Cleveland has had a tough run. From time to time its river would catch on fire, and more recently, favored son Lebron James publicly dissed it by televising his “decision” to leave for Miami. But what Cleveland does have going for it is hope that this will be the Indians’ year (one can always hope) and one of the culinary world’s sharpest knives, Michael Symon.
Before he was an Iron Chef and host of the Food Network’s Food Feuds, Symon found fame in his hometown—although it almost wasn’t meant to be. After graduating from culinary school in New York, Symon had his eyes set on relocating to California, but thankfully for Cleveland, his mother intervened. “I have a Greek-Sicilian mother, so if you live more than five minutes away from her, that’s out of town,” Symon says. He returned home and met his wife, Liz Shanahan, at his first job. In 1997 they opened Lola, thus firmly planting roots in Cleveland. “I love it because it’s an honest town—there’s no bullshit here. They look you in the eye when they talk to you and they love and appreciate good food.”
While competing under the bright lights of Kitchen Stadium on Iron Chef America, it’s easy to get caught up and forget the primary goal: to make great-tasting food. “A mistake that some chefs coming in make is that they try and shock the world. Sometimes they forget that the most important thing about food is that it should taste great. You can have all the shock and awe, but if it doesn’t taste great you’re going home.” Despite the program’s reputation for exotic secret ingredients like wild boar and ostrich, it’s the simpler ingredients that give Symon the most trouble. “It’s much easier to make the protein the star of the dish. When the ingredient is basil, you can only do so much shit with basil. If you put too much in the dish it’s going to overpower everything and nothing is going to taste good,” Symon warns.
On a recent trip to Voodoo Monkey Tattoo to get some work done, Symon saw artist Natalie Roelle doodling cherub pigs. Immediately he knew he needed to get them, so he put off the other tattoo he had planned and got pigs holding a banner that says “Got Pork.” The chef definitely sees a connection between cooking and tattoos. “In tattooing there is a thought process kind of like the [one that goes into the] food you make,” he says. “It becomes a part of you—it’s a personal expression.”
Entrées at Symon’s restaurants (the success of Lola allowed him to open other ventures, including Lolita, Roast, and B Spot) run the gamut from foie gras to fried bologna in order to offer something for the most intrepid foodie as well as those with less adventurous palates. So would he ever pull a Lebron and take his talents to South Beach? He laughs and says no. “It’s too humid and people wear their clothes entirely too tight.”