Traveling to over 500 cities for A Fork on the Road, my show and book, I've visited some pretty famous kitchens, cooking along side America's most dynamic chefs. Most of the time, it's a great gig. Most, but not all.
What you don't see on TV or hear on the podcast, is the darker side of the Culinary Revolution. The egos, the screaming, the pretentious posturing that happens when chefs start to believe their own PR. That's what you don't see, unless you're watching Hell's Kitchen -- because you think 'reality TV' is really "real." It's not.
But Cleveland's Michael Symon is the real deal -- even though now, he's a big TV star on ABC's "The Chew":
In person, the favorite son of the meat & potatoes city he calls home -- which called HIM home in the late 1980s -- is just... a guy. His intuitive sense of palate seems to spring not from years inside the stainless walls of a culinary institute, but directly from cooking for friends in the neighborhood. Unlike many of the Food Network's bottle-bleached invented 'chef personalities', Symon is as authentic as the local beer he prefers after a long day in the kitchen. An unapologetic bourbon drinker, he lives life with a pre-PC gusto that is both refreshing and entertaining. When he says, "I have the same friends I've had since I was 5," you believe him. He and his sommelier/restaurant designer wife Liz met on their first restaurant jobs 25 years ago, and still live within bicycle distance of Symon's Greek mother in a Rust Belt city they've transformed into world-renowned foodie mecca:
A gifted 'man's man' duking it out in a prima donna's world, Symon built his gastro-empire on meat. After making his bones with local specialties like Kilbasa and Bratwurst, Symon wanted to get a little more adventurous, but found that Clevelanders were not up for anything exotic. So Symon got creative, coaxing his midwestern clientele toward more adventurous fare with his Iron Chef classic Beef Cheek Perogi. But the strangely-named dish was anything but an instant hit with his local fans:
Michael understands the Midwestern psyche. He understands why people like what they like. We all think its always and only about the look and the taste of each menu item, but Symon understands its more than that. For classic recipes, the ones that we think about on planes, in staff meetings and during rotten lunches, there's more to it than what we're tasting. Often, its more about what we think we're tasting.
If our time together at Cleveland's Fabulous Food Show is any indication, Michael Symon is a guy I'd play hooky with any day of the year. Cleveland Rocks!
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