Photo by Chris Casella

Farm to Cable

I’m waiting for it. I am only half-listening as we talk about cuts of beef and memories of backyard grilling shenanigans and fresh vegetables because I am waiting for it.

Finally, it comes. Erupting through the phone with shameless bravado – Michael Symon’s laugh. Like a sonic signature, it’s what everyone first notices about the celebrity chef. It snaps, crackles, and pops off TV screens worldwide on The Chew and various Food Network productions, and echoes in each outlet of the Cleveland-born chef’s growing restaurant group.

The laugh comes when Symon recalls the moment he first fell in love with bourbon. “Ever since I snuck it out of my father’s liquor cabinet, I’ve been a fan.”

“My wife’s favorite joke is that people either love my laugh or hate my laugh,” he…laughed. “I was in trouble in school constantly, from the second I walked into the classroom to the moment I left. It wasn’t that I was worse than the other kids, it wasn’t just my laugh, it was my booming voice – I thought I was whispering and three classrooms over, they heard me.”

Big laughter, booming voice, boisterous flavors – this triad of factors have woven together to make Symon one of the most popular chefs working both the line and the camera today. From learning recipes around the family kitchen, to opening Lola in 1997, to becoming an Iron Chef, and a host on The Chew, Symon has reached the top shelf of fame’s spice rack by being himself and being true to his culinary point of view. “I flunked out of college. I wanted to go to culinary school but my dad said I had to try college, but I flunked out. I went to culinary school to learn a trade, you know. And I really still think of myself as a tradesman, but the world has changed a lot and TV has changed things a lot,” he said. 

“As for the other part of it, I never really think about [the fame] because I still think of myself as a tradesman and as a teacher, and whether I’m at home with family and friends, whether I’m in my restaurant or on television, that’s what I do. I wanna teach people how to cook, I wanna teach ’em the techniques how to cook, I wanna teach them how to shop, teach ’em how to do the right thing when it comes to food, and that doesn’t change. My 20 best friends and closest people in my life are the same from before, and when you’re around those kind of people on a daily basis, I’m just Symon, that’s what I am.”

Right now, Symon is pumped about having a B-Spot restaurant here in Columbus. “My wife likes to say, you’ve finally opened up a restaurant with all your favorite food groups – brat, burgers, bourbon, and beer. Nothing is as satisfying as a bratwurst. Well, it’s got everything – it’s got fat, it’s juicy,” he rhapsodized. “My two favorite words in the English dictionary are ‘encased meats. I’ve never come across a sausage – I gotta watch how I say that – that I don’t really love but from kielbasa to bratwurst to Slovenian sausage to all those great European sausages that are so predominate in the Midwest, I love ’em all.”

Repping the Midwest comes naturally to Symon. Being born and bred here, falling in love with food here, and having his first big success launched out of Cleveland has created in Symon the loudest Midwestern cheerleader ever. “When we opened Lola, almost 18 years ago, we were fortunate enough to get a lot of national attention, which had never really happened to an Ohio restaurant. When the national writers would ask What kind of cuisine are you doing?  and we would say Midwestern, they would look at me like I’d developed a severe crack addiction,” he laughed. “Now you see it throughout the country. I mean, you go to a restaurant like Gramercy Tavern, which is one of the most famous restaurants in the United States, and they have house-made smoked kielbasa with spaetzle, house-made mustard and cabbage on the menu…you realize how much food throughout the Midwest has influenced how we eat and how we cook, how we look at food. We definitely had some battles when we first opened trying to make people understand the pierogi on a national level or walleye…they couldn’t figure it out. But I definitely feel responsibility to it. It’s my home, it’s the heartland, and I think that it’s the style of food that no matter who you are or where you’re from, it makes you comfortable.”

From day one, Symon has been obsessed with sourcing his meat and vegetables correctly, sustainably, and as naturally as possible. For him, it goes back to how he ate as a child.

“I’ve never said ‘farm-to-table’ because I just think that that’s how you’re supposed to be doing it. Now it’s become kind of a trendy catchphrase, but fortunately, being raised in Cleveland and being surrounded by farmland, it was never really hard to make those connections with local farmers and get that product,” he explained. “And people say, why is your food so meat-centric and well, you know, Cleveland’s really not the fishing capital of the world, other than walleye and perch and maybe some whitefish. There’s not a ton of great seafood coming out of the Midwest, but to find fantastic beef and pork and lamb and goat and all those animals is very, very easy to find. And to find a slew of beautiful, beautiful seasonal vegetables is very easy.”

For new dishes, and for the burgers now featured on the B-Spot menu, Symon turns to his top tastetester, his grandfather.

“When we were testing burgers, my grandfather, who is 97 years old, would say, ‘That’s how beef tasted when I was a kid,’” he said. “And I’m like, ‘Done, we’re done, now we’ve got it.That was a time when it truly was farm-to-table on a daily basis, not like, ‘Oh look, I’m farm-to-table, look how good I am.’ It was how people lived because it was the right way to live. When my grandfather says it tastes like his childhood, I know we nailed it.”

And with that, Symon’s laughter booms again. It’s like the Concorde landing in my ear, but, like that fabled avant garde plane, it’s unforgettable in its singularity. Just like Symon himself and his passion for good, Midwestern fare.

Check out Michael Symon’s Burger Gospel!