Chef Profile: Michael Symon

He’s a regular guy who happens to be a TV chef. And he’s good with that

Anyone can play the fame game—if you can get to “start.” 

For Michael Symon, it began after Food & Wine magazine zeroed in on his hometown, Cleveland, recognizing that talent could be found outside major cities. In 1998, a year after opening his first restaurant, Lola, the magazine named the then 28-year-old one of the 10 Best New Chefs in the country.

Each time Symon rolled the dice, he advanced: restaurants, regular gigs on the Food Network, cookbooks, product endorsements and the ABC daytime TV food and lifestyle show “The Chew.” 

“I’m a happy guy right now. I’ll do TV as long as they’ll have me. I’ll try to grow the restaurant brand and try not to do anything stupid.”

— Chef Michael Symon

He credits “being at the right place at the right time,” but that’s what you’d expect from a modest, regular guy with a genuine, ear-to-ear grin and infectious laugh. He thinks it’s his beloved dogs Ruby, the bullmastiff, and Ozzy, the Olde English bulldogge, that turn heads in his Gramercy Park, New York City neighborhood—not the “Iron Chef: America” dude. 

“I’m still a Cleveland kid at heart, so (the fans and attention) still amaze me,” Symon says. “All the mail that comes to the (ABC) studio—I look at everything and do my best to answer all the mail. If you’re not flattered and don’t appreciate the attention, something’s wrong with you.”

But down-to-earth doesn’t mean drab. Symon’s path veers  toward the untested, not the tried and true. “The Chew” launched in 2011 as the network’s first daytime cooking show, but with not-so-great ratings.

“It’s always fun to be a part of something that hasn’t been done before,” he says, pleased that the show’s audience has grown to a respectable 2.5 million daily viewers.

With Lola, Symon chose Cleveland’s dicey Tremont neighborhood. People thought he was crazy, but grew quiet after limos became a regular sight at the restaurant and crowds never ceased. He’s also the first celebrity chef from Cleveland to play with the Bigs in New York (his Greek concept, Parea, closed after a year, but it’s not in Symon’s DNA to dwell on it).

And Symon seems as comfortable on TV as he is in the kitchen. He ratchets his persona up a notch on air, but with an ease and chemistry among his four co-hosts that didn’t exist in the early days of the show. 

“A year of ‘Chew’ is 226 episodes, and after a while, it becomes second nature,” he says. “You don’t even notice the cameras. I knew Mario (Batali, fellow mega-star restaurateur) pretty well and felt comfortable making fun of him, but I wasn’t sure about the other three. Everyone knows each other now.”

That familiarity, trust and a proven track record—along with knowing his limitations—fuels Symon’s restaurant empire. Liz Symon, the chef’s spouse and business partner, designed the restaurants and the award-winning beverage programs, so she has final say in those areas. Doug Petkovic, also a partner, manages operations, which means he has the last word there. Along with their core team in the Cleveland corporate office, they have all worked together for the last two decades. 

“You’re only as good as the people around you,” says Symon. “If they aren’t strong in their areas of expertise, it’s never going to work. We never open the second place until we have the best people to run it.”

The focus now is on growing  Symon’s B-Spot Burgers restaurants, the synthesis of his meat-centric, comfort-food style (think burgers, bratwurst and beer).

“I don’t know in 10 years from now where I will be, but if I am here, I’d be ecstatic,” Symon says. “I’m a happy guy right now. I’ll do TV as long as they’ll have me. I’ll try to grow the restaurant brand and try not to do anything stupid.”

STUFF YOU OUGHT TO KNOW ABOUT ME

Culinary Institute of America graduate; won a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes; author of three cookbooks and e-books; Detroit restaurant, Roast, named Restaurant of the Year by the Detroit Free Press; opened Bar Symon in the Pittsburgh International Airport last year. Among his many tattoos, he has “Got Pork” paired with two pink pigs on his chest. Lola is named after his aunt.

The World According to Symon 

Favorite road trip food: Salt and  vinegar chips and Tate’s chocolate chip cookies

Condiment you’d kill for: Cleveland’s Bertman Ballpark Mustard 

A burger is not complete without: Cheese (cheddar, if I have to choose)

Cookbook you’re reading right now: “The Zuni Café Cookbook” by Judy Rodgers

You’d throw a shoe at the TV when this is on: Sandra Lee’s “Semi-Homemade Cooking”

Your culinary sense would be questioned if people knew you loved: Lay’s potato chips with French onion dip

What would you rather do—clean the grease trap or fire an employee? Clean the grease trap

Would you ever eat supermarket sushi? No. It scares the hell out of me

Worst kitchen crime you’ve committed: Gave a cook cornstarch instead of powdered sugar for cotton candy

Which actor would play you in your biopic? Robert De Niro

Dumbest thing a cook has ever done: Using food coloring to get to the shade of saffron instead of the real deal for saffron risotto. Chef then mocked me for being a purist

Best hangover cure: Bloody Mary or a runny egg on a soft roll with cheese, bacon and mayo