He’s a James Beard Foundation Award Winning Iron Chef on Food Network, and relatable host on Cooking Channel’s Symon’s Suppers. He’s the Cleveland-born co-host on ABC’s The Chew, with that sincere smile and contagious laugh. He’s the owner of acclaimed restaurants (Lola, Lolita, B Spot, Roast), author of multiple cookbooks and has a personality that’s earned him tons of TV credit. Looks like culinary rockstar Chef Michael Symon is on a roll.
The best part? Symon is as outgoing and down-to-earth in person as you hope he’d be when
watching him in action. At his recent Stew Leonard’s book signing appearance he buoyantly greeted each of the 250+ excited guests with a hug and friendly conversation while autographing his new cookbook, 5 in 5. Full of time-saving tips, flavor parings and pantry ideas, the soft cover cooking companion features 120 recipes using five fresh ingredients in only five minutes.
Although speediness is the theme of the pages, he was in no rush when it came to his fans. I even saw him walk over to an eager CIA graduate, offering advice when asking how to break into this challenging business. Symon is clearly one of those celebs who appreciates where he came from, and respects the dedicated viewers who helped him get there.
After digging into Stew Leonard’s recreations of Symon’s mouthwatering recipes (Chicken Diablo, angel hair pasta with corn, feta & tomato and salmon with rosemary and garlic), I had the opportunity to ask him some of my burning questions.
Below, Chef Michael Symon dishes to That’s SO Jenn about 5 in 5, The two biggest mistakes home cooks make, and how he really feels about bacon flavored toothpaste.
TSJ: Often when we’re young we imagine what we’d like to be when we grow up. Did you always envision yourself in the culinary field, especially on TV?
MS: I always thought I’d be a professional athlete; a football player, a coach, participating with something in the sporting world. Once I started cooking I really fell in love with it. When I started cooking there was no Food Network, so I never had aspirations to do that.
TSJ: How did the TV recognition come into play?
MS: In 1998, I had my first show on Food Network, The Melting Pot. I got that show because Food and Wine Magazine had made me one of their top 10 chefs in the country. I had been a guest on Sara Moulton’s show all the time so they asked me to co- host my own show.
I did that for almost three years and I stepped away. At that time, Food Network wasn’t nearly what it is today, and it wasn’t for me. It put a tremendous stress on my restaurant and I wanted to focus on that. However, I’d still do specials once in a while and I made great friendships with Mario [Batali] and Bobby [Flay].
TSJ: What made you decide to get back in the spotlight for the Next Iron Chef competition?
MS: When they decided to add an Iron Chef, they asked me to compete. The 1st year I competed against Morimoto, and there were already whispers that they were going to be adding someone new. In the back of my head, I knew it may be a possibility for me.
For Next Iron Chef, the first group was all people who were pretty well-known in the culinary world, at least amongst other chefs. It was a serious group, people with James Beard and Food and Wine Awards.
TSJ: Your new cookbook 5 in 5 is also a segment on The Chew. Would you say cooking for speed on Iron Chef has helped you with this concept?
MS: I think what’s helped me most is my lifestyle. Our son Kyle is now 26, but when he was younger, my wife Liz and I wanted to make sure we had dinner with him every night. We were both in the mist of working 18 hour days, and therefore throwing together dinner to sit down quickly. I wasn’t braising a lamb shank, I would grab whatever I could to put together a meal. That was the 5 in 5.
TSJ: In keeping with that theme, what are your top five pantry items you keep on hand?
- Quality canned tomatoes. I prefer San Marzano
- The best extra virgin olive oil you can afford
- Fresh whole heads of garlic
- Good kosher salt
- Chili flakes. I like a little spice
TSJ: What would you say is the main goal of your new cookbook?
MS: To get people to sit around the dining room table. I want to show you can cook from scratch every night with pretty much zero processed foods, in a very short amount of time, for not a lot of money. The first four years Liz and I owned Lola, we paid ourselves $18,000 a year each. We weren’t exactly rolling in money, but we still made sure Kyle got home cooked meals every night.
