A number of years ago I was the food and drink writer for a lifestyle magazine called ‘Zalea. My editor had asked to do a profile on executive chef Charles Mereday of the Trellis Room at the Battle House Hotel. Mereday was a heavy hitter – a former culinary instructor who taught at Birmingham’s famed Culinard School. When he was an incoming freshman he received a welcome letter from then-Commander’s Palace chef Emeril Legasse. The school was Legasse’s alma mater Johnson and Wales in Charleston, South Carolina; also in Mereday’s class was Tyler Florence. See what I mean? A heavy hitter.
As part of the story we photographed one of the Trellis Room’s signature dishes. After the dish was brought out the photog took a handful of pictures before rearranging a few elements on the plate to make for a more esthetic effect. Chef Mereday walked over, picked up the plate and dumped its contents into a trash can. He then firmly but kindly asked the photographer to only take pictures that represent how the dish would look to the customer.
I had to explain to my editor that to a chef their food is their career, their reputation. A chef battles all day long against apathetic or hurried employees who simply don’t get that every single dish is a reflection of the vision of their chef. Our photog had tampered with that vision. Chances are no one would have noticed but it only takes one person (with a food column or a blog) to make something an issue.
For a food blogger capturing the essence of a dish in all its megapixel glory is just as paramount. It is for my fellow food bloggers that I sought out a review copy of Christopher Styler’s Working the Plate – the Art of Food Presentation. In order to give them a tour through the creative nexus of a highly respected chef.
Styler breaks down plate presentation into categories that represent various approaches. To do so he enlists the help of some of the nation’s most respected chefs like Marcus Samuelsson, Suzanne Goin and Wayne Harley Brachman. There are ten chefs in all that allowed Styles and photographer David Lazarus to pick apart their plate presentations, chefs who are known as much for the look of their food as the taste.
Though Styler enlists some big names for Working the Plate, it doesn’t seem to quite capture the thought process of them. It does contain some beautiful food porn and there are glimpses to the mindset of each chef but if fails to bridge the gap between conception and presentation. It is a good guide to what great food photography should look like.
If you are a chef hoping to learn the latest trends in presentation you’ll be disappointed. That is not the author’s fault however, with the notoriously slow pace of the publishing industry there is no way a book on trending plate presentations can ever be released in a timely manner. Still, if you are just learning presentation or food photography it is a fine jumping off point.
I’m giving away a copy of Working the Plate. Last day to sign-up is 1-31-12. To enter click HERE.
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.
1. How old were you when you first started to cook?
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.