The current season of Chopped — hosted by Martha Stewart and shot at a resort in Kennebunkport, Maine — features several local chefs, including Not Your Average Joe’s executive chef Kristen Harlach and 50Kitchen chef and owner Anthony Caldwell. Joining them is Saba Wahid, a food television personality, cooking teacher, and recipe developer who was born and raised in Framingham, Massachusetts. Unlike the other competitors, Wahid never had any expectations of appearing on this season of the Food Network’s popular cooking competition — because she didn’t apply.
“They contacted me through Instagram,” says Wahid. “That’s how the casting process started.”
Wahid says that her inclusion came as a surprise — and laughs at the thought of it going down in the DMs — but that it isn’t out of the clear blue, either. She’s applied to be on Chopped in the past, only to be denied due to a lack of restaurant cooking experience.
“That was always the final question that the casting producers asked,” says Wahid. “‘You don’t work in a restaurant, you’re not used to the high volume and the stress and the hustle, so how do you think you can hack it in this environment?’ I told them that I don’t work in a restaurant by choice. I still challenge myself in the kitchen every day, and I know how to hustle. But I never made the cut. But this time, they came to me.”
Wahid grew up in Framingham in a Pakistani family that, as she puts it, “didn’t really support that career path.” She says she was discouraged from applying to culinary school when she was 18, so she had to “get creative and figure things out in a more acceptable way for my family and community.” She attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst and moved to New York City for a little while (where she received a management certificate from the French Culinary Institute) before moving back to the Boston area, where she eventually wound up working in catering.
“I started doing back-of-the-house stuff, really getting involved on the cooking side and falling in love with the creativity and the excitement of it all,” she says. But as much as she loved the thrill of working in a high-volume kitchen, she hated another inevitable aspect of catering jobs: working nights and weekends.
Wahid had family and friends in Dubai, so she used those contacts to connect her with people in the local food media industry. Eventually, she pitched a pilot for a cooking show that she thought could “bridge the gap between my western upbringing and my eastern roots.” The show was picked up by a network in Dubai, and soon after Wahid traded the nights and weekends of catering for a hosting job at a television station on the Persian Gulf.
“It was pretty wild,” says Wahid, who lived in Dubai from 2010 to 2014. While there, she co-hosted a magazine-style show called Ask One and developed another show called Studio One, on which she presented a weekly cooking segment. That success notwithstanding, Wahid says she ran into roadblocks when she tried to launch culinary projects outside of the food media world.
“I was pursuing some culinary projects out there with investors, with the people with the big money, and I noticed that, when it came down to it, they weren’t looking for a female chef to head this,” she says. “They were very much sexist when it came to that. They were willing to take a meeting, but they were cutting the deals with the guys they were going out with at night smoking cigars and drinking whiskey. They weren’t cutting deals with me.”
Frustrated, homesick, and feeling as though she reached the peak of what she could do in Dubai, Wahid moved back to Framingham. She got a job as a cooking teacher and recipe developer for Yale Appliance, a high-end appliance dealer based in Boston, where she currently works, though she was furloughed for several months at the beginning of the pandemic, almost immediately after returning from maternity leave. Even then, Wahid was able to find a silver lining.
“I ended up getting more time at home with my newborn baby,” she says. “Three months, when you look at the grand scheme of things, is not a lot for maternity leave. I ended up getting eight months with her, which was awesome. And I also got recruited for Chopped so, yeah, it was kind of a blessing in disguise.”
Wahid says her parents still have a hard time understanding what she does because she doesn’t work in, or own, a restaurant yet. “But they never complain when they get gourmet meals cooked by me for family dinners and special occasions.”
About that pressure Chopped producers doubted Wahid could deal with?
“I’m really big on time management and stress management. It’s one of my fortes in life in general, not just in the cooking arena.”
Wahid says that in the lead-up to the show, her husband would test her by giving her five mystery ingredients and a clock to practice. “I practiced a lot; I timed myself at home. And I thought that was a really important thing to do. Because you don’t know — maybe 30 seconds is enough time to whip something together, but maybe you need two minutes. It just depends, and I think you need to play around with it a bit to know.”
(Wahid also says that the show’s editors make the cooking scenes appear a lot more chaotic than they actually are. The magic of television, folks.)
And what about working with Martha?
“I loved her. I thought she was super cool. She’s almost 80 years old, and I feel like she’s still current and relevant and cool. She dressed incredibly, she looked incredible ... She was so composed. And so professional. I really liked her.”
Wahid’s episode of Chopped: Martha Rules airs on May 4, 2021, at 9 p.m. on the Food Network.