1. He got his start in the restaurant business at the age of thirteen.
When Boulud opened his first restaurant, Daniel, it took almost no time at all for people in the know to sit up and take notice. In the immediate aftermath of Daniel’s inauguration, The New York Times gave the restaurant a glowing four-star review, Bon Appétit named Boulud Chef of the Year and The International Herald Tribune declared that this brand-new French restaurant in the Upper East Side was among the ten best restaurants—not in New York, not in America, but the entire planet.
2. He was already a huge success before he was a restaurateur.
Most people who succeed in a culinary career begin their formal gastronomic education after having gained experience working in a restaurant environment, and as such, Michael Symon found himself, still on the tail end of his teenage years, in classes with prospective chefs who were a decade or more older. This was, in his opinion, a huge advantage for him, because he was able to learn much from students whose experiences and paths were different from his own, making him a more mature individual who better understood the camaraderie of a kitchen environment, and how to harness the urge to experiment using advanced skills. As he explained it, “I learned that good food all on its own is a good school.”
3. The big names in television celebrity chefdom are good friends with one another.
One inherent danger of gathering a lot of talent together is the potential for some cataclysmic clash of big egos, and fewer professions are so known for excess of arrogance than the master chef. That is far from the case at the Food Network, according to Chef Symon. Rather than establishing a pecking order, there is something of a fellowship among the network's pantheon. You'll find tons of collaborations and other sorts of extracurricular activities this group has engaged in, such as fundraising and the organization of events and food festivals all over the country. There is a minimum of friction, says Symon, and they are a very relaxed and comfortable group.
4. He loves to plan his menus on the spot.
There is no single strategy guaranteed to deliver victory to the chefs who are contesting for the coveted title of Iron Chef. There are chefs, such as the venerable Kimio Nonaga, who come into battle only after making the most meticulous of preparations, with every ingredient accounted for to the final grain and drop, and each stage of the preparation process detailed down to the minute. And then, you have chefs like the freewheeling Michael Symon, who have total faith in his, and his teammates', intuition and ability to improvise with little notice. Armed only with these talents and a series of basic dishes for major food categories, Team Symon brings its creations to life with a little stream of consciousness, a good portion of imagination, and a lot of hard work. While that approach hasn't guaranteed victory every time, it has certainly served him well.
5. Miracle Whip is the one mass-produced ingredient he won't replace.
Any chef who deserves such a title understands that the ingredients you use make all the difference, and Michael Symon has made a career for himself by adhering to a time-tested tradition: make the dishes people love in a new way, a better way, which often involves making your own versions of common ingredients. The one item he refuses to replicate is America's favorite not quite mayonnaise. That's right; he probably could, if he wanted. “I love Miracle Whip. You can't make it. I can make mayonnaise—give me an egg, give me lemon, give me oil, and I can make mayonnaise. Can't make Miracle Whip. You're allowed one guilty pleasure and that's mine. I like it. I don't care! Oh, my wife hates it, but I love Miracle Whip so much! It's tangy—it's got a nice mustardy tang to it.”
6. He has a big place in his heart for restaurants in New York City.
One can imagine that a successful restaurateur, master chef and media personality must find it difficult to shut off the professional part of the mind and enjoy a meal. Even though Chef Symon has made a name for himself by revolutionizing and revitalizing the Cleveland culinary scene, he has a love for the local cuisines in other places, and none more than the Big Apple. Among his preferred New York stops are the Mesa Grill (now closed), Dirty Bird and Barbuto. (His favorite restaurant of all, though, is Vetri, in Philadelphia.)
It does not seem to have deterred him that, at least at first, New York didn't exactly love him back quite in the same way. One of his early restaurants in New York was Parea, an eatery just off of Park Avenue that specialized in higher end Greek delicacies. The response was mixed, with praise coming from Food & Wine magazine and tepid and somewhat condescending dismissal from The Epoch Times. One imagines that the response these days tends to be a little bit warmer.
7. But, he basically reinvented Cleveland's reputation as a serious food city.
Big cities in the Rust Belt have their issues these days, as old-style manufacturing jobs started vanishing overseas a few decades ago. When the major employers of cities like Cleveland left, so did a great many people, and by 1990 or so, the Cleveland foodie scene was rather desolate. In 2015, the jobs never returned and the Browns are as bad as ever, but not everything lost was gone forever. Today, the city is known for its flourishing scene of small and unique restaurateurs who have done much to revitalize the struggling downtown area and create a new tapestry of local flavor, and much of this is owed to Michael Symon's risk-taking.
Realizing that the availability of local produce was an asset waiting to be tapped, he brought his New York-bred talents back home and opened the first of his seven restaurants in the neighborhood of Tremont in 1995, showing the beleaguered city that it could be done. In the time since, a whole thriving scene has blossomed, in large part because of Symon's faith in his hometown. To this day, even though Chef Symon spends a fair lot of his time in New York for his work-related endeavors, he and his family still prefer the familiar, and spend more than 90% of their time in Cleveland.
8. He’s an outspoken advocate for autism awareness.
Autism awareness is a subject that is very close to Michael Symon's heart, as he is friends and family both to children diagnosed somewhere on the spectrum. He admits that, prior to knowing how close to home it was for him, autism was not a subject about which he had a lot of education, but eyes opened, this TV chef decided that the best way he could help was to put his celebrity and his cooking talents to work. Representing Autism Speaks (www.autismspeaks.org), he signed on as a contestant for Chopped All Stars in a charity effort, competing with 15 other world-class culinary artists, with the winner receiving $50,000 for their preferred charity. He was, unfortunately, not the final winner of this competition. So, instead, he teamed up with more than 90 chefs from across America to serve up culinary goodness at the Autism Speaks Celebrity Chef Gala. This event raised $1.6 million for autism advocacy and research, so it worked out beautifully in the end.
9. Roasted Chicken is his go-to meal when he just wants something quick and tasty.
Everybody knows that when you think of a versatile meat, the first one that comes to mind for most people is the humble and common chicken, and when the question “what's for dinner” in the Symon household receives the answer “I'm not sure,” he loves to roast up a chicken (which is usually served with vegetable crudo or zucchini. He has a favorite local supplier of poultry in Cleveland, and with olive oil, salt, lemon and bay leaf, applies his master touch to this simple dinner that millions enjoy each day. It just goes to show that being in a family with a master chef means that even the “whatever” kinds of dinner nights are the sort of meals most of us would brag about making for months.
10. He once teamed up with other celebrity chefs to turn food waste into upscale cuisine.
Food waste is an enormous problem, with almost a full third of America's vast food supply ending up in trash cans, garbage disposals, and in trash dumpsters behind supermarkets. It is, sadly, a systemic epidemic. Much food waste is discarded by food stores and restaurants, and much of this food waste tends to be food that is cosmetically damaged in some way, rather than being inedible. Becoming aware of the vast scale of this problem prompted Chef Symon to team up with chefs Bobby Flay, Anne Burrell and Alex Guarnaschelli to raise awareness on a Food Network program called The Big Waste.
Divided into two teams, the chefs were given 48 hours and a challenge: create one of the wonderful, full-course spreads that they are so well-known for, enough to serve one hundred hungry folks, but with a catch: they could only use ingredients that have been thrown away. The challenge required the contestants to locate and procure their own ingredients from grocery stores, bakeries, farms and wherever else they could think of. It was an eye-opening look into the problem of food waste, and why it is an institutionalized problem in this country.