The restaurateur and TV personality will headline TCC’s Cleaver and Cork event
When Michael D. Symon attended culinary school, becoming a chef meant pursuing a trade. Today, top chefs are often referred to as the new rock stars.
“I feel like the chef world has changed so much,” said Symon, a culinary star in his own right. “I’m 53 now. I went to the Culinary Arts Institute in the ‘80s. There was no Food Network. Julia (Child) was on and Jacques (Pépin) was on. I went to school to be a tradesman. It happened to be a trade that I was incredibly passionate about and loved.”
Symon is still passionate about his trade, but his interests are on a bigger scale. He’s an award-winning chef, restaurateur, philanthropist, cookbook author and TV personality.
In March, Symon will come to Tallahassee to share his love of cooking, headlining the 2023 Cleaver and Cork culinary event, which will help fund student scholarships at Tallahassee Community College.
This is the eighth year for the culinary experience, thanks to the TCC Foundation. The event features three events: The first two – a progressive cocktail party and a signature dinner showcasing Symon’s cuisine – are sold out. But fans will be able to see Symon and other Tallahassee chefs at the Cleaver and Cork Food and Wine Festival on March 4.
This year’s festival will be even bigger with more than 60 tents featuring food and spirits, about twice as many as the 2022 event, with classes and demonstrations.
“He has such a great passion for what he does and that comes across to everybody,” said
Heather Mitchell, executive director of the TCC Foundation. She has brought a long list of Food Network chefs to Cleaver and Cork, including Aarón Sánchez, Chef Marc Murphy, Geoffrey Zakarian, Marcus Samuelsson, Alex Guarnaschelli and Chef Amanda Freitag.
Quick to laugh and share stories, Symon talked on a Zoom call from his home in Long Island, covering a range of topics in his affable, open manner.
Growing up in Cleveland
Symon was raised in a close-knit family with a Greek-Sicilian mother and Eastern European father.
“My mother cooked a lot,” he said. “My grandfather – I call him ‘Pap’– was a trememndous cook and he cooked all the time.”
“There was never not a lot of food in the house,” Symon said. “I ended up in the restaurant business but when I was a kid, we rarely ever went out to dinner.
“The only time we’d go out to eat was after church on Sundays. Then we’d go to the Greek diner and after that, we’d go to the Italian market Alesci’s to get food for supper.”
His parents’ warmth and generosity helped foster his love of hospitality
“My wife and I talk about this,” said Symon. “We both came from middle class, or slightly below, families. When I was a kid, I thought we were rich. We grew up in a small house but there were always people over, we were always entertaining. There was great food. I had a rich childhood.”
Forging a path
“When I went to culinary school, I was the youngest kid in my class,” said Symon, who started working in restaurants as a teen. “I learned at a young age that this was a business where you really have to work hard.”
Symon followed the traditional route, working in restaurants and moving up the line. He opened his first restaurant, Lola, in Cleveland in 1997.
Symon was named Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine in 1998, which put him on the culinary map. In 2009, Symon earned The James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes.
He opened other restaurants, including his current ones – Mabel’s BBQ, Bar Symon and Angeline.
Symon also turned to philanthropy. In 2010, he was the first and only chef ever to host the annual Farm Aid benefit concert. He and his wife, Liz, also started The Michael D. Symon Foundation in 2010, focusing on offering assistance in Cleveland.
Covid, high costs
Like many other chefs, Symon was hit hard by Covid. In 2020, Symon closed his flagship, Lola, due to the pandemic.
“It made people reevaluate things a bit,” he said, noting that high costs and lower profits have also discouraged some in the industry from reopening or launching new fine dining ventures.
“At Lola, for example, our china, cost $60 a plate. Wine glasses were $28 a stem. Silverware was a fortune,” he said. “And every night, plates would break, stemware would break and people would steal silverware. We had 100 seats and 25 cooks.”
Prices are up at casual restaurants, too. At his restaurant, Mable’s BBQ, brisket was $5.99 when it opened in 2016. “Now it’s $14.99 a pound.”
When a friend complained about a $200 bill at a restaurant, Symon took him to the grocery store. They bought all the same high-quality and the bill was $206.
“He spent $6 more with zero service, no one cleaning his plate, no one prepping the food, cooking the food, no one cleaning up.”
Still, Symon’s heart is still in fine dining. “I come from the fine dining world. In my core, that’s what I am, how I learned to cook.”
“I think there’s a way to do both of those things. The fancy in me is always there from a technical standpoint but when I entertain, I also want to make food feel comforting and approachable.”
Launching TV career
Symon made his debut on the Food Network in 1998. In 2008, he won season one of The Next Iron Chef. His long list of shows have included BBQ USA, Burgers, Brew and ‘Que, Throwdown and The Chew. He grills in his own backyard on the show, Symon’s Dinners Cooking Out.
“If it looks like I’m having a good time it’s because I am,” said Symon, who still travels about 35 weekends a year. “I made a promise to myself a long time ago. I’m never going to do something I don’t like…. I’m fortunate to do something I really love.”
‘Fix it with Food’
Symon has written eight cookbooks and two address his autoimmune issues. He has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis since his 20s and discoid lupus since his 30s.
He wrote Fix it with Food, and a sequel, that offer recipes to help people figure out their food triggers and learn to make anti-inflammatory dishes.
“This is what I’ve learned going through my own trials and errors,” he said.
Cleaver and Cork is his kind of event, Symon said.
“I like events like this where I can get to be in front of people, interact and feed them.
That’s the best part of my job.”
If you go …
What: Cleaver and Cork Food and Wine Festival
When: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 4
Where: Intramural fields at Tallahassee Community College, 444 Appleyard Dr.
Tickets: general admission $100; VIP tickets $300For more information: https://cleaverandcorktcc.com/our-events/food-and-wine-festival/
Top picture / credit ABC