Interview: Saba Wahid – TV Presenter and Chef

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Saba Wahid in the kitchen. Photo - Sam Yaghmour

Saba Wahid is a well-known TV presenter and chef with a dynamic on and off screen personality. She prides herself on the ability to adapt in any environment, but kitchen is the place where she feels most at ease. Her creativity and enthusiasm in this setting is unique because she manages to incorporate all of the elements that are important in her life and communicates it in the world of gastronomy. She is currently working on a cookbook which hopefully will be out soon. Arabian Gazette’s Moign Khawaja had a cup of tea with Saba Wahid and asked the following questions:

Please tell us a bit about your background. Where were you born, grew up and studied?

I was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and have lived most of my life in New England. I come from a Pakistani ethnic origin. I went to University of Massachusetts in Amherst for my undergraduate degree, then attended the French Culinary Institute in NYC for Hospitality Management.

Do you remember your first time cooking? What did you cook? How was the experience like?

I don’t recall my first time ever cooking but I have always been passionate about it. I would always prepare meals for friends and family whenever the occasion arose. I remember making snacks for my friends at slumber parties and then breakfast for my whole family over holidays and weekends.

What’s your favourite cuisine? Why do you like it so much?

I can’t really say I have a favorite cuisine.  As long as fresh wholesome ingredients are used, most things can taste good.  I do have an obsession with pizza though.  It has to be the right consistency of dough, the perfect sauce made with san marzano tomatoes, Buffalo Mozzarella from Campania, and fresh Basil.  The combination of ingredients and perfect proportions of food make it “foodie perfection”

What was your first break on TV? How were you discovered?

I’m not sure if I would call it a break or even “being discovered” as I was looking to explore the media industry, and thought the Middle East market would be interesting to explore. I created a pilot video and sent it to some networks in the region. I was offered a position as a co-presenter for a new show on Dubai One. I took a leap of faith by taking the Job and moving to this part of the world, and I haven’t looked back since.

What are some of the best recipes you’ve made on-air? Why are they great?

I have made some interesting combinations of flavors and ingredients. I have to say some of my signature dishes contain the best of Eastern flavors and Western presentation.  Using innovative technique and a healthy approach to cooking, I have made an impact on the local market and look forward to educating and showing people how to cook great food at home.

You’ve seen many chefs on TV. Which one is your favourite and why?

There are many TV chefs, its difficult to have a favorite, but I am a big fan of Ina Garten of the Barefoot Contessa show. She has such a calm and appealing demeanor and her food is fabulous!

Being a chef means a few mishaps and disasters. What have you got under your belt? 

Mishaps….No! Those things never happen to me!

I have actually been burnt a couple of times while moving carelessly in the kitchen. I was also cooking on live TV once, and used the wrong pan, causing the fish to stick to the bottom. It was embarrassing, but I quickly recovered from it, and thank god, the cameras weren’t focused on it, so I was able to pull it off smoothly!

Photo - Saba Wahid

What’s your impression about Nigella Lawson? I ask this because you both look glamourous on the screen and some people see you as the Middle Eastern Nigella.

I think Nigella is great! She has really been able to make the cooking in the kitchen sexy, which appeals to a very different audience. I can’t say her food is amazing, but she definitely has an on-screen presence.

Being a wonderful chef and culinary expert, you should have opened a restaurant. What makes you interested in PR and media relations?

Restaurants take time to build in terms of concept, investors, and team. Plus you have to work with people you trust.  A restaurant is an option, but I have a couple of other projects I need to tackle before I can start that caliber of a project.  It’s also a HUGE commitment time-wise. A restaurant owner works 24/7, so you pretty much kiss your social life good bye.

What’s the cheapest and quickest food one can cook?

Cheap and quick are two words that I cannot associate with food. I am a firm believer in you are what you eat, and if you want fast food, then I am not qualified to answer that. I can tell you if you prepare things in advance and do your mis en place, then any meal can by whipped up in minutes.

How’s your cook book coming up? What’s it going to be like?

My cook book is another project that is long term. People expect everything to be turned around quickly when you’re in the media, but in fact it takes patience, and organization. You must have everything in place before you can execute, and since I am a perfectionist, it takes a little extra time, but it’s worth the wait.

You must have had meals all around the world. Which place impressed you the most?

I have eaten in some very interesting places, but I miss the New York Culinary scene the most. There is such a great variety of food available at all price points as well as innovative ideas within trendy restaurant concepts. It’s on another level of creative food engineering.

As the world is changing and women are gaining equality and more rights, we’re also noticing a trend that they’re not so into cooking as they used to be. Perhaps the traditional roles changing. Do you agree that women are losing their interest in cooking? What’s your take on that?

I disagree. I think the culinary art culture is enhancing people’s perspectives on cooking and eating. There is a surge of cooking shows as well as food writers and bloggers on the scene.  All of this interest has created a buzz and made an impact on the stay at home cook.

Tell us a bit about your experiences at Amherst and what did you enjoy the most?

I completed my undergraduate degree from University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Going to university in a small town in western Massachusetts was a once in a lifetime experience.  I made wonderful friends and gained a quality education. The food in Amherst is also notable.

Given that many people are spending, or rather wasting, so much money on food these days, what tips have you got handy for people who’d like to spend less, save more but have good food.

Focus on fresh raw ingredients and create something with them. Try healthy vegetarian options, it’s not necessary to always have meat. It’s cost effective as well.

Women, as well as men, do have issues with eating and weight gain. How do you maintain your fitness while cooking such scrumptious meals?

I balance myself and my meals. If I indulge one day, I will eat healthy for the next couple of days. I also work out, which allows me to enjoy my meals guilt free!

What message would you like to give to budding chefs and young cooking enthusiasts?

Passion drives a chef to be great at their job, if you hold on to that passion you are guaranteed to be on the road to success!  Keep your end goals in mind when you decide this is the path you would like to take. It’s a particular personality type that can make it in the heat of the kitchen, patience and perseverance are also necessary.

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