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7 Questions with Chef Michael Symon

7 Questions is a series of interviews with the culinary movers and shakers you want or ought to know better.

When the Food Network first went online back in 1993 the talent was made up mostly of chefs who lived within a cab ride of Chelsea Market.  After a few years the network got it’s sea legs and began to recruit talent from around the country.

For a few years the network aired a show called Melting Pot.  It was an interesting idea, a daily show but with a rotation of chef/hosts.  The episodes were themed towards various immigrant cuisines that helped shape the American palate – Caribbean/Gula, Mediterranean, Asian, etc.  There was quite a stable of talented chefs, then no-names like the adorable Cheryl Smith and a fashion model named Padma Lakshmi.

The Mediterranean show was hosted by Rocco DiSpirito who fruitlessly flirted with co-host Cat Cora while the Eastern European show featured a chef Bobby Flay has called one of the great pastry chefs in the country, Wayne Harley Brachman.  His co-host was a shaved headed, soul patch wearing Cleveland chef with a laugh straight out of a mad scientist’s laboratory named Michael Symon.  When Melting Pot left the airwaves many of the cheflebrities went back to their restaurants and regained their anonymity.  Symon was, it appeared, destined to follow this path.

Cleveland was hardly considered a culinary hot spot but Simon’s Lola changed that the moment he and wife Liz opened the doors back in 1997.  That same year, Symon was named a “Rising Star” chef by Restaurant Hospitality magazine.  A year later Food & Wine listed him as one of the “Ten Best New Chefs in America.”  In 2005 he returned to Food Network as a challenger on the hit series Iron Chef: America (ICA).

Though Symon was defeated by Iron Chef Morimoto, the battle was a classic.  Soon Symon’s star outgrew Lola’s seating capacity and he relocated to a downtown address.  But refusing to abandon the Tremont neighborhood that had so embraced him, he opened the provocatively named Lolita in the old Lola space.  This loyalty makes Symon different from the run of the mill celebrity chef.

When Mario Batali wanted to scale back his presence on ICA the Food Network was in a pickle.  Taking a cue from Bravo’s success with Top Chef (with former Melting Pot host Padma Lakshmi), they came up with The Next Iron Chef, a culinary competition where the winner would become a permanent Iron Chef.

The Next Iron Chef would not pit “up and comers” but rather would feature celebrated chefs like Traci Des Jardins, Chris Constantino and former Melting Pot alum Aarón Sanchez.  Symon would also compete.  After boldly proclaiming that he would be around until the end, he almost went home after the first challenge.  The close-call motivated him and as predicted he was in fact there until the end beating out New Orleans’ Chef John Besh to become The Next Iron Chef.

The win was big – mushroom cloud big.  Symon went from being a regional culinary hero worthy of national attention to becoming a genuine national celebrity.  Once America got a taste of his creativity they couldn’t get enough of it.  Symon even took over the reigns of the popular Dinner: Impossible while embattled host Robert Irvine ironed out a few issues.  In his very first episode at the helm Symon created a dish that has spawned a national craze, chocolate covered bacon.

Not everything has been a victory for Cleveland’s finest.  In 2007 Symon forayed into the fickle New York market with Parea which sported only luke warm reviews.  More than one snooty Manhattanite bantered that Symon wasn’t ready for New York.  It’s now 2010 and it seems every restaurant in the Big Apple features roasted pork belly and chocolate covered bacon.  Apparently it was New York that needed to catch up to Michael Symon.

Today Symon has a five restaurant empire adding Michael Symon’s Roast in Detroit, Michael Symon’s B-Spot in Woodmere, OH and Bar Symon located in Avon Lake, Ohio.  More TV appearances followed with guest spots on Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, FoodNation with Bobby Flay and The View to name a few and a book with fellow Cleveland culinary personality Michael Ruhlman (with forward by Bobby Flay).  But it is on ICA that Symon has cemented his reputation as the consummate champion with a staggering winning percentage of nearly 85%, the best among Iron Chefs with more than five battles.

The future looks bright as well.  Michael Symon’s “Cook Like An Iron Chef” premieres in July on The Cooking Channel and he is set to open a new restaurant in the Cleveland area at the end of May.

Recently, Michael Symon took time out of his busy schedule to answer 7 Questions:

1. How old were you when you first started to cook?

Michael Symon: Always cooked, cooked with my family while growing up.   I was around seven, cooking with my mom – 15 in a restaurant.

2. When did you decide that you could make food your career?

MS: In high school.  Fell in love with the biz immediately, loved making people happy with food.

3. Which chefs have influenced you the most?

MS: Bobby Flay, Fergus Henderson, Marc Shary, Carl Quagliata and Jonathan Waxman.

4. If you hadn’t followed this career path, what other career could you see yourself in?

MS: Architect, farmer or working with kids.

5. What’s the highlight of your career so far?

MS: Winning the James Beard Award for Best Chef Great Lakes Region 2009.  Food and Wine Best New Chefs 1998. . . it changed my life forever.

6. What aspect of your professional life do you enjoy the most?

MS: Getting to work with my wife, Liz.  The satisfaction of creating new dishes.

7. What’s next for Chef Michael?

MS: One day at a time.  The sky’s the limit.

7 Questions is a series of interviews with the culinary movers and shakers you want or ought to know better.

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Stuart in 80 Words or Less

Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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Stuart’s Honors & Awards

2012 Taste Award nominee for best chef (web)
2012 Finalist in the Safeway Next Chef Contest
2011 Taste Award Nominee for Little Grill Big Flavor
2011, 12 Member: Council of Media Tastemakers
2011 Judge: 29th Chef's of the Coast Cook-off
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Wing Cook-off
2011 Cooking Channel Perfect 3 Recipe Finalist
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Gumbo Cook-off
2011 Culinary Hall of Fame Member
2010 Tasty Awards Judge
2010 Judge: Bayou La Batre Gumbo Cook-off
2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Award Nominee
2010 Chef2Chef Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2010 Denay's Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2009 2nd Place Bay Area Food Bank Chef Challenge
2008 Tava: Discovery Contest Runner-up

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