Meet & Eat: Chef and Iron Chef Michael Symon
"It's not TV and interviews and cooking for celebrities. It's 80 to 90 hour work weeks and burns and scars, bad knees and arthritis in your hands."
People from Cleveland have a city pride that would blow away that of many New Yorkers. Chef Michael Symon is no exception. The Cleveland native and latest addition to the roster of Food Network Iron Chefs was in New York recently to spread the word about his first cookbook, Live to Cook: Recipes and Techniques to Rock Your Kitchen. Over breakfast with Symon we discussed tips to make everyone's cooking taste better, the one food he could eat seven days a week, his maniacal love for Miracle Whip, and, of course, Cleveland.
Name: Michael Symon
Location: Cleveland, Ohio
Occupation: Chef, Restaurateur
Website: Symon Says
Who are some of your greatest culinary influences/mentors? Jonathan Waxman and Alice Waters. Those are the two that I've always looked up to the most.
What was hardest about becoming an Iron Chef and how has it changed your career? The group of chefs we competed against was the hardest part—a serious lineup of chefs and most of us have been friends for a long time. I knew John [Besh], I knew Tracy [des Jardins], so the hardest part for me was not just competing against these people, but watching a lot of them leave. You have so much mutual respect for them, you kind of want everyone to win! The restaurant community is not that big at the end of the day; it just so happened that all these people on the show were pretty good friends. That was hard.
As for what's changed the most, we're fortunate enough that our restaurants have always been busy, so it hasn't necessarily affected business in the restaurant, but it has affected the scope of opportunities. We get offers for consulting, or for stuff in another towns.
Any other career-changing moments along the way? My biggest career-changing moment was probably in 1998 when I won Food & Wine Magazine's Best New Chef. That's what really put me on the map and gave me national exposure. That's when I had my first show on the Food Network, The Melting Pot. The most flattering award I ever won was the James Beard Award, but it didn't change my life. The Food & Wine in '98 changed my life.
Advice for young chefs, tips for home cooks, and Symon's late-night snack, after the jump.
What is your advice for young chefs? Realize that at the end of the day, it's not a glamorous job. It's not TV and interviews and cooking for celebrities. It's 80 to 90 hour work weeks and burns and scars, bad knees and arthritis in your hands. When I was in culinary school, there was no Food Network; there was no celebrity. The only chefs you knew from television were Julia [Child] and Jacques [Pepin].
What happened to me just happened by fate; I never said, "I'm going to go to culinary school so I can be on television." I became a chef and then the other things happened. I think that if you want to be a chef, that's how you've got go into it. I think too many young kids go into it thinking they're going to be a celebrity. The phrase "celebrity chef" to me is very strange. You may be called a "celebrity chef," but you still work 80 to 90 hours a week, you're still in kitchens every day, you're still sore when you wake up in the morning.
Any particular advice for home cooks? The biggest thing that home cooks can do is the same things that great chefs and restaurateurs do, and it's not a hard thing—change your shopping habits. Buy local when you can, buy natural and organic when you can. What you put into a dish is what you get out of it. If you cook a piece of shitty chicken, chances are you're going to get a shitty chicken dinner. If you get a naturally-raised chicken, your chances of success are much greater.
So, change your shopping habits, learn some basic techniques, don't be afraid to season your food, and don't be afraid of natural fats. Everybody's so afraid of fat, but at the end of the day it's so much better for you than a chunk of margarine or I Can't Believe It's Not Butter. Typically when something's low-fat it's high in sugar, so it's worse for you anyhow!
How did you connect with Michael Ruhlman, who co-authored your book? Michael I've known—he's a native Clevelander from Shaker Heights. When he wrote his book called Making of a Chef, he went to the Culinary Institute of America to write the book, and he had no experience in kitchens prior to that. So he called me at the restaurant where I was a chef—it was out of the blue, I had never met him. He spent some time in the kitchen and then he went on to write the books. I've known him ever since. He's as passionate about food as any chef I know. He truly loves food and I just don't think there's a lot of people like that.
What was it like working with him on the book? Horrible. [Laughs] No, it was great. We were very fortunate because I knew Michael and his wife Donna, who did the bulk of the photography, and our recipe tester Heidi I had known for fifteen years. We just cooked in my kitchen every day. We came to my home kitchen and hung out with my dogs and my wife; everybody knew each other. We'd test out recipes and talk about them; Donna took pictures as we were cooking. I mean, it took three and a half years, but we had a lot of fun along the way!
