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You may have no idea who chef Saif Rahman is, but soon everyone will
This might be the year Saif Rahman finally gets his due.
Despite being executive chef at Downtown Raleigh’s posh restaurant Vidrio and boasting an impressive culinary background, few people seem to know Rahman’s name. He admits that social media and self-promotion aren’t his strengths, and while he helped open Vidrio in 2017 as its chef de cuisine, he didn’t take command of the kitchen until shortly before the pandemic.
He’s not the biggest name at parent company LM Restaurants—that title belongs to celebrity chef Katsuji Tanabe. And as “a brown chef from an immigrant family” who is also Muslim and doesn’t drink, Rahman isn’t the archetype of a fine dining chef, leading more than a few people to overlook his talents.
“I’m definitely under the radar,” Rahman admits. To an extent, telling his story is out of Rahman’s comfort zone, but he’s ready to start trying.
Last year, Rahman entered the North Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association’s annual cooking competition, in part to get his name out there. He walked away as the 2021 Chef of the Year, thanks to the strength of his tandoori chicken recipe that relied almost exclusively on ingredients grown in his and his mother’s Raleigh backyards.
“I didn’t go there to win,” says Rahman. “I just wanted to be who I am. For chefs like us, it’s very difficult to tell our story. It’s difficult to explain what’s in your head unless you’re speaking to another chef.”
However, Rahman’s victory and impressive reliance on homegrown ingredients didn’t garner him much attention or acclaim. And it was also overshadowed by the death of his father, who passed away the same day Rahman won. His father, a former New York City cab driver, had been sick for a while and frequently asked Rahman to cook for him and bring dishes to the hospital. He had also raved to anyone within earshot that his son was “the most amazing chef.”
“That, my friend, is absolutely amazing,” says Rahman. “That is absolutely stunning when your father tells people that.”
Cooking has been a way for the chef to work through his grief. It’s also a way for him to connect to his roots. Originally inspired by his grandmother’s cooking on family trips to visit her in Bangladesh, Rahman has learned the joy of watching someone’s facial expression change when they bite into something he’s prepared. From Vidrio’s open kitchen, he can see the restaurant’s entire dining room, and he’ll watch people’s focus shift from their conversation to the bite of food in their mouths. His grandmother derived similar satisfaction making dishes like sticky rice and crispy tiger fish for her grandchildren, observing as they enjoyed her meals.
“She’d never eat with us,” he recalls. “The satisfaction that she was getting was making someone so happy, touching someone’s heart with your cooking. Now I know what that means almost 40 years later. It’s the greatest feeling in the world.”
After getting his start at his uncle’s restaurant in New Jersey, Rahman traveled and went to culinary school at the Paul Bocuse Institute in Lyon, France. He hustled up odd jobs like cutting grass so he could afford to eat in “badass restaurants,” and eventually staged at the legendary (and now closed) three-Michelin-starred Grace restaurant in Chicago. After his family left New York and relocated to North Carolina, Rahman followed suit, doing stints at World Central Kitchen and 21c Museum Hotels. Last year, his cooking took him global again, as he traveled to Qatar as a culinary ambassador for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture.
There, Rahman and fellow chef William Dissen represented “American Thanksgiving” at the famed Qatar Food Festival (think Aspen Food & Wine, but even glitzier), cooking expertly executed classics like pumpkin pie, Carolina Gold Rice grits and fried chicken. Attendees decked out in Gucci and clutching Fendi bags couldn’t get enough of the cheddar cheese grits, says Rahman, because of the high-quality ingredients and craftsmanship.
That describes Rahman’s approach to the menu at Vidrio too. When he took over as executive chef, Rahman focused the menu, paring down the options and prioritizing local ingredients cooked to deliver layers of flavor. That’s partly out of necessity—as the cost of ingredients rises, it makes sense that Rahman would look to use previously discarded lemon rinds from the restaurant’s bar to make lemon preserve to give depth to his New York strip. But it’s also because Rahman is obsessed with “doing epic shit” rather than finding the easy way out.
“As a chef, you adapt and you overcome,” he says. “You keep pushing to build these amazing things. We create luxury quality food from the most basic ingredients. That’s hard to do.”
Rahman’s strength is also his ability to pull off the unexpected. At Vidrio, some menu items like the roasted chicken sound deceptively straightforward or almost predictable—but, on closer inspection, offer ingredients like rose petals and rose water that add a fragrancy and romanticism to the dish, says Rahman. It’s also a reflection of his personal style, adding that he’s been given complete freedom to express himself through the menu.
“I run it like I own it,” he says. “I do everything I want, everything I can, and nobody tells me, ‘You cannot do this.’ I have that freedom.”
That’s allowed him to hit his stride. Now, the driven chef with an infectious enthusiasm and a dogged work ethic appears to be bursting at the seams, ready to break out to the next level. Given his lengthy credentials and deft execution at Vidrio, there’s no good reason that hasn’t happened yet. But smart money says Rahman won’t remain a best-kept secret for long. vidrioraleigh.com
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