June 15, 2015

Up Close & Personal with Chef Michael Symon

I have known Michael some three years now, having first met him at the Fabulous Food Show in Cleveland back in 2012. Relaxed, humble and completely accessible, if you are fortunate enough to spend any time at all in his presence, or watch him interacting with his family, or sit with him shoes off, feet up, watching a Browns game on a Sunday afternoon, you'd be hard pressed to associate this laid back everyman with the public dynamo we all know as the public 'Chef Michael Symon.' His trademark laugh and smile are always right below the surface waiting to bubble over at a moments notice. When he's back in his beloved Cleveland, friends and family are his focus. But, underneath is a man who is driven. A man who's aware of how lucky he is to have achieved what he has, but not one that takes it for granted. See way back when, he rolled up his sleeves and went to work, first cheffing, then as a restaurateur, then as a beloved TV personality. The accolades now, are the result of years of hard work and dedication. To his craft. To his family. To his employees and to his friends. 

I have watched as fans approach him, hoping for a minute of his time, or a smile, or an autograph. I have never seen him not stop to take the time to make someone who approached feel important, even if it's a simple hello, a smile or to request a picture. Onstage, I have watched him capture the audience, making eye contact as if he's talking directly to each and every person there. He makes folks feel like they could easily sit back and grab a beer with him, over conversation about food, or riding his motorcycle, or debating with him over his favorite Cleveland team, The Browns. I've heard folks remark of him, "Wow, he's just like me." Having spent time with him, I can honestly say, "It's real." It's what has launched him to the top of his profession, garnering the title America's Favorite Chef.  

I recently caught up with him between shoots of his hit TV show The Chew, which he co-hosts with Daphne Oz, Clinton Kelley and fellow chefs, Carla Hall and Mario Batali. His TV career is varied and lengthy. Since 1998, with appearances on Sara’s Secrets with Sara Moulton, Ready, Set, Cook and Food Nation with Bobby Flay, hosting over 100 episodes of The Melting Pot and his winning season one of The Next Iron Chef on Food Network in 2008, he has been a regular in our homes. He appeared on four Food Network/Cooking Channel shows, hosting Food Feuds and Cook Like an Iron Chef, judging season three of The Next Iron Chef and competing on Iron Chef America. In January 2012, his show Symon’s Suppers, premiered on Cooking Channel and in September 2011, he joined the cast of The Chew as one of the show’s five hosts. Most recently, Michael was a mentor on the first season of Food Network's All-Star Academy.

A successful restaurateur, Michael recently opened his 14th B Spot Burgers, to go along with his other eateries, Lola Bistro, Lolita, Roast, Bar Symon and Mabel's BBQ. With his hectic schedule, I asked him if he misses being in the kitchen, just cheffing. "No," he laughed emphatically, "You know, I think that the misconception of a chef, especially in my capacity as a chef-owner, is that we work the line every week. I'm in the kitchen yes, but not on the line at a particular station. If you work just a station," he expanded, "when it gets busy, you see just that one station. I prefer to work the kitchen. I expedite, I watch the cooks a lot, but I haven't worked a particular station in God knows how long. Now, I do spend time on each station with the cook the first week when we open a restaurant." 

Many of you who are fans of the Iron Chef, will be happy to hear that Michael has a new signature line of cutlery coming out with Ergo Chef, LLC., available for delivery beginning in mid July, 2015. About a year in the making, Ergo and Symon will produce five individual knives for the Symon series. The blades will include a 9-inch chef knife; a 6-inch chef knife; a 6-inch serrated utility knife; a 7-inch vegetable cleaver; and a 3.5-inch paring knife. A four-piece steak knife set will also be available. The knives will be ground in the conventional Western-style, rather than with a Japanese beveled edge that is growing in popularity. Michael has opted for a small selection of blades, rather than an extensive collection of knives. “I’m of the belief you don’t need a giant set of knives, just a couple that perform at a high level,” Symon stated. “they have a unique handle that is not only stunning, but also very comfortable and durable. 

