Jeffrey Saad had known at an early age what he wanted to be one day. In this episode, he joins Tanya Memme to share his journey from a traumatic experience that led him to share his love for food. Jeffrey was a runner up on Season 5 of The Next Food Network Star and Chopped All-Stars. Afterward, he became the host of the hit Cooking Channel series, United Tastes of America. He released a cookbook, Global Kitchen: Recipes Without Borders, which takes the reader on a culinary escapade around the world without having to leave the comfort of their own kitchen.
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Jeffrey Saad’s Joyous Culinary Journey
We have Jeffrey Saad. I absolutely adore this person for many reasons. We shot together and he’s become a good friend of mine. Everything you do turns to gold. You are a kick-butt real estate agent in Hollywood and you sell some of the most exclusive and most celebrity-owned homes. You are also a chef but not just a chef. You’ve written a cookbook and you’ve been on many competition shows. Name some of them.
The Next Food Network Star and Chopped All-Stars. Under pressure, good stuff.
You almost won one of them.
I have position two nailed. I’m always a runner up.
I totally know how that feels. I went over to your house and had dinner. I’m still dreaming about the food that you cook.
That’s the goal. You want to leave people with that memory that they want one more bite. That’s when you know it’s a good night.
The thing I love most is you’re passionate about food. I’ve met plenty of chefs, but you are passionate about every single bite.
I love it. I call it mind tasting. It’s like I’m thinking about food. My wife was giving me a hard time because I’ll wake up with a latte in the morning and be like, “For dinner tonight, what do you think if I do sous vide octopus?” She’s like, “How about we have coffee? Can we wake up first?” I’m like, “Okay, how about now?”
You had me at, “When I make my wife coffee in the morning.” The rest is icing on the cake. You’re successful at everything you do and I love seeing you. You’re living the life that you’ve always wanted to live and you’ve said that since the day I’ve met you.
I always say, “If I could change one thing about my life, I wouldn’t.” It’s the journey. It’s incredible.
I learned that from you even more. You have one of the most incredible life stories. Over a couple of cocktails one night, I got it all out of Jeff and I was like, “You’ve got to come on my show.” Your life story is incredible and what you’ve grown to be is amazing. I want to know, did you know you want to be a chef? When did all of this start?
I do feel blessed because we all are searching for our passion. Everyone wants to do their passion. I do feel lucky that at thirteen years old, I somehow knew that I wanted to cook. I was a little wimp. I couldn’t play sports in my junior high school so I went and applied to this dishwashing job at a restaurant. After a few months, they gave me a nice little paper hat and I was a cook. I was in the line grilling frozen burgers. I put that burger out to the dining room and I’d see these people take a bite and it would be the most joyous moment. It’s just a burger but it wasn’t just a burger. It was a way for them to escape for a minute. I said, “That is how I want to spend my life vending joy by doing that.” My childhood was weird. Food was always my peaceful place. It was my escape. It was my joy.'If I could change one thing about my life, I wouldn't.' Click To Tweet
What was it like? How did you grow up? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the good old Midwest, which I’m always grateful for somehow. Whenever I go to New York when I first move out to California, you’re like, “How are you doing? Good morning.” They’re like, “What do you want? Friendship?” If you’re nice, they think you want something. I was like, “No, it’s just the Midwest.” I grew up in the Midwest and I worked with my godfather’s Italian restaurant. It’s like right out of a movie, the stuff that went on. I went to culinary school. I went to a hotel restaurant school. I ended up in California. I went to culinary school in New York but ended up transferring and finishing in California. I got hooked and never left. It’s amazing here.
What makes a thirteen-year-old want to please people so much with food and want to work? How did that happen as a kid? Where did that come from?
I always say you’re born with certain things and then you can work to achieve certain things. Just because you’re born here and I’m born here, doesn’t mean I can’t pass you up. We are gifted with being born with certain things and I’ve always felt this internal drive to do something bigger and better. It’s always been service-related. I love vending joy and I love being of service. It was that uncomfortableness at home that when I went out and got to bring pleasure to people and see their happiness, it kept fueling itself.
