best thing I’ve ever eaten. And then when I’m in the South having the best fried chicken, that’s just crispy and squirts juice in your mouth, I can’t imagine ever eating something better in my life than that fried chicken. So I have to say my favorite thing is always the one that is just done to perfection. And everything on the show hasn’t been great, but the ones that are done to perfection, that’s the best dish, always.

You’ve also eaten some really out-there iterations of these dishes. Have you ever had to face one where you thought, “Oh man, how am I going to eat this?”

Yeah, big time. There have been a couple dishes where I’ve been like, “Wow, I really gotta do this, huh?” The thing I love about the American spirit is there’s so much ingenuity and passion, everyone’s determined to break through the borders and try something new. And unfortunately, at least when it comes to iconic food, oftentimes that can be... tricky. Usually the idea is more exciting than the results. But I’m glad for those experiences, too, because those experiments are the ones that make you raise an eyebrow and go, “Wow, here we go.”

Have any of these discoveries influenced your own cooking?

Oh, absolutely. The thing I’ve learned about cooking is the more you think you know, like everything in life, the less you know. I have so much to learn and I get so inspired when I’m out there making pies with this guy Alan Carter in San Francisco, and he squeezes the butter and the flour between his fingers to created shards that then rise up in the pie dough to become golden, almost like layers of croissant, and then I’m like, “Oh my God, I’ve never made pie dough that way.” The first thing I gotta do is run home and make pie dough! You should have seen the ice cream episode, I thought my arteries were gonna slam shut by the time I was done filming that. But then I came home inspired to make my own new ice creams—and realized that four gallons of heavy cream in a month is probably too much.

You’re going to be conducting some cooking demonstrations while you’re here. What’s the message you’re trying to get across when you do these?

I love to inspire people to not only try new ingredients and try a new cooking technique, but to also just feel invigorated to try everything they want to try because, for me, food is a representation of that. Nothing great in the world happens until you’re uncomfortable, but then the moment after that, usually great things happen, and I just think food is symbolic of that process. When you’re trying to cook different things and you open up your mind and your heart to trying new things, your life becomes better. Food is just that vehicle for me to have that message. If I had to say it one sentence: I want to leave people better than I found them.

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