Michael Symon might be best known for his cohosting stint on the ABC daytime show The Chew, but the Cleveland native is also a James Beard Award winner who was named one of the ten best chefs in America by Food & Wine magazine. Symon is a South Beach Wine & Food Festival veteran. He won Burger Bash three years in a row before Bobby Flay defeated him in 2013. Symon is back this year to not only reclaim his title but also cohost The Q with a bevy of Sports Illustrated swimsuit models. Symon spoke with us about juggling multiple hats and how cooking is his greatest joy.
New Times: You are cohosting The Q this year with the Sports Illustrated swimsuit models. How do you feel about that?
Michael Symon: I think this is a gift for ten years of service to the festival. Seriously, at the end of the day, it's a barbecue event filled with delicious food and beautiful women. It's another day at the office.
What will you be doing at The Q?
I'm going to do what I always do. I'm going to cook and have a good time. I'll be onstage at the end of the night to thank everybody, but before then, I'm going to be hanging out at my booth, cooking kielbasa. In Cleveland, one of our signature sandwiches is a "Polish Girl," which is kielbasa tossed with coleslaw. That's what I'm doing.
Last year, you mentioned you would like to host an all-sausage event at the festival.
Yup. I got my sausage in there, so to speak. It's smoked, it's barbecued, it's the perfect thing.
On to Burger Bash. After winning three years in a row, you lost to Bobby Flay. What happened?
We took second last year, but it's still something. I was happy for Bobby. And after taking second place to me three years in a row, it was quite good for our friendship that he won. I was very happy to see him win, but he's not going to be here this year, so it's mine for the taking. And this year, we're going back to the burger that we first won with: The "Fat Doug," topped with crispy pastrami and slaw. We always said the Fat Doug was the burger that the win was built on, so we're bringing it back.
Is your chef persona different from your smiling TV one?
No. I'm having fun there too. I pride myself on being a good teacher, but I'm not a teacher who yells and screams and rules with an iron fist. The person you see on TV and the person you meet at Burger Bash is the person who's inside my kitchen.
But those are very different careers. How do you juggle that?
At the end of the day, it's about having great people who work with you and trusting those people. It's also about being a good communicator. You can't be in 20 places at the same time. That's impossible. But you can make sure that when you're in a specific place, 100 percent of your focus is in that place. So if I'm on the set of The Chew, all I can think of is The Chew.
A lot of chefs are coming up today in the hopes of making it big on television. How do you feel about celebrity and the culinary arts melding together so much?
If you are a chef because you want to be on TV, chances are you're going to be a pretty shitty chef. So if you're going to be a chef, be a chef. And if TV then materializes and it's something you enjoy and excel at, then embrace both. Why be a chef in the first place if you want to be an actor? You should have gone to film school and learned a little about cooking on the way.
How did you get into television?
My wife, Lizzie [Shanahan], and I opened Lola about 17 years ago, and I used to do some TV stuff. In 1998, Food & Wine recognized [me] as one of the best new chefs in America. That same year, Food Network was growing a little bit at the time, and I was a guest on Sarah Moulton's show a few times. Then I was asked to cohost my own show, The Melting Pot.
Out of everything you do, what brings you the most joy?
My favorite thing I ever do is cooking dinner for Lizzie and my family and friends -- just making a meal at home. There's nothing more enjoyable than that. I also really love the creative process of all of our restaurants, and... I still find it very rewarding to be on The Chew every day and teach a really large part of America how to cook good food from scratch.
What do you cook for your friends? Is it a fancy dinner party or an informal gathering?
Always family-style, never individually plated. I try to wow and impress more than the average person, but I tend to go more old school when I'm cooking at home. I love cooking anything over fire. It's been cold out this winter, so I've been playing around with a whole leg of lamb or stringing chickens up over the fireplace and slow-cooking them. I grew up with a Greek-Sicilian mother. There was a lot of stuff happening around dinner. It's how I continue to live today.
I'm blessed. I think my life is about as perfect as it could possibly be. I love doing television stuff; I love doing the restaurant. If someone told me I had to pick one or the other, I don't think I could.
It's been supercold in Cleveland. Are you looking forward to a little sun and fun in South Beach?
It was 25 below in Cleveland today. You can always find the East Coast chefs in South Beach because we're walking around in shorts and T-shirts while the locals are freezing with scarves and winter coats. You guys are cold; I'm putting on sunblock 50.
Back to those swimsuit models. Are you prepping for this? Any spray tans? Personal trainers?
No spray tan. No beach time. I'll try to get to the gym in the morning, but if I don't, no big deal. It's all about late-night poolside cocktails and relaxation.
Moët Hennessy's The Q presented by Creekstone Farms sponsored by MIAMI magazine hosted by Michael Symon featuring the 2014 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Models: Thursday, February 20, from 7 to 10 p.m. beachside at the Delano, 1685 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $300.
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Amstel Light Burger Bash presented by Pat LaFrieda Meats hosted by Rachael Ray: Friday, February 21, from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. beachside at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach, 1 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $225.
Whole Foods Market Grand Tasting Village featuring MasterCard Grand Tasting Tents & KitchenAid Culinary Demonstrations: Sunday, February 23, from 3 to 3:45 p.m. at the Grand Tasting Village, 13th Street and Ocean Drive in Miami Beach. Tickets cost $225.