Chef Michael Symon is a busy man. He is the newest Iron Chef on Food Networks 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: Im a sports junkie. Ive got a sports problem, I think. Its 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. Weve been together for about 17 years, but living in that hotel room I realized for the first time, that we dont watch any of the same stuff on TV. Wed be going to bed and Id be like Im 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 couldnt wrestle any more. Id 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?
Wrestlings a sport that teaches you a tremendous amount of discipline. I think its one of the greatest sports because, at the end of the day, you win and lose as a team, but youre also on your own. Unlike other sports, you cant 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, doesnt it?
Oh yeah, it absolutely does. It really helped me grind through a lot of that stuff on The Next Iron Chef. Its funny to me—not all, but a lot of the great chefs I know, were high school or college athletes. Theres a very direct correlation, I think, between the kitchen and athletics. Theres just a lot of jocks who ended up being chefs. Its 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 hes just having a bad year. The sad thing is that hes 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 cant see us winning our last eight games and going 11-5. If we end up 10-6 or 9-7 were 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 couldnt have been further from Derek Andersons fault. And now hes getting laid out because hes the quarterback. I dont 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, youre not going to win consistently. But I guess its a part of being an NFL quarterback. You get all the glory, you get all the grief.
Whats 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. Weve 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 weve got caught too many times in the past where we couldnt resign a guy and got nothing for him. Albert Belle. Manny. We got nothing for Albert Belle or Manny Ramirez. Or Jim Thome. Thats just devastating to an organization. Theres a part of me that understands that its a business. Part of me understands that, at the end of the day, the Indians arent a big-market team. They dont have the Yankees budget, they dont have the Dodgers budget. Theyve got to bolster their farm system and go from there. I dont think theres a GM in the league better than Mark, and thats not just cause Im 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, hes 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 Id go with Bernie Kosar. Heres 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 youve got someone working with you whos an overachiever like that, youre going to be in pretty good shape. Plus hes smart. Im not that smart, so I need a smart sous chef behind me.
How about an athlete youd least like to see sitting across from you at the Iron Chef America judges table?
Lawrence Taylor. Greatest linebacker of all time. I dont 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. Its 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. Im like Oh great, theyre 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.
Wheres the best food youve had at a sporting event?
Ive been to two Eagles games, and Ive had some pretty good cheesesteaks there. I would say thats the best food Ive 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. Ive been to some of these new stadiums and people are walking around with sushi. I mean, I love sushi, but I dont want to get it at a ballgame.
Whats your ultimate tailgate?
Oh man, Id 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 cant take it anymore. I want to go on record and say Browns over the Broncos by 10. Thats 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. Well call it Kitchen Picks or something like that.