TSJ: Do any of the 120 recipes in the book go hand in hand with your segments on The Chew?
MS: A lot of the ones I’m doing this season are from the book, but it’s about 95% new recipes not seen on the show yet.
TSJ: Do you have a favorite of the recipes?
MS: The one I eat the most is the orecchiette with white anchovies, although it’s probably the least popular!
TSJ: Do you think you encourage viewers to think outside the box by using ingredients like anchovies?
MS: I would hope I’ve built up a trust with my viewers, and that they would realize I’m going to make something that’s going to be delicious. Anchovies aren’t a big expense, and are a great way to add depth of flavor for not a ton of money.
TSJ: What’s a typical dinner like for you these days? Are you always cooking or do you take a break to go out or order in?
MS: We do it all. Kyle’s grown up and out of the house so we mix it up. We’ll go out or order in, but Liz is a great cook too so we cook together a lot. Sometimes she’ll see something on The Chew and she’ll make it. Not my recipes unfortunately. She figures if I can make it on the show, I can make it at home!
TSJ: It’s great that you two are in the kitchen together. Any cook-offs at home?
MS: We’re both very competitive, but we don’t compete in the kitchen. We like to cook together and enjoy the time.
TSJ: You have many different culinary personas; A bit more serious and focused role on Iron Chef, business savvy and customer conscious with your restaurants, then accessible and playful on The Chew. Where do you feel you’re most in your element?
MS: They’re all pieces of who I am, but at the end of the day, I’m most comfortable in the kitchen at my restaurant. Lizzie and I opened our first restaurant 17 years ago. That’s always home for me.
The biggest difference between Iron Chef and The Chew is Iron Chef is very high wire and majority of people wouldn’t attempt to cook that food at home. It’s more about us strutting ourselves as chefs. On The Chew, all I care about is trying to do food that people want to make at home.
TSJ: Which do you find more challenging, simplifying recipes for home cooks on The Chew and in your cookbook, or elevating them for the judges approval on Iron Chef?
MS: Both are a challenge, although I really enjoy teaching people how to cook at home. It’s more fulfilling. I love cooking for the judges and competing, and I love winning, but it’s much more important as a chef to be able to teach at home.
TSJ: You have such a passion for educating others in the kitchen. What would you say are two of the biggest mistakes the average home cook makes?
MS: The two biggest mistakes home cooks make are under seasoning their dishes, and not letting their food sear for a long enough time. Either the heat is too low or they take it off too soon because they are afraid to get that deep caramelization, which gives it so much flavor.
TSJ: You’re currently balancing so many aspects of your career. Are you still tempted to do more and keep adding things to your plate?
MS: I’m always tempted to add things to my plate. I like to stay busy. I’ve never really been a person that’s satisfied so I’m always working on different restaurant ideas, thinking of things we can do with our brand inside and outside the restaurant, and coming up with different TV shows. I’m one of those people who likes to stay really busy. I’m worrying about what I’m going to do next as opposed to what I should be doing today. Liz, my other business partner Doug and my friends keep me in check and on task, but I’m always looking to do different things.
TSJ: What’s on your agenda now?
MS: Getting ready to open a new B spot in Detroit which is exciting, and I’m working on my own brand of bacon. Something from heritage breed pork, made well without all the preservatives–prepared in a much more natural way. I’m very excited about that, and I’m kicking around some different TV show ideas.
TSJ: Alright, time for my million dollar question for the expert. Is bacon a craze or is it here to stay?
MS: I think it’s both. It’s always been, and always will be loved. It’s in a weird place right now. People are trying to put it in everything. It is true there are some things bacon should not be in. Like a candle. If I want my house to smell like bacon, I’ll put two strips in a pan. Also, no bacon floss, no bacon toothpaste or toothpicks. I don’t like bacon infused into bourbon. I like bourbon, I like bacon, but I don’t like bacon in my bourbon.
TSJ: That should be a T-shirt! Okay, we’re a purist on the bacon front. I’ll stay tuned for your upcoming line and know it’s for eating only!
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