Q & A With the new Iron Chef

Chef is given an honorary jersey at the Cavs game. Getty Images

Chef Michael Symon is a busy man. He is the newest Iron Chef on Food Network’s Iron Chef America, where he throws together gourmet meals in one hour, all based on a secret ingredient not revealed until the kitchen timer starts. Oh yeah, he also hosts Dinner Impossible, runs two restaurants in Cleveland and just opened another in Detroit. (Less-sophisticated magazine staffers would go for the easy joke and say that the man has a lot on his plate, but not us). In the process of spreading his gospel of “meat-centric” cuisine, the Ohio native has maintained his status as a die-hard Cleveland sports fan. We caught up with Chef Symon en route to Detroit to talk food and sports.

MAG.COM: Between opening up a new restaurant, running your two restaurants, hosting Dinner Impossible and now battling on Iron Chef America, how do you keep up with sports?

SYMON: I’m a sports junkie. I’ve got a sports problem, I think. It’s actually pretty funny, for a month my wife and I were essentially living in a hotel in Detroit while we were opening the new restaurant. We’ve been together for about 17 years, but living in that hotel room I realized for the first time, that we don’t watch any of the same stuff on TV. We’d be going to bed and I’d be like “I’m putting on SportsCenter, give me the clicker!"

Rumor is that you were a big wrestler in high school.

Yeah, I wrestled at a high school called Saint Edwards in Lakewood, Ohio, which, even to this day, 20 years later, is one of the top high school wrestling programs in the country. I think we won like 17 state titles and 14 national titles. My senior year was our tenth straight state title and seventh straight national one.

So how did you transition from the mat to the kitchen?

My junior year I blew out my arm, and I needed a plate and 12 screws. They told me I couldn’t wrestle any more. I’d been wrestling since I was seven years old, so I tried anyway and I ended up breaking the steel plate. I lost my potential scholarships for college, so I started working in a restaurant to pay for school. I just kind of fell in love with the restaurant business and that was that.

Does the wrestler mentality ever cross over to cooking?

Wrestling’s a sport that teaches you a tremendous amount of discipline. I think it’s one of the greatest sports because, at the end of the day, you win and lose as a team, but you’re also on your own. Unlike other sports, you can’t blame the people around you. Things fall directly on your shoulders. It taught me to be responsible for myself, but still work within a team mentality, which is what being a chef and working in a kitchen is all about.

And the competitive aspect applies literally to Iron Chef America, doesn’t it?

Oh yeah, it absolutely does. It really helped me grind through a lot of that stuff on The Next Iron Chef. It’s funny to me—not all, but a lot of the great chefs I know, were high school or college athletes. There’s a very direct correlation, I think, between the kitchen and athletics. There’s just a lot of jocks who ended up being chefs. It’s strange like that.

Which is harder: losing a battle on Iron Chef America or watching the Browns blow a 14 point lead to the Ravens on Sunday?

Definitely the Browns game. It was pathetic. So aggravating to watch. Braylon Edwards is killing me.

Those dropped balls must be tough.

Yeah, I guess he’s just having a bad year. The sad thing is that he’s been into my restaurant, and the guy could not be more of a gentleman or more of a good guy. I always find myself defending him to rabid Browns fans, but I wish he would stop dropping the ball.

Are you excited for the Brady Quinn era?

I mean, at 3-5, I can’t see us winning our last eight games and going 11-5. If we end up 10-6 or 9-7 we’re probably not going to make the playoffs anyhow. So part of me would like to see what we have in Brady Quinn. But the other part of me knows that some of those five losses couldn’t have been further from Derek Anderson’s fault. And now he’s getting laid out because he’s the quarterback. I don’t care if you have Marino back there, when you have like 24 drops as a team, which is an NFL high by eight or so, you’re not going to win consistently. But I guess it’s a part of being an NFL quarterback. You get all the glory, you get all the grief.

What’s your favorite Ohio sports memory?

It would have to be the era with Bernie [Kosar] and the Browns. You know, we never made it to the Super Bowl, but those were great memories for me. Those Browns teams with Kosar and Mack, Minnifield, and Dixon, you could really rally behind those teams.

You mentioned Braylon Edwards stops by your restaurants every once in a while. Do you get a chance to cook for many Ohio athletes?

We get our fair share. A lot of the Browns players, Lebron comes in every once in a while. Zydrunas Ilgauskas is one of our best customers. We get quite a bit of players and management. Mark Shapiro is one of my close friends and great customers. We’ve been very fortunate in that way.

How did you feel about dealing CC Sabathia to the Brewers halfway through the season?

Well, they seemed to play their best ball after dealing CC, which I thought was interesting. I think it came down to there was no way in hell they were going to sign him, and we’ve got caught too many times in the past where we couldn’t resign a guy and got nothing for him. Albert Belle. Manny. We got nothing for Albert Belle or Manny Ramirez. Or Jim Thome. That’s just devastating to an organization. There’s a part of me that understands that it’s a business. Part of me understands that, at the end of the day, the Indians aren’t a big-market team. They don’t have the Yankees’ budget, they don’t have the Dodgers’ budget. They’ve got to bolster their farm system and go from there. I don’t think there’s a GM in the league better than Mark, and that’s not just cause I’m his friend. If you look at the budget he had compared to the budget some of the other teams had, and figured out the winning percentage based on budget, he’s pretty tough to beat.

If you could pick any athlete to be a sous chef for you, who would it be?

You know, this might sound funny, but I’d go with Bernie Kosar. Here’s a guy with limited physical ability, but was still an unbelievable performer. He was a guy who could make stuff up on the fly, shoot from the hip. You could give him a basic structure and he could figure it out from there. Whenever you’ve got someone working with you who’s an overachiever like that, you’re going to be in pretty good shape. Plus he’s smart. I’m not that smart, so I need a smart sous chef behind me.

How about an athlete you’d least like to see sitting across from you at the Iron Chef America judges’ table?

Lawrence Taylor. Greatest linebacker of all time. I don’t want that guy staring me down. I actually had Keyshawn (Johnson) judge me this season. He was a judge on “Battle: Suckling Pig”. What a great guy, he was a treat to have in Kitchen Stadium. It’s kinda funny, he and Boomer Esiason both judged me this year.

Did Boomer show you some Cincinnati-Cleveland love?

No. Check this out, the chef I was going against has a restaurant in San Francisco, but was born and raised in Cincinnati. I’m like “Oh great”, they’re sitting there talking about the ‘Natti, and Boomer keeps spitting the Sam Wyche line “This ain't Cleveland!” It was horrible, but I ended up winning the battle.

Where’s the best food you’ve had at a sporting event?

I’ve been to two Eagles games, and I’ve had some pretty good cheesesteaks there. I would say that’s the best food I’ve had at a game.

Did you do it with Cheez Whiz or provolone?

Never, never the Whiz. Provolone with onions. I like to keep it simple. In a stadium, a Philly cheesesteak is tough to beat. Either that or a good hot dog or brat. I’ve been to some of these new stadiums and people are walking around with sushi. I mean, I love sushi, but I don’t want to get it at a ballgame.

What’s your ultimate tailgate?

Oh man, I’d set up a spit, do a big suckling pig. Maybe some homemade brats, a big pot of chili. Just keep it really simple with wholesome comfort foods. Pork everywhere.

And a Browns win, right?

Absolutely. Please let us do it, I can’t take it anymore. I want to go on record and say Browns over the Broncos by 10. That’s your Symon Says Lock of the Week.

Careful now, if you hit your pick we might need to make this a weekly thing.

Sounds like a plan. We’ll call it Kitchen Picks or something like that.