You pepper the book with stories about your career and life—why was it important for you to share these stories? I think it was important not only for home cooks but for young cooks, to show how I got from point A to point B. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family that loved to cook. We cooked at home all the time. As a kid in your little world, you just think everybody grew up that way, and when you get older you realize that's not the case.
Most of the lessons I learned as a kid, I learned at the kitchen table. It's not necessarily reality now—both parents work and there's less time—but if you can build a little bit of that foundation into your everyday life, you're going to be a better person. Your kids are going to be better people.
I didn't just want this to be a list of recipes. I wanted to illustrate what made me who I am and how I got to where I am today, not only as a chef, but as a person. Food was the most important part of my life my whole life. It made me grow in more ways than one. It's what molded me. I think that more families could learn a lot from that—sit down once a week with your kids, your significant other, your friends, and cook a dinner together. Bullshit, laugh, cry, like any good Greek/Sicilian family would do.
What are some of your favorite recipes in the book? I love the dates; they're very good example of how I cook. They're sweet. They're salty. They're acidic. And I love the family-style section. That's how I love to eat, how I like to cook. The family section and the sides are my favorite sections of the book because they kind of sum up how I am.
You've included a lot of helpful tips. Is there one tip that everyone should walk away with? Learn how to shop and salt your food. If you can do those two things, you will become an infinitely better cook. People are so salt-phobic and fat-phobic. If they just realized how much sodium is in a processed dish, they would never be afraid to put salt in their food. People are afraid to put salt in a dish that they're making but they're more than comfortable with a can of soup. If they could learn how to shop and learn how to salt, their food's just going to be a million times better all the time.
Tell us a little about your love affair with pork. To me it's just the greatest animal in the world! It's so versatile. It truly does make everything taste better. You make a risotto. The risotto's pretty good. You throw some pancetta in it, and—wow, this is really good! It's kind of like that across the board. It's the only animal that literally from head to tail, everything tastes great. The fat is so flavorful, the meat on the cheeks is flavorful, the skin is crispy and delicious. Fry up some lamb skin—t's just not as good! I mean, I love lamb, but nothing does that like pork. What other animal can give you lardo, and it's actually good on bread? Sausage, bacon—it's so versatile. It makes everything better. I'm proud to say I was a pork fanatic long before it was cool to be one.
You come to New York from time to time. When you're here, do you have any must-visit stops? When I'm here, I'm a little bit of a creature of habit. I always eat at Barbuto, I always eat at The Spotted Pig, and I'll typically go to Mesa Grill to have a margarita and a little snack at the bar. I also like The Little Owl. And then I like to try new places. I also like Fatty Crab; I go there quite a bit. They have great food here at The Standard Grill. I had a great lunch at The Breslin. I don't get there as much as I like, but I love having lunch at Café Boulud.
What is your ultimate comfort food? For me it's probably my mom's lasagna. I could eat it 7 days a week.
What is your favorite late-night snack? My favorite late-night snack is toasted bread with nutella, bananas and occasionally bacon. So nutella, banana and bacon sandwiches. You should try it - it'll be your favorite too!
What was the last dish you had that knocked your socks off? The beef tongue sandwich I had at The Breslin was off the charts. Delicious.
What's in your fridge that you'd be embarrassed to tell us about? My guilty pleasure—Miracle Whip. I love the stuff! I can't help it. My dad used it when I was a kid. I got older, I became a chef, and I thought, "I can't use this stuff, it's bad, it's evil." But now I go to the grocery store and I get it, I put it in the cart, people start looking through my cart—I can't help it, I love Miracle Whip. You can't make it. I can make mayonnaise—give me an egg, give me lemon, give me oil, and I can make mayonnaise. Can't make Miracle Whip. You're allowed one guilty pleasure and that's mine. I like it. I don't care! Oh, my wife hates it, but I love Miracle Whip so much! It's tangy—it's got a nice mustardy tang to it.
Everyone has a go-to person they call for restaurant/bar recommendations. Who's yours? It depends where I'm going. I think I'm everybody else's. I usually just call a chef friend in the city and ask what's new, what's going on, is there something I should see? When I'm in New York I'll call Jonathan Waxman or Bobby Flay or one of those guys and ask what's new.
What's the best recommendation you have gotten? I don't think I would have just wandered into Fatty Crab if someone hadn't told me about it. And I love it—I think it's absolutely delicious. We went, it was off the charts, and I still think it's off the charts. The food is explosive. The first time I had that pork belly bun there I almost fell out of my chair. They're not afraid of seasoning, they're not afraid of fat—it's delicious.