With  Mike, Scott & Randy from Ergo
I asked him, "Why Ergo?" "I love doing business with people that I like being around," he offered. "and yes, they make a beautiful knife and they make it at a super reasonable price. But aside from that, Michael and Scott Staib are just great people. If you're going to work with someone or partner with someone, you want them to have the same beliefs you do and the same morals you do. They are just really good people." I asked Michael what was most important to him in making a decision to put his name on a knife or series of knives. "For me," he responded, "there were a couple of things that were important. First, it had to be a knife that I was very comfortable using in the kitchen myself. Secondly, I wanted it to be a knife that any one of my professional cooks in the kitchens of my restaurants would use and be comfortable with. Lastly, I wanted it to be affordable for the home cook. Chef knives can be crazy," he continued, "I personally have been collecting knives for 25 years and I have knives that are ridiculously expensive. I wanted to get the look and feel of those knives, but in a package that the home cook would be comfortable buying. I also wanted a knife that one of my cooks on the line would be comfortable using every night, on the line, putting up with the wear and tear of putting out 300 meals. It had to be at a very high level for me to put my name on it, from a quality and look stand point, but also something that would be accessible to the home cook." Michael has not been shy in stating in the past that a chef or cook only needs a few good knives and I asked him to expand on that thought process.

"I don't think you need every knife in the set in order to get everything done, We have 2 chef' knives, both a 9' and 6 inch, a good serrated knife, a pairing knife and a vegetable cleaver because I do love using a vegetable cleaver. Then, we also have our steak knives." I mentioned to him that some have remarked that even at the reasonable price, it's still a bit expensive. He answered, "Obviously life is about what you can afford. That said, to be able to get a knife for $69-$79 that will last you a lifetime, as opposed to a knife you can get for $20 that you have to replace in a year, it just seems like a pretty easy decision to me." You can purchase Michael's Knives here: Michael Symon Cutlery

Our conversation then turned to his new hit show, The Chew. Winner of the Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Informative Talk Show Host along with his co-hosts, I asked him if when he first started this journey with the show back in 2011, he had any idea it would be the juggernaut hit that it has become. "I think with anything in life you hope for the best and plan for the worst," he offered, "Obviously I knew when we started that I already had a long term relationship with Mario, so I knew that was going to work. The other three hosts I had not met before. To end up being paired up with 4 other people who all have ended up being best friends, God I mean, you couldn't ask for more than that. We all just immediately got along and it's only gotten better from there." He added, "All of us cherish it and don't take for granted for a second how lucky we have it."

I pressed him for a behind the scenes anecdote that I could share with you all and he immediately spoke to Clinton being the cast's practical joker. "We're like a family," he explained, "so there's definitely a lot of razzing, kinda like you get between brothers and sisters. Every one definitely can give a joke and take a joke. This past week for instance, Clinton got me a couple times really good, so I had the person in charge of wardrobe order all his pants two sizes two small. When he was getting ready he kept saying, 'You know these are cut really weird, these are not fitting correctly.'  He laughed, "It happens all the time and we really do have a good time with each other."

Michael makes his Grandma's Risotto on The Chew

We then moved the conversation to a bit of the person behind the persona side of these interviews, discussing his relationship with his wife, Lizzie and his home life. "We met in the restaurant business back in 1990 and we opened Lola about 17 years ago. My favorite thing I ever do is cooking dinner for Lizzie and my family and friends, just making a meal at home. There's nothing more enjoyable than that." I asked about his hectic schedule and how the two of them balance it and their personal life. "It's like anything else, you get used to it. It's all about the people around me. I am fortunate to have folks around me that I've been working with some 20+ years now. Liz is with me
at all times, no matter where we are. We go back to Cleveland every weekend. We shoot Tuesday through Thursday then we head back to Cleveland.

I asked him to describe a typical day off for America's Favorite Chef. "I'm an early riser," he offered, "so I'm up usually by 5:30am. I head out and putz around the garden for about two hours or so, then I'll head out on the Harley to the gym, get a quick workout in and hopefully sneak in 18 holes of golf. After that I head back home about 1 or 2 o'clock and see what Lizzie wants for dinner and we hang out the rest of the day, me, Lizzie, Kyle and the dogs. I asked him "What's usually for dinner?" and he said "Well Lizzie is a vegetarian so oddly enough, being the meat chef, and I do eat a ton of meat, a lot of days I'll cook a vegetarian meal for both of us. The good thing is that with Lizzie being vegetarian, it always keeps me balanced."

