Michael Symon will be the headlining chef for the second annual Orlando Wine Festival & Auction March 13 through 15 at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes. Symon is a Cleveland chef and restaurateur who became a celebrity in the early days of the Food Network with his show The Melting Pot. He won the first season of The Next Iron Chef and was co-host for the ABC daytime talk-and-cooking show The Chew.
At the wine event, which is sponsored by the Orlando Magic, Symon and the crew from his Cleveland restaurant Lola will cook the Saturday evening dinner for about 450 festival attendees. Follow this link for more information about the Orlando Wine Festival & Auction.
During a recent phone conversation, I asked Symon about his journey from cook to television star, his challenges as a restaurateur, whether he would consider opening a restaurant in Orlando, and what he really thinks about Miracle Whip.
The conversation has been edited for content and clarity.
How did your invitation to the Orlando Wine Festival & Auction come about?
“[Someone I knew from the Cleveland Browns said] ‘I know you get to Orlando quite a bit because of your affiliation with ABC and Disney. Would you talk to some of my friends over at the Magic and do this event with them?’ That was actually a couple of years ago and my calendar was just crazy. So we booked it two years out and here we are.”
What will you be doing that weekend?
“We’re doing a big dinner. What we’re going to do, we’re doing a multi course dinner, we always love doing that. We’re coming down with our whole team from Lola and a lot of my chefs and corporate chefs and we’re going to cook up a storm.”
Are you familiar with Orlando’s restaurant scene?
“Relatively. We were there when I was a co-host on the Chew. You’re there for ten days, you play a little golf and then go out to eat. Morimoto’s restaurant there, I think, is really, really spectacular. One of my favorites. He has a lot of restaurants around the country but think that is probably my favorite restaurants of his [that] I’ve ever been to. It went so far beyond what I think a lot of people think of when they think of Japanese food and sushi. It was a lot more than just that.”
You started as a chef. How did you make that transition from being a chef and restaurant owner to being a television personality? Was it something you sought?
“No, I didn’t seek it at all. You got to remember that this was a much different time than it is now with television. If people ask me what my job is I still think running the restaurants and being a chef is, was and will always be what my real job is. And the television stuff just kind of happened.
“In 1998 Food & Wine magazine named me one of the 10 best young chefs in America, and I think the Food Network started in ’95 or ’96 and I’d been on Food Network as a guest prior to ’98, and then they asked me to co-host a show called Melting Pot, which I did for like three years. And then I stopped doing it for a little bit and I would still do specials with them, like traveling specials with Bobby (Flay). And then I came back with Food Network more regularly in like 2003.
“But again it was like nothing like ‘Oh I’m going to do these cooking shows and be on TV. I kept ending up on TV because of restaurants. I didn’t end up with restaurants because of TV. I always thought of it that way: If I put out great food and it strikes a chord with people it leads to other things.
“I think what happens a lot nowadays is that people go to culinary school with the sheer desire to be on TV. Or maybe they’re on TV as talent and they want to gain more knowledge of cooking so they go to culinary school part time or full time to learn a little more about cooking so they can do that on television.
“When I went to culinary school there were no celebrity chefs. There was Julia and Jacques and a couple of other, more PBS-based shows and Food Network didn’t exist. I was just fortunate to fall into it and it’s been something that I’m comfortable doing. To own restaurants and to be a chef you have to be a good teacher and teach young cooks and chefs how to cook food better and at a higher level. And if you’re good at that and you’re comfortable in front of the camera I think a progression of that is that now you can teach home cooks how to do the same things that you’re trying to teach your young chefs at the restaurant how to do. Maybe not at like a refined level, but you’re teaching people how to make things from scratch and to put better food on the table for their family on a nightly basis. I never went on The Chew or one of my other shows and said, ‘Here’s how you cook foie gras.’”
Would you still be doing The Chew if it was still on the air?
“Yeah, I really enjoyed doing the show, I liked my cohosts. We were on for seven years and 1500 episodes. I think if someone told me in ’98 that there’s going to be a cooking talk show on network television, I would have laughed. And then to think that it would have lasted 1500 episodes and seven years. I think the hosts had great chemistry. We were all friends on and off camera, which I think made it really easy to go to work every day. And I think that the viewers really got a sense of that. In this day and age I think there’s so much negative stuff on TV and arguing and this, that and the other thing to be able to go on TV an hour a day and laugh a little, cook a little I think was very comforting to people, which I think is what food should do, food should bring people together.”
Did you ever have a discussion with Mario Batali about the issues that caused the program to come to an end? (Batali was accused of sexual misconduct; the program was canceled shortly after).
“No, and I don’t even know if that’s what [caused the cancellation]. Who knows if that’s what made the show end? Certainly the timing of that was interesting, to say the least. But no, I never discussed that with him.”
What do you think of restaurant critics, ratings and the recent demotion by Michelin Guide of Paul Bocuse to two stars?
“Bocuse is a three-star restaurant, it just is. And it’s because of a lot of things and not just necessarily ... the food that’s being put out this day. But everything that it stands for.
“I think food critics nowadays try to take certain places down a notch for their own well being as opposed to knowing what that restaurant stands for [and has] accomplished. Recently, in New York, they gave Peter Luger’s zero stars – are you fucking kidding me? It’s absurd. Eighty percent of the steakhouses in the country are trying to be Peter Luger. Are there better steakhouses in the United States now? Absolutely there are. Things have changed, it’s easier to get the meat that Luger was known for.
“It gets a little silly sometimes. I think that chefs and most diners continue and support those restaurants for what they are. Food wouldn’t be what it is today without Paul Bocuse. Period, end of conversation.”
What are the greatest challenges to a restauranteur today?
“I feel that TV, social media and all those things have had a tremendous positive effect on the restaurant business. It’s made people more aware of food, it has made more people more interested in food, it’s made people try things they weren’t willing to try before. It’s pushed grocery stores to carry items they never carried before, especially in middle America.
“In Cleveland, Ohio, before Emeril Lagasse came on TV, go to a grocery store and try to find anything but a button mushroom. It was impossible. I do think that TV and now social media had a great impact. But I think the negative effect of that is twofold. One, it has sometimes made diners think they know more than they actually do, which can be good and dangerous. And ... television ... has glamorized being a chef a little bit, so when young cooks come out of culinary school, they think they’re going into this glamorous world of being a chef. But the reality is being a chef is a really hard job, physically, mentally, the hours, the heat of the kitchen – it’s just a tough job.
“The other challenge is that the consumers, because they see so much on TV and social media, they sometimes feel they know more than they actually know. Which is good that they’re educated, but sometimes it’s odd.”
Would you ever consider opening a restaurant in orlando?
“I learned a long time ago... we had one restaurant for ten years and someone said ‘Are you ever going to open another restaurant?’ and I said Never. And here we are ten years later and we have 13 of them. I never say never to anything.”
And finally, some people really want to know: Do you really like Miracle Whip?
I do. (Laughs) I have some guilty pleasures as a chef. When I grew up, I grew up in a split family, not split from a divorce standpoint but split between Miracle Whip and Hellmann’s. So my mom had Hellmann’s and my dad had Miracle Whip, so we always had both in our fridge.
“So there are certain things that I prefer, like I like a turkey sandwich with Miracle Whip, and I like a bologna sandwich with Miracle Whip, and it’s mainly because when my dad made me those sandwiches he put Miracle Whip on them. And I still like it to this day. “