We would go to these fancy country clubs and restaurants when I was little. My mom would be off doing her thing, but I would just sit there and lose myself in the shrimp cocktail. The first time I bit and got that sweetness of the sea and the shrimp would pop, and then the spiciness of the cocktail sauce. I was like, “What is happening here?” Eating is not optional so you might as well make it an amazing journey, then I started playing. I joke and I say, “I grew up thinking she was a great cook and then I realized she just cooked often.” When I went off to California, I was like, “Green beans are green.” All of a sudden, you start opening up this world of real cooking and flavors and you’re like, “Wow.”
I know that life wasn’t always easy for you, but what was your childhood like?
I was blessed in that my father is wealthy and we had great things and everything but as a young boy, my mom went to trial for shooting him to death. He was shot in our house. You never know how much you block out and how much you remember. I do remember the bloodcurdling scream of our nanny when she went upstairs from the breakfast table and found him.
This happened in your house?
Yeah, we’re at breakfast. I’ll never forget. It’s like watching those movies where they do the little flashes, then your memory goes away and then it comes back.
We don’t get to hear stories like this from someone. What is amazing about you is you look at life with the glass half full. I remember you talked to me about this. You’re sitting at the breakfast table. What was it like that day?
A distinctive scream.
You had no idea? You didn’t even know your parents were fighting?
I was young enough that I don’t know what happened. He was found in the morning and when the nanny went up there, he was in bed bled to death. My mom went on trial for it and she ended up being acquitted.
What was going through your mind when your mom is on trial and you have to go to court? You’re dealing with the death of your father.
I’m lucky. That’s the great thing about being younger. I don’t remember all those details. It comes flooding in when you’re a young teenager. I’m feeling the aggression of my mother. That was her reward for ruining all of our lives as then to be even more horrible and abusive. It was tough. I feel lucky that I always said, “There’s something better out there. Life doesn’t have to be like this.” I just knew that there was something better.
How did your siblings deal with it?
My little sister has always struggled but I always say she’s an angel wrapped in warrior’s clothing. She’s good to the core, but she’s always battled. She always comes out on top, which is amazing. My oldest sister is a giver. She’s full of love. We’re tight and she likes to tell stories. My sister is one of those people with memories that every little detail should be like, “When you’re 3.5 years old, you’re wearing the red shoe.” She remembers everything.
She says, “You saved me with food.” That’s what she told me because she would wake me up in the middle of the night and we’d go down the kitchen. She’d say, “Make a creation,” so I’d start whipping stuff up when we were little kids. She told me the story that I forgot about. I’d tell her, “Blind smell me on the spice rack. Pull out a spice and I’ll shut my eyes and I’ll tell you what it is.” Even back then, for some reason, I was enamored with all these flavors.
This makes sense why you love food so much because that was your escape. Your escape was creating these little fantasy food worlds for you and your sisters so that you didn’t have to think about what was going on at that time. What was it like days and weeks after that happened for you?
Fortunately, the younger years, I don’t remember or I blocked it out. Who knows? As I became a young teenager, my mom was abusive and hateful, and I felt all that. I always say you have two options usually. Either you emulate everything you experienced when you’re young or you want to do the opposite. I feel blessed that I was determined to do the opposite. I made a list for a wife that you could never find and I found her. I said, “I’m going to give and do for my family what I never had.” It became a mission for me. It was like, “This is what I’m doing.”
What’s your relationship with your mom now?
She passed away. What was interesting is after many attempts many years ago to try to get her to talk to us.
How old were you at the time?
I was about 24 or something.
Did you feel this need to reach out and connect?Eating is not optional, so you might as well make it an amazing journey. Click To Tweet
I had already started working on myself. I want to hear her side. I don’t want to judge her until death. It’s like, “Let me hear your side. Tell me what I might not understand. Tell me what I don’t know.” I wrote her a letter and called her. Her response, “I just bought a new coat. I can’t afford to fly anywhere and meet.” She ignored it. I finally wrote her a letter.