I then asked Michael for the most important advice he would give to someone looking to make cheffing a career. "Be humble," he answered immediately, "learn something new everyday and don't be afraid of hard work because if there is one profession that truly rewards the hardest worker, it's this one." I followed up asking his advice to young culinary students. "I went to culinary school to be a chef and only a chef and maybe someday, own my own restaurant. If you're going to culinary school to be a chef , be a chef. Forget being on TV," he warned. "If you're angle is to be on TV, then you should go to school for the arts and learn to cook along the way" He also offered some advice to the aspiring home cook who wants to up their game in the kitchen. "Learn the techniques, not the particular recipes. If you learn the techniques, then you can make any recipe and make it your own."

I then turned the questions to a subject we both have in common; Our love. respect and admiration for Chef Jacques Pepin. Michael's has been quoted as saying that Jacques has been the most influential TV chef of all time. I asked him to expound on that a bit. "The thing that I love about Jacques is every time you watch him on TV, you learn something. From that, he has still made it entertaining and fun. More so than all those things, he is one of the most humble, caring people you'll ever come across." I can attest to this. A few years ago, after sitting with Jacques and casually discussing food and cheffing over coffee, he suddenly invited me to spend the day with him and have lunch at the International Culinary Center in New York City. Little ol me! Truly a bucket list moment for me. I asked Michael if he had a personal anecdote about he and Jacques that impacted his life.

"I was really lucky." he stated, "I was the executive chef of a restaurant called Giovanni's in Cleveland. I was 24. Jacques was in town and I got a call from his culinary producer, Susie Heller, whom I knew, and she told me she was bringing Jacques and Julia (Child) in for dinner." He laughed, "Lou, I was literally a trembling mess. I went out after the meal to say hello and he said, 'I loved the meal. I loved it because it was so simple.' I'll always remember that and it's always how I've tried to cook. Clean and simple. I remember he had a veal chop with morel mushrooms" It was immediately obvious in that statement that this was a special moment for Michael and I remarked to him that I thought it telling that even 22 years later, he remembered the evening and exactly what he prepared as if it were yesterday. Cool story.

As we finished up I asked him one last question pertaining to the Fabulous Food Show held each November in Cleveland and the place where I first met him. As it his Michael's hometown, it seems a special show for him. Invariably as we sit backstage in the talent's Green Room as it were, which has the talent trailers, lounging area with food and so forth, it seems Michael's entire family comes to visit. I have met his mom, dad, aunts uncles and cousins as they've enjoyed these small family reunions. I asked him what's so special about doing the show. "I think that because of the size of it you really get to interact with the people that come to it. Though it's a big show, it has a very intimate homey feel to it. It has a warm Mid-West feel to it. I just think it's a special show. And, Lou, anytime you can do a show and your mom can come see you from 10 minutes away, it's a good show."

It's seems there is no slowing down for this driven, dynamic chef. Michael revealed that he has a new show debuting on Food Network, Friday July 10th, but that was all he could share. Long-standing contractual clauses containing stiff penalties for disclosing specifics regarding any Food Network shows in production remain in force.

Cleveland's Iron Chef says he will continue co-hosting his popular ABC-TV daytime show, The Chew. His most recent Food Network series, All-Star Academy, in which he mentored a team of home cooks while vying against star chefs Bobby Flay, Alex Guarnaschelli and Curtis Stone, just concluded.

To connect with Michael, visit his website, www.michaelsymon.com or connect with him via social media on Twitter: @chefsymon, Facebook; Michael D. Symon and Instagram: @chefsymon
Michael also has a series of cookbooks, t-shirts, hats and more, all available here: Cookbooks and more....

I hope you've enjoyed reading this brief glimpse inside the world of Chef Michael Symon as much as I did bringing it to you!

Until next time, 

Bon Appetit, 

Lou

No comments:

Post a Comment