Interview Date: 02/11/2010
Run Date: 03/15/2010
Iron Chef Michael Symon rose to prominence in the culinary world in the ‘90s, and even hosted a show on the Food Network called “The Melting Pot.” Fast forward 13 years, and Symon has several successful restaurants in his native Cleveland, Ohio (Lola Bistro being the most notable). And he was the winner of the inaugural “Next Iron Chef” season back in 2007, joining the ranks of Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, Cat Cora and Masaharu Morimoto as Iron Chefs on the network. Symon also has published a book, “Michael Symon: Live to Cook.” We had the chance to talk to Symon recently about being a successful restaurateur, as well as being a Food Network star and a huge Cleveland sports fan.
Michael Symon: Hello?
BE: Hey, it’s Mike Farley with Bullz-Eye.com. Before we get to the interview, I wanted to tell you I lived in Cleveland for 10 years.
MS: Oh nice.
BE: So you’ve really risen to national prominence in the last few years after winning “The Next Iron Chef.” How did it feel to essentially become a famous Food Network personality overnight like you did?
MS: It’s interesting. In the culinary world I was always pretty well known nationally. And the restaurant and myself have been fortunate enough to win a lot to national awards and get exposure in that way. Obviously we’ve always had some good success here in Cleveland. It changes a lot. I had a show on the Food Network from ’97 to ’99, so I got a little bit of a taste of it then, and walked away from it and continued to focus on restaurants again. I think having that early, (well, Food Network wasn’t nearly as big then as it is now), but getting some of that early exposure helped me understand and deal with what’s happened since “Iron Chef.”
BE: OK. What show was that?
MS: It was called “The Melting Pot.”
BE: I remember that!
MS: It was big in like prisons and nursing homes. (laughs)
BE: (laughs) Right on.
MS: The 14 people that watched it were adamant fans. (laughs)
BE: (laughs) Awesome. So how do you split your time these days between your restaurants in Cleveland and taping for “Iron Chef” and other Food Network responsibilities?
MS: Well I’m still in Cleveland 90 percent of the time. We film “Iron Chef” usually in one three-week block. That’s usually in July or whereabouts. So that’s usually a month. But other than that, for the most part I’m in the restaurants.
BE: And when do they tape for “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” and stuff like that? Is that around the same time?
MS: It’s just random. It’s throughout the year. The nice thing about that show is a lot of times they’ll come to Cleveland and do those, or I’ll sit in the studio and I’ll be able to do eight episodes in four hours. The nice thing about the Food Network, since there are chef / restaurateurs on there, like Bobby (Flay) and Mario (Batali), they’re very understanding that at the end of the day our life revolves around our restaurants and being chefs. They’re very respectful of that.
BE: Sure. So back to “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” The one with the milkshakes. Did you really drink three of those milkshakes?
MS: I really did. (laughs)
BE: (laughs) And you do every time you go there?
MS: Uh, two or three, yeah.
BE: That’s awesome.
MS: Yeah, and then I go into a sugar coma and walk around in a daze for several hours afterwards. Man, they’re just so damn good.
BE: Yeah, well now I want to try it when I go to New York next. So in your first real “Iron Chef” battle, who did you go up against and what was the whole experience like?
MS: Um, oh my God, it was three years ago. I gotta think back. I remember the ingredient was turkey. Oh God, who was the chef? I can’t remember who I went up against. I remember he was from Washington. (Editor’s Note: it was Ricky Moore) I remember we thumped him. (laughs)
BE: Oh good!
MS: I mean, it was great. I mean, it was nerve wracking. We felt a lot of pressure. We wanted to come out of the gate strong. I had known Bobby and Mario and Morimoto and all those guys for a long time. But you know, you become part of a team, and you don’t want to embarrass everybody on the team. So you want to bring it.
BE: Sure. Absolutely. And how much of the menu planning is done on the spot, or is it done in advance?
