Symon Stays

Celebrity chef Michael Symon travels the country, but always comes home.

Four p.m. is "family dinner" time for the staff at Lola. The Tremont restaurant is known for chef-owner Michael Symon's imaginative and eclectic dishