Of all the shining, happy faces teaching us how to cook these days, one of my very favorites is Chef Michael Symon. I first became acquainted with Symon after reading about his flagship restaurant Lola Bistro in Cleveland, Ohio, in Michael Ruhlman's book The Soul of a Chef. I found him compelling and hard-working, and was thrilled when his skills began being broadcast on national television.
Now, with seven restaurants to his name, a James Beard award under his belt, and a new show premiering on the Cooking Channel, Cook Like an Iron Chef, Symon's got it made. I was happy to chat with him about all these projects and what he's got planned for the future.
So your restaurants and culinary background are in Cleveland. How is Cleveland as a food city? It's actually very strong, I would say, for a mid-market city. If you take New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco out of the equation I think Cleveland's probably the strongest food city in the country. "Farm-to-table" is kind of the new hip term but we've had that in Cleveland for 20 years; we've always had a strong connection with farmers.
When did you first get an inkling that there were bigger things in store for you beyond your awesome restaurants? I started doing Food Network stuff in 1998 when Food & Wine named me one of the 10 Best New Chefs; I started doing appearances and hosted my own show. I moved back to Cleveland and it kind of grew from there. We had Lola for 9 years before we opened Lolita, and now we have seven restaurants so it's been slow growth for us—but it's given us a great foundation and team.
Why did you decide to compete in The Next Iron Chef? Were you thinking of a transition to doing more TV? It just kind of happened; I did Melting Pot for two years on Food Network and then did some specials here and there. We just figured we'd give it a whirl. TV's a powerful thing. I've been fortunate enough to be recognized as a chef [through Food & Wine, and a James Beard award], but TV draws a national audience.
Your new show is your first "traditional" cooking show, and it focuses on proper technique and kitchen skills. Are you going to bring a more serious attitude about cooking than other FN stars? I think Bobby [Flay] and Emeril [Lagasse] and Mario [Batali] laid a tremendous foundation for chefs like myself to come into the national kitchen. I think a lot of people are looking for something different, but I want people to experience the show in a very unpretentious way. We're going to do the recipes in real time on the show. You know, the dishes from Iron Chef and from Lola are not as hard as you might think, everyone can make them at home.
Well then, I won't be impressed when I watch Iron Chef anymore! You know, the longer I cook the simpler my food gets. A lot of times a young chef has 400 ingredients going on, but as you get older as a chef you let the ingredients really sing.
So do you have any other new projects in the works? Well, we opened our second B Spot last year—which is burgers, beer, bologna, and bratwurst. That's the concept that we'll continue to grow—we have no desire to do more Lolas or Lolitas or an upscale project. And I'm working on a new show on the Food Network called Food Feuds—we go to different cities and find places that are doing dishes that are very similar, but the people in the city have very strong opinions on what is better and why. So we cook in the kitchens and blind taste test people; it's hilarious. It really gets into the culture of American food, showing iconic places that have really taken one specific food and made it popular throughout the country.
Tune in to Symon's new show Cook Like an Iron Chef on Cooking Channel, beginning tonight and airing Thursdays at 10pm ET.