She didn’t go to jail?
She got acquitted. She got off. A lot of it was because of us three little kids, poor mom. All it takes is one little detail. I wrote a letter to disown her. The funny part is my sister said, “Can we sign it?” We all disowned her and it sounds terrible when people think, “You can’t disown a parent.” Anybody who doesn’t bring joy to your life and who brings that kind of misery, forget it. It wasn’t worth it. She passed away and it was a real test.
She wasn’t that old.
She was 80.
What happened? It was a real test you said.
I had said to my wife, “I’ve got to think through this. I want to talk about this out loud because one of these days, I’m going to get the call that my mom is going to die. Will I carry any baggage of regret or anything? Is there something different I need to do while she’s still alive?” I talked to her and I’m like, “No, I’m good. I’ve made choices that make sense for my family and my life.” When she passed, there was a moment of sadness because I was trying to find the good. I’m grateful. Her cooking got me inspired to cook. She did insist that I’d be a gentleman. I still open doors.
You definitely are a gentleman. I’ve experienced it. Uber riding from you when we shot together from the hotel that we happen to be in and to the studio every day.
You find the good and you move on, but I was peaceful.
What would you say to young teens out there or whatever age they are where their parents have done this? What she did was unforgivable and she was acquitted. How do you wrap your head around that? You have. What is your view on forgiveness? Was it forgiveness? Where does that come from? What would you say to people out there?
For me, the main message is your biography is not your destiny. Stuff will happen. Stuff happens to everybody. Nobody has it easy. We’re all human beings and we all have something. What we also have is a choice. You either say, “Now I’m going to make my life great,” or “I’m going to keep telling this story about why I should be a victim.” No matter what happens to you, stop telling the story because life is a story anyway. The only thing that’s real is this moment we’re in. Everything else is a story, the story about the past and what might happen in the future.
I decided to tell myself a good story. My life is going to be great. I have every choice right now. Nobody is stopping me from going off to culinary school, to opening my first restaurant, and finding the woman of my dreams. I can do all that if I choose to do it and if I believe that story. The real thing you have to do is look it in the face and acknowledge it. This happened. This was horrible. It made me feel this way. What are you going to do now?
The three of you, you and your sisters, you were on your own for a while after all that.
We were with my mom, but she ended up marrying the guy that probably was her accomplice and he was horrible. I’ll let my sisters tell their story one day, but he was a horrible man.
How do you live in the same house? How do you deal with that?
It was crazy. A lot of anger. When I got to college, I was determined to kill myself. I crashed six motorcycles and did every drug. I purged it all through college and then I woke up one day and said, “Enough.”
You did do it all in college?
That’s where I let it all go. I used food, service and restaurants. I worked like crazy even as a young kid. Work was my escape when I was young. College was my purging. All of a sudden, I woke up and I said, “I’ve been doing martial arts my whole life. I had to practice hard to be good at that. Snowboarding, scuba diving or whatever I’ve done, I had to practice to be good at it. Why shouldn’t happiness and joy be something you practice as well?” I started having my morning routine and building on what makes me happy and peaceful. It is something you’ve got to focus on. You can’t just go, “I’m going to automatically be happy.” It takes work.
What was that first thing for you after going through all of that in college? You’ve done this and that and crashed a bunch of motorcycles and you purged. What was that first thing that you committed to that put you on that path to not wanting to do that anymore?
I call these launchpad moments in your life. I was in college and the chef got arrested for his third DUI. The owner was panicking because he didn’t know anything about the kitchen like most restaurant owners. The chef at the restaurant I was working at got his third DUI. The owner came in and said to me, “You’re the only one that knows something about food. Will you take his place?” Here’s this huge restaurant that does crazy volume. I’m nineteen and in my second year in college. This is right as I was finishing my purging and he said, “Please run the kitchen.” I said, “I got it.” I went to my teachers and I said, “Do you believe in real learning? I’m going to be missing classes a little bit. I’ll turn in a report. Let me do this.” Something clicked and I failed miserably. I made such a mess but I learned so much. That was one of those turning moments and I said, “I’m doing this. I’ll open my own restaurant.”
