Chef Michael Symon cooks with soul. Growing up in a Greek and Sicilian family, the Cleveland native creates boldly flavored, deeply satisfying dishes at his restaurants in America’s heartland: Lola, Lolita, Roast and B Spot, Bar Symon, Detroit’s Westin Book Cadillac and most recently Angeline in Atlantic City. He also shares his exuberant, approachable cooking style and infectious laugh with viewers as an Iron Chef on the Food Network and ABC’s The Chew.
Since being named a Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine in 1998, Michael Symon and his restaurants have been awarded numerous honors: In 2010, he was the first chef ever to host the annual Farm Aid benefit concert; Bon Appetit magazine included B Spot on their list of “Top 10 Best New Burger Joints”; and B Spot’s Fat Doug burger won the People’s Choice Award at the SoBe Wine & Food Festival. In 2009, Michael earned The James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef Great Lakes and the Detroit Free Press named Roast “Restaurant of the Year.” In 2000, Gourmet magazine chose Lola as one of “America’s Best Restaurants.”
In 2010, Michael 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. Michael won season 1 of The Next Iron Chef in 2008, earning him a permanent spot on the panel of esteemed Iron Chefs. He made his debut on the network in 1998 with appearances on Sara’s Secrets with Sara Moulton, Ready, Set, Cook and Food Nation with Bobby Flay, before being tapped to host more than 100 episodes of The Melting Pot.
Michael published his first cookbook, Michael Symon’s Live to Cook: Recipes and Techniques to Rock Your Kitchen, in 2009, sharing home cook-friendly recipes that draw on the flavors of his heritage. Michael Symon sat down with Total Food Service to talk about his newest book: Playing With Fire and to share his thoughts on the restaurant industry.
The last time we spoke, you were putting the finishing touches on the Angeline at the Borgata about a year ago. What are your thoughts on the last year?
We’re about a year in, and the year exceeded our expectations, which is always a good thing. We also exceeded the Borgata’s expectations, bringing in about 20 percent over initial projections. So that’s always exciting. We continue to make a couple of menu changes and find the balance between things. We love to cook and always provide things that the people who go to the Borgata love to eat. It’s been a fun process.
You also have a new book out, “Playing With Fire.” Curious where the idea for the book came and what’s the takeaway for readers?
At Mabel’s BBQ and even Angeline’s, we have a lot of live fire cookery on the menu there. You know, we have a big wood burning grill and big wood burning oven. Most of my restaurants have some kind of live fire aspect on their menus. I just feel that it gives us that additional seasoning that you can’t get anywhere else. It always adds an interesting flavor to food. I’ve kind of always been obsessed with barbecue on a personal level. I’d say the book is about a third about barbecue, and then a lot of cooking tips and info on grills, fireplaces, fire pits, etc. for people to really have fun with it. It includes which grills and smokers are the best. There are 75 recipes in the book, but it’s also very much a ‘how to’.
What’s up and what’s next in terms of restaurant projects?
We have a project in Vegas that we’re working on now with the Palms. We don’t really have a date yet, but we’re shooting for this year… we’ll see if that happens or not. It’s going to be a Mabel’s, which is our BBQ place and within it, we’re going to have a little 60-seat fine dining place.
We’re calling it a “Meat Easy” since it’s going to be really small and have a lot of table side stuff like prime rib, Peking duck, grilled lobster and then some table-sized desserts and a raw bar with 12 items on the whole menu. We’re going to be very old school with waiters in suits, doing a lot of tableside preparations like carving the meats and very high-end cocktails. I think it’ll have about 54 seats. It’s very much a “Non Vegas concept” because we were able to house it within a 250-seat BBQ joint and even have a secret entrance. We were able to do two things that we love – have a very casual BBQ joint and then a little fine dining place attached to it. It’ll be called Sarah’s after my partner Doug’s mom who recently passed.
What’s your read on the New York City restaurant marketplace? There’s a lot of cool stuff going on right now.
There seems to be a little bit of a movement with smaller restaurants popping up again, which I love. I think it’s probably a function of a lot of things. You know, the rent in NYC is so massive that it’s easier to take the risk in a smaller footprint, which is creating a lot of these charming little restaurants.
Have you ever had a restaurant in New York City or had any thoughts about it?
We’ve consulted on a number of Manhattan projects. You know, I like the division in my life. I’m here for TV things and that kind of stuff, and then when I’m home in Cleveland, I worry about all the restaurant stuff. It’s a nice division for me. But my son has a little gourmet donut and coffee shop on Long Island. I get to help him out when he needs it. It’s called Grindstone and he serves things like brioche donuts, ice cream and coffee.
What are you seeing on menus right now? We went through a farm-to-table thing, so is that still something that is a focus for the industry?
We’ve always done it that way. We didn’t wake up one day and decide to buy local. We always bought the highest quality local product from the best people that we knew and cooked it. It’s a trend that always existed with responsible chefs and restaurateurs and it will continue to exist. But I think some of the things that we’ll see becoming popular is different styles of cuisine becoming more accepted. Like 10 years ago, you couldn’t go to a lot of markets and get a bowl of pho, you know? But now you could go almost anywhere. So I think people are going to continue to dive into other styles of cuisines, which just makes food a little bit more interesting.
We had a chance to speak to your wife Liz for the Angeline story. Can you talk about her role in building the Symon brand?
You know, I think Doug and I would probably both say that she’s the most important one. She designs all the restaurants and their whole feel and the energy flow. I could be in the kitchen cooking great food, and she takes care of the rest. She’s always been the one to keep the company grounded and I’m blessed she’s been around to give it all that soft touch.
I never get worried about anything with Liz and Doug as my partners and just worry about the food, which as a chef is all you really want.
You’ve built an incredible brand. Did you ever expect you’d become a TV star?
No, never in a million years. I feel fortunate that I’m able to do it. It obviously opened doors for me as a chef, but I never tried to ever pitch a show or anything. I never really tried to be on TV and it just happened.
I know that the reason I ended up on TV was because I’m good at cooking and stuff, so I figured as long as I’m good at cooking stuff, I’ll continue it…we’ll just see what happens.