Chef Michael Symon is the kind of guy you can chat with on the street. A smile on his face, a spring in his step, he is a regular on television and at food and wine festivals across the country, always jovial, always within reach. He’s been on my radar for a while – a top figure in the Midwest restaurant scene, a chef of celebrity proportions who has reached the stars but stayed close to his roots.
Eschewing the move to LA or New York, Symon has kept most of his restaurants near his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio – Lola, Lolita, and Bar Symon in Cleveland, Roast in Detroit, and B Spot Burgers across the Ohio-Michigan-Indiana route – with the exception of Symon’s Burger Joint, which opened in Austin, Texas last fall. While his latest, Mabel’s BBQ, is set for launch in Cleveland later this year, The Chew chef balances his home life and public life with ease, all the while keeping his ever-inquisitive fans happy.
Q: I’m always interested in chatting with the chefs who are hands-on restaurateurs as well as of the “celebrity” television variety. How do you balance both worlds?
A: It goes without saying, but for me it’s about surrounding yourself with talented people. Ultimately, my goal is for people to cook at as high a level as possible, meaning fresh ingredients, but also keeping in mind their limited time and that it’s easy to make for their family.
Q: You’re always interacting with your fans on social media as well. Do you make time in your schedule or is it more just on the fly? Do you find that it really brings value to your brand?
A: I do it on the fly. I check in when I’m in a car, on the subway, on a plane, traveling. I might post on Twitter right when I wake up or while winding down before bed. I do feel that the value is there, yes. You should be available as much as possible to interact with your followers, especially if it’s to help them with a recipe or provide a quick fix for a dish they’re cooking for dinner.
Q: You’ve kept your restaurants exclusively within the Midwest. Why is that? What do you think makes your spots so successful?
A: Our goal was always to have restaurants we could get to in a car; close enough where we could go and check in often. That will not always be the case – we now have Symon’s Burger Joint in Austin, Texas – but that was part of it. Also, Liz, Doug and I were all raised in the Midwest, so we understand the local customer.
Q: Speaking of spots, how is the rebuild of Lolita going?
Q: Talk to me about the upcoming opening of Mabel’s BBQ? Was there a need for better BBQ in Cleveland?
A: The opening is soon! There are BBQ restaurants in Cleveland, but they do stuff from other parts of the country. There aren’t any that truly exemplify the flavors and techniques of the region itself, and that’s what we hope to do with Mabel’s.
Q: And you’re headed off shortly to the South Beach Wine and Food Festival at the end of February, taking the reins of the Meatopia event with last year’s passing of event founder Josh Ozersky. How are you feeling about it?
A: Excited; I also hosted Meatopia at the NYCWFF in October. Josh was first off a friend; I have a tremendous amount of respect for him, not just as a writer but as an eater of food and a lover of food. My hope is to continue Meatopia in his honor and carry on his absolute love of food and celebration of friends.
*Photo credit: Michael Symon