MS: A lot of it is done on the spot. What we kind of do is we go into each battle, and there are two or three guys that come with me. My pastry chef, Cory Barrett; my chef at Lola, Derek Clayton; and my chef at Bar Symon, Matt Harlan. And all those guys have been with me for a long time now. So, we go into each battle with kind of like a basic fish menu, a basic meat menu, a basic vegetable menu. And depending on the ingredient, we kind of adjust from there. So we have a basic thought process in our head, and then we weave it around the ingredient.
BE: Very cool. How much have you learned from the other Iron Chefs and what are they like to work with?
MS: Actually competing on “Iron Chef” you rely on, for me, 25 years of cooking experience. So I don’t know if you learn a lot from them in that manner. Where they’ve been tremendously helpful, especially Bobby, and a little bit Mario, after I won “Next Iron Chef,” they’re like, “Look, things in your life are going to change. Be ready for it. Have your team organized.” And we were lucky in the sense that we had opened our first restaurant -- myself, (wife) Liz and my partner Doug Petkovic opened our first restaurant 12 or 13 years prior to that. We had a lot of things in place already. We had at that time 175 employees. We had office managers, you know what I mean? I had an assistant. We were already very established restaurateurs, so it wasn’t like, “Holy shit, what do we do now?” So we were kind of set up. Because of the success that the restaurants had had for all those years, we were already kind of set up to move forward. But Bobby, particularly Bobby, and a little bit of Mario, kind of just helped with some other stuff, like just what to expect and how to handle certain things. You know, I call those guys all the time, like “I’m thinking of doing this new project, what do you think?” Because they’ve been through a lot of it. But yeah, having the restaurants for so long prior to that I think really helped. I already had an agent. I had an agent for 10 years, even before from when I was on Food Network the first time. So I guess we had some of that foundation, but those guys have been tremendous mentors to me. Not really from a food standpoint, but more from a business decision standpoint, protecting me from maybe making some of the mistakes they could have made.
BE: Very cool. Like I said, I lived in Cleveland for a while. I know the city battled a bad reputation nationwide for a long time. I think you and Lola were part of the city’s resurgence. So how did it feel knowing that?
MS: It was great. I moved back from New York in 1990. Liz and Doug and I opened our first restaurant in Tremont in 1995. At that time, that was a really rough neighborhood. Liz and I had lived down there since ’90, so we had a lot of confidence in the neighborhood. But to be part of gentrifying an entire neighborhood and to be of one of the first people who took a risk to do business down there, and then to do the same when we did our project on East 4th St., at the time we were the only restaurant on the street. There were some other things. But now it’s filled with restaurants and bars. Those are always fun things. I think we take more pride in that than anything else that we’ve accomplished. And I think to some extent, all these great, young chefs are moving back to Cleveland now. It’s really becoming a great dining town. And I think some of the success we were able to have made them comfortable to move home. A lot of chefs move to New York if they’re from Cleveland. They’ll move to New York or San Francisco or L.A. or wherever, and work for great chefs, and then it’s like, “Oh shit, we can move back home and be successful.”
BE: Yeah. I saw that Aron Sanchez has a restaurant in Cleveland now?
MS: He does some consulting for one. Yeah, right across the street from Lola. He’s an old friend. He was actually on “Melting Pot” with me.
BE: Oh cool!
MS: We were both younger, thinner. He still has all his hair. I was shaving by choice then, not by necessity. (laughs)
BE: So are there any plans for opening a new restaurant any time soon?
MS: We just opened up our seventh. We have five concepts and seven restaurants. We just opened up the seventh about five months ago. It’s a real casual burger joint called The B Spot -- burgers, beer, bratwurst, bologna and bourbon.
BE: That’s awesome.
MS: That’s going really well. We plan on growing that concept a little bit. We really don’t have a desire to do another Lola or Lolita or some of our fine dining things. But the casual thing is fun, and we feel like we can grow it and grow it the right way.
BE: Cool. And what is your favorite place to eat? I guess I’m talking anywhere, and what do you order when you go there?