You felt like you failed even though it wasn’t a failure. After going through all that and after the purging, one more hit can tailspin you in the opposite direction.
I feel bad for people because we all have these launchpad moments and you can turn left or turn right. I tell my kids, “Every little decision you make can change your life forever, good or bad.” I felt lucky that I had enough to say, “I want a better life and I would take the better choice.”
I’m a big believer in the power of one. I talk about this in some of my posts and stuff on social media. All it takes is that one moment, one person, one phone call or one email. It seems like you’ve had a few of those moments in your life. We all do, thank God. You never know when they’re going to happen and they usually come out of nowhere in an unexpected way. That was a moment for you where the chef is not available for whatever reason. You have to step up because your boss gave you that opportunity. What other moments in your life have you had that one thing happened that has completely turned you on to the most amazing roads?
There are so many. Everyone wants to say luck but I call it maybe timing more than luck. It’s true. If you’re always working on yourself and you’re always putting yourself out there, all these moments I had were because I was focusing on being better and doing better. I was at this restaurant in the kitchen trying to learn during my shift when the restaurant was slow.
You weren’t on the couch thinking, “I’ll meditate today.”The only thing that's real is this moment we're in. Everything else is a story. Click To Tweet
I wasn’t out back smoking and I wasn’t messing around. I was a cook trying to learn the food. That opportunity presented itself. When I was in culinary school, I worked day and night at this restaurant called Rosmarino in San Francisco. The owner is still like a second father to me. He’s a great guy and I wrote him this long report of what was wrong at his restaurant. I’m sure I was horribly inarticulate at the time but he appreciated the sincerity of it. He said, “One day if you want to open a restaurant, you call me.” I’m in London doing my cooking apprenticeship and I realized all of a sudden, “This is too fancy. I want to bring people daily joy. I want it to be less expensive and simple.”
I got on the plane and wrote my business plan for my first restaurant called Sweet Heat in San Francisco. I was 24 years old and I said, “That guy said to call him,” so I called him. He said, “How much do you want? Let’s do this.” That was my first restaurant. That’s another launchpad moment. Once I was committed to that first restaurant, there was nothing stopping me. I had to make that a success. That’s when I met my wife walking down the street. Everything started happening. It’s another launchpad moment.
Let’s talk about that because I love this one. You’ve told me this one before. You’re in your zone about cooking in this new restaurant and you haven’t even opened the restaurant yet.
I’m opening the restaurant. I’m on my way to work at the other restaurant in my daily grind. All of a sudden, I stopped dead in my tracks. If you see my wife with these big green eyes and this gorgeous Persian complexion. The sun intimidated her eyes and I said, “Hello.” She was like, “Who are you?” I’m like, “I’m Jeffrey. Nice to meet you.” We started talking and she was standing out front having a smoke, by the way. I grew up in Italy so she’s that European woman as you’ve met and you know. I walked into the restaurant I was working out while I was building my restaurant. I said to the staff, “I just met my wife.” I wasn’t the typical 24-year-old doing what 24-year-olds do, and wife was never the word of the day. They’re like, “Oh my God.” It was and I knew it.
That was another one of those U-turn moments, and you are still together. I love that.
We’re better every year. It’s amazing. She’s power.
What do you think is the key to a great marriage?
The key is to make a list of everything you’re grateful for and what’s awesome about them. A lot of people tend to make this “I’m not doing this” list or “I’m not getting this” list. When you start putting that out there, it’s like a snowball. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you make a list of the bad, you’ll get more bad. If you make a list of the good, the good gets even better. They then want to do more good and you want to do more good. It’s a competition now of who can love and be better than the other one, “I don’t do X,” or “She doesn’t do X. We’ll figure it out.” That’s a big part of it.
