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Big City, Small World 

Celeb chefs from Cleveland and afar.

I felt deliciously sophisticated earlier this month when I snagged 8 p.m. reservations at Parea, Cleveland chef Michael Symon's one-year-old restaurant in N.Y.C.'s Flatiron District. By that late hour, I knew many hometown eateries would be folding up the napkins. But in Gotham, I figured, the party would just be getting started.

Ha. Even at 8 p.m., I was among the early birds. It was another two hours before the hipsters started filing in, eager to feast on Symon's modern Greek mezes and Mediterranean eats. (Incidentally, these were the same young people who, in Cleveland, might be chugging brewskis at BW3 or trawling for hotties in the Warehouse District. Here, they can throw down for $14 cocktails and $28 lobster stew. This is why there's a brain drain.)

Happily, though, the quiet time gave me a chance to snag a few drinks at the bar, including an imaginative little number with macerated pineapple, muddled mint, key limes, and Milagro Silver tequila. Plus, whom should I find on a neighboring barstool but former Cleveland culinarian Susie Heller -- in town, as was I, for the James Beard Foundation awards. The well-traveled Heller moved to the Napa Valley years ago and has since found fame and fortune as executive producer for legendary chefs like Jacques Pépin and Julia Child, as well as in collaboration with mega-chefs like Thomas Keller (The French Laundry, Bouchon, and N.Y.C.'s Per Se).

In fact, it was Heller who brought together Keller and Cleveland Heights author Michael Ruhlman in 1997 to work on Keller's The French Laundry Cookbook. That gig helped boost Ruhlman into the elite world of celebrity chefs, which made him a meaty topic for this writer to tackle, ultimately resulting in the Beard Award I snagged the following evening.

Heller, nominated for Happy in the Kitchen, Michel Richard's new cookbook, went home from the awards empty-handed, but the always gracious Keller scored a well-deserved win as Outstanding Restaurateur. Meantime, as most Clevelanders know, Michael Symon lost the Best Chef in the Great Lakes Region title to Chicago chef Grant Achatz of Alinea. Achatz, dining devotees may recall, had worked for Keller at the French Laundry in 1997 and became friends with Ruhlman there.

Anyone tells you it's not a small world, smack 'em upside the head with a spatula.

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