A Cleveland chef makes his case for great pork and great people

Symon in South Beach 

A Cleveland chef makes his case for great pork and great people

On a steamy Friday night in South Beach, Cleveland chef Michael Symon secured an unprecedented three-peat at the sold-out Amstel Light Burger Bash, part of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. After winning the coveted People's Choice Award two years in a row, Symon appeared genuinely elated upon hearing his name called once again at the climax of the 2012 event, held on Friday, February 24.

"It's shocking!" announced host Rachael Ray. "It's a three-peat for Michael Symon!"

With Rocco Whalen (chef-owner at Tremont's Fahrenheit) and Matt Harlan (regional manager for B Spots everywhere) manning the grills, Symon prepared approximately 2,100 burgers for the thousands of guests, most of whom paid $225 for the pleasure of devouring grub served up by some of the world's finest chefs. B Spot's burger of the night was the Porky, a 3-ounce beef and pork belly patty topped with pulled pork, slaw, spicy pickle, and Stadium Mustard. A crisp pork rind was an appropriate garnish.

Symon's first stop after claiming his trophy was the B Spot booth, where he was greeted with hoots and hollers from his thrilled team. While being interviewed by Food Network crews, Symon was asked about the secret to a winning burger.

"You want to know the secret?" Symon responded. "Great people: That's the secret."

TRADE TALK: After a late night of celebrating his Burger Bash win, Symon was up early the next morning to participate in a talk presented by a New York PR firm.

Located on the rooftop deck of the stunning Hotel Victor, the discussion focused on the affect that winning a nationally televised competition has on a chef's professional and personal life. The panel, attended by dozens of industry insiders, was moderated by Bobby Flay. In addition to Symon, panelists included Jonathan Waxman (Top Chef Masters), Stephanie Izard (Top Chef), Geoffrey Zakarian (Next Iron Chef), Richard Blais (Top Chef All Stars), and Marc Forgione (Next Iron Chef).

Symon's input was characteristically upbeat. Asked by Flay how winning Next Iron Chef — not to mention Food & Wine's Best New Chef designation and a James Beard Award — has changed his life, Symon responded: "TV is not only a powerful thing to make my peers know who I am as a chef, but also to let people know that Cleveland is a great dining city. It worked well for me and the city."

Noting that Symon is anchored in Cleveland by both business and family, Flay observed that deciding to take on ABC's daytime cooking show The Chew must have been difficult.

"Filming Monday through Thursday allows me to come back on weekends," Symon answered. "I would never have done it if Lizzie [his wife and business partner] wasn't going to join me. No Lizzie, no Chew."

As for his latest goals, Symon remained modest. "All the awards that I wanted to win as a young chef, I was fortunate to win. Now my main goal is to teach people at home that you can make a really healthy, great meal in not a lot of time and for not a lot of money. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

CLOSING THYME: Chef John Kolar shared some updated details recently regarding plans for his Medina restaurant, Thyme. After five years in a renovated Red Barn on the near north side, Thyme is slated to close in late March. Its successor, Thyme², will open just off the square soon after.

"It's a super-cool space," Kolar says of the new digs. "It's very warm, very contemporary, and very sophisticated."

Downstairs, a 60-seat dining room will feature pizza from a woodburning oven, along with burgers and other pub fare. Upstairs, an intimate 45-seat space will showcase Kolar's contemporary fine-dining chops — as well as a wine bar.

Kolar says the move was prompted by several factors, including an expired lease and a need for more space. "I'm a big believer in fate," he says, "and this just seemed right."

Look for Thyme² to open on April Fool's Day at 113 West Smith Road in Medina. Learn more at 330-764-4114 or thymetherestaurant.com.

More by Douglas Trattner

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