MS: Gosh. Probably my favorite restaurant is Vetri in Philadelphia. The chef is Marc Vetri. It’s a little place, like 28 seats. I just let Marc cook. He usually does this big pasta-based thing and a couple of other things. He’s one of the truly great chefs in America and one of the greatest Italian chefs in the world.
BE: Very cool. And what is your favorite thing to cook, and why?
MS: Pork. It’s so versatile. You can do ribs, you can do pork butt, chops -- you can do pork belly, you can do bacon, a ham. You name it, it’s endless in its versatility.
BE: And what is a secret about Food Network that you can tell us that we probably don’t know?
MS: I guess a lot of people don’t know that most of us on the network are pretty good friends with each other. (laughs) And you know, it’s a pretty tight-knit group and a very laid back group. There’s not a lot of arrogance. Everybody is pretty chill and everybody gets along very well. And because we do some fundraising together and some events together, like South Beach Food and Wine Festival, and things of that nature, it’s a pretty tight-knit group of people.
BE: Which is really saying something considering how the network has grown the last few years.
MS: Yeah. I mean, back in the day when I had “Melting Pot” there were only 10 or 12 people. And now the list is endless. We do a lot of things to help each other. Like Guy (Fieri) was doing his culinary tour this year. He needed someone to help him out, kind of open and get the crowd going in Detroit. I drove there to do that. We do a lot of fundraising dinners here in Cleveland for Sheriff’s Training. Bobby (Flay)’s come and helped with those. And so had Mario (Batali). It’s a pretty tight-knit community or tight-knit group and we always look out for each other. I put out my first cookbook this year, and Paula Deen had me on her show to tell people about my book. Everyone looks out for each other.
BE: Very cool. Final question. Can the (Cleveland) Cavs finally win a title and either way, what will LeBron do after the season?
MS: I think this could be their year. They actually play Orlando tonight. So I can’t wait to watch Shaq rough up Dwight Howard and them (Editor’s Note, the Cavs won). And I think LeBron stays. There’s a lure to this city, and people that leave it most of the time come back. And this is where LeBron’s from. Not only where he’s played his professional career, but he’s from Akron, 30 minutes outside of Cleveland. I think that from what I know about LeBron, at the end of the day I think he knows he is going to be judged by how many championships he wins. And I think the Cavs will give him more opportunities to win championships than anybody else. If he goes to New York, it’s part of a rebuilding process. If he goes to New Jersey, it’s part of a rebuilding process. Unless they bring him Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all together, there’s going to be a process there, where the Cavs have had an opportunity to win it all the past four years. And I think he knows they’re knocking at the door. Especially if they win it this year, it really cements him staying.
BE: I think so too.
MS: At the end of the day, when they say “greatest player ever,” he wants to be a part of that sentence. He wants to be thought of like (Michael) Jordan, like Magic (Johnson), like (Larry) Bird, like now even Kobe (Bryant). He’s got to stack up some rings.
BE: Absolutely. I hope they really do it. The city could really use that.
MS: Oh God. I can’t even fathom what it would be like.
BE: Yeah. I lived there in the ‘90s when the Indians lost the two World Series.
MS: (under his breath) F--k. Yeah, Mark Shapiro is one of my best friends. (laughs)
BE: Oh is he really?
MS: Yeah. When I was kind of coming up as a chef, he was the head of scouting for the Indians. So I was chef of this restaurant called Caxton Café, which was right behind the Jake (Jacobs Field), and he would come sit at the bar and we’d bullshit. And my career kind of started to grow, and he became Vice President. So it’s hilarious. We kind of grew up together.
BE: Very cool. Well, that’s about all I’ve got.
MS: Feel free to plug my book on there too. (laughs)
BE: Oh sure! What’s the name of the book?
MS: It’s called “Michael Symon: Live to Cook.”
BE: We’ll put a link up to that.
MS: Thank you very much. A guy’s gotta make a living. (laughs)
BE: Thanks man.MS: Thank you. Have a great day.