So far we’ve taken slightly longer looks at Anita Lo vs. John Fraser, Michael Voltaggio vs. Ludo Lefebvre, Matt Dillon vs. Ethan Stowell, Joshua Hopkins vs. Ryan Smith, Tyson Cole vs. Tim Byres, and Phillip Foss vs. Koren Grieveson. Now, on to the Minneapolis faction, with Sameh Wadi facing off against Mike Brown and James Winberg.
Sameh Wadi: He apparently had very advanced tastes from an early age (according to his brother, Saed). While in culinary school, he sought out the only person in Minneapolis cooking anything near Middle Eastern food (it was Tim McKee, at Solera—and it was North African), and got a job there. He and his brother opened Saffron in 2007, and found themselves selling out of lamb brains every night. Wadi quickly realized that he couldn’t find prepared spice blends with the flavor he wanted (“It was all diluted crap,” he told CHOW contributor James Norton, writing for Heavy Table). So he and his brother started a side business, making their own blends of things like ras el hanout. As a fresh-faced 25-year-old, he was the youngest challenger to appear on Iron Chef America in 2010, and also the first from Minnesota—he was bested by Iron Chef Morimoto in a mackerel battle. And he was a semifinalist for this year’s James Beard Rising Star award. He’s also (in his spare time?) working on a Palestinian cookbook, based on the recipes of his parents and his own modern versions. And then there’s the almost-requisite food truck: His is World Street Kitchen, which serves a panoply of international street food, like banh mi sandwiches, tortas, and pho.
Mike Brown and James Winberg: The two worked together at Victory 44, then branched off in 2010 to start a freewheeling experiment in collective cooking: Travail, in small-town Robbinsdale, just outside of Minneapolis. There is no front-of-the-house staff: Everyone both cooks and serves. And contributes menu ideas. They all “look like members of a rock band,” according to the Minnesota Monthly. The very pared-down menu descriptions (“FROG-5”) belie the florid preparations involving any manner of newfangled cookery. The StarTribune reviewer called Travail an “entertaining circus” and pointed to the beet salad as a case in point: “Every conceivable kitchen technique was seemingly utilized: roasting, pickling, dehydrating, frying, juicing, infusing the root vegetable’s flavor into a powder, a vinaigrette and a gelatin, and probably a few more that I can’t recall.” And they somehow keep everything on the menu under $15.