Both of these guys are entirely deserving of the honor. We asked them who inspires their cooking, and why. The answers:
Cole said it would be his wife and three girls because they all have individual tastes. “My oldest daughter Aubrey only eats earth tones, and my middle daughter Larkin only eats fruits that are primary colors.” (We think that’s the kind of challenge that inspires innovation.)
Wadi said, “My staff inspires me. I want employees here to be proud of the food we serve, from dishwashers to my business partner and brother; I do it for them.” (Wadi and Cole are both such family guys! Famous chefs, they’re just like us.)
Here’s a little bit more about the two competitors.
Tyson Cole: “His food doesn’t taste like anyone else’s.” That’s the opinion offered by our senior editor Roxanne Webber, who visited Cole’s Uchiko while on CHOW Tour in Austin. The chef is a white Florida native making sushi because “selfishly, it’s the restaurant I wanted to eat at.” And according to Brett Anderson, writing about Cole’s first restaurant, Uchi, in the Oxford American, “he has created one of the country’s great Japanese restaurants” in Texas. Cole worked his way up, learning the basics but also refining his personal style, melding Japanese technique and ingredients with wisps of flavor innovation—particularly in his pairing of seafood and citrus. Alan Richman anointed Uchiko, the Japanese farmhouse-style restaurant that Cole opened last summer, one of the 10 best new restaurants in the U.S. in January. Coming in November: Uchi Houston.
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.