People say, “Were you scared of getting married? You were one of the youngest in our group to get married.” I said, “No, I was scared to death of not getting engaged,” because to me that was another launchpad moment. I’m doing this for the rest of my life. This isn’t like, “It didn’t work out. We won’t do it.” I thought of it as, “Am I going to die in bed one day grand old with this woman? Yes.” It’s that level of commitment that you make it work no matter what. Like anything in life, I always say, “You will not have greatness in your life until you’re sick to your stomach because it’s those moments where you’re afraid.” You know this. You’ve done many things as well. You’ve been brave. You’ve pounded through everything and made great things happen. I know your story too.
I have but there’s always someone who’s gone through more and I feel like you’ve gone through a lot more.
I was jokingly saying, “We all have baggage. It’s just whether you choose to put wheels on it.” You can roll it through life and glide along or you can drag that and your life is tough.
Why I started Life Masters was to help people out there that are struggling, spiraling down or they are where you were weeks, days, months, and years after that day that happened with your mom and your dad. What would you say to somebody who is there? What’s the first step they take?
I love that saying that you are the average of the 7 or 10 people you spend the most time with. I would stop and say, “Who are you spending the most time with? Are they energizing you or exhausting you?” There’s a big difference. I always like to be the dumbest guy and the least successful guy in the room because I want to be better. Who are you surrounding yourself with? The next thing I’d say is pick up a book. Your thoughts control your emotions. Your emotions control your actions. Your actions control your life and your destiny. It starts with how you’re thinking and what that does to your emotions, which is why I have my morning routine.
The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama saved my life because I was 23, emerging out of my purging stuff, heading into the restaurant world. I read that book and I was like, “We are all the same. We’re all just trying to be happy. We’re all trying to not be hurt, to get by and live a peaceful life.” The girl or guy in front of me at the grocery store also has to get home to their family. They’re not in my way. We’re all in each other’s world. I’m not the center of the universe. It’s reframing how you think about things, reading things that inspire you, and surrounding yourself with people that you want to be like.
Fast forward into your life now. I want to talk to you about your show on the Food Network. What was that like? What was it like being in the Food Network Star, being on their network, and then the Food Channel? You’ve had a variety of cooking shows on.
The greatest experience of my life is The Next Food Network Star. All the talents are brilliant and the whole production company. Everything about it was brilliant. It was cool because it was under pressure. It’s interesting. This is what I say. I spent years making notes. I had little diaries before the days of smartphones. I’m making notes about flavors, foods, combinations and ingredients. All of a sudden, you realize you built up this tasting database in your brain where I can just go, “Pomegranate, rosemary, rock and roll.” All of a sudden, you have a chance to test that. You put it out there but at the same time, you’re supposed to smile and talk while you’re doing it all. Getting my show on Cooking Channel was amazing.
You traveled with one of them too.
I traveled all around the country. My wife is like, “Why do we have to go out to dinner again? Let’s just stay home.” I go, “Because that table is the epicenter of connection. We’re at a restaurant. The food is important. I’m a chef and I love food, but it’s this connection. We’re here and we’re talking.” It’s like our greatest moments when we’re shooting. At the end of the day, there’s cocktail. You’re connecting. Everything gets peaceful at that moment. To me, it was amazing to travel around the country and meet these amazing chefs and see why they were determined to make the perfect fried chicken. It always was my mom, grandma, and the one I love. To me, food is a vehicle for connecting with people, cultures, and languages. It’s unbelievable.
I love hearing you talk about it and all of the success you’ve had. You have a cookbook out too.
Jeffrey Saad’s Global Kitchen: Recipes Without Borders. It’s part of my culinary ADD. I can’t do any one thing. I’m like, “I want to do a cookbook with all the countries in the world.” It’s ten chapters and ten different countries. It drags your tongue across the globe. It’s on Amazon or wherever you look.
Talking about ADD and doing a million things, how the heck did real estate come into this? You are one of the top real estate agents and you’ve been doing this for years on the side probably because you love it. I know you wouldn’t do anything you weren’t passionate about. What’s that like?
Real estate is amazing. We were lucky enough to be part of building up this big restaurant company. We had a moment to be able to back away and let it do its thing, go off and start something new. We moved to LA because we wanted more house to raise our kids. I said, “I love being of service. I like the idea of being my own best customer buying real estate. Real estate is a long-term thing. I love being of service and I can’t sit still. I can run around the city in circles, meet different people, and see different houses. I love to see people light up.”
It’s like a meal. You put that burger out and they bite into it. It’s the same thing. They get the keys to that house and it’s like, “This is your dream machine. Your house is where you make your dreams come true and the people in it.” I would say to my wife, my partner, “When you get home at night, they better be shoveling coal in your soul. This is the place to recharge.” I love that. Timing does matter. We got lucky that we started in 2001 when the market was taking off. My wife got her license right after me. We joined forces. I don’t know how this happened, working together and being married for many years, but we do.
You two are great together though. You still probably meet many people, especially in Hollywood and in Los Angeles with some of the houses that you’ve sold. I know some of the houses that you’ve sold are incredible. One thing I love about you and your wife is you’re a team and you are not about the money because you have it. Jeffrey and I were on set. We’re shooting this massively huge infomercial, which we’re excited about. You are on the phone in between takes because you’re passionately involved with your clients. That’s what I loved. I overheard some of your conversations. You’re walking your clients either on the cliff or off the cliff. You care and so does your wife. I don’t see a lot of people in this business that put the heart and soul into it like you do. A lot of it comes from where you’ve come from and everything you’ve been through. If there’s one last thing that I would love to ask is, what would you say was that key thing that got you through that and has made you who you are now, happy and successful?
There are many things but the number one thing is being on the journey. Don’t ever think about the end result of anything. I always say, “If you knew that whatever you did you would fail, do that because that’s what you want to do. Don’t do it because you know you’ll succeed or you think the fruit at the end will be good. Do what gets you excited to jump out of bed.” Whatever happens happens. My last restaurant was a total failure, but it’s the greatest memories ever because I love the journey. It was the joy of the journey. It didn’t have to be successful to say I’m glad I did it. The journey was great. Be in the moment and be on the journey. If you love what you do every day, the day I die, all I have to do is say thank you. No should haves, could haves and would haves. I just did it and I loved it.
I know for a fact that it did not fail because of the food. I know people that know your restaurant and they have said that your food was spectacular. It was timing. Business is business but it was not the food. I want to thank you for coming on the show. I hope you enjoyed this and if you want to binge-listen to Life Masters, which I’m hoping you do, make sure that you go to iTunes, Life Masters TV, or you can go to EverTalk TV and binge watch us on Apple TV. How cool is that? I hope all of you out there have it. Check out Life Masters on EverTalk. Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next time.
- Jeffrey Saad
- The Art of Happiness
- Jeffrey Saad’s Global Kitchen: Recipes Without Borders
- Life Masters – iTunes
- EverTalk TV – Life Masters
About Jeffrey Saad
Jeffrey Saad first hit the Screen with his success as runner up on Season 5 of The Next Food Network Star. After years of owning restaurants and being a passionate chef it was a dream come true. He was then the host of the hit Cooking Channel series United Tastes of America which ran for three seasons. Jeffrey is a skilled chef who has created and contributed to many successful restaurants, including San Francisco’s Sweet Heat, Pasta Pomodoro and The Grove.
His insatiable appetite for ingredients and flavors and encyclopedic knowledge of spices allows him to create “food without borders.” Teaching home cooks to cook locally and eat globally is his passion, and his first cookbook Jeffrey Saad’s Global Kitchen: Recipes Without Borders (Ballantine, March 2012) takes the reader on a culinary trip around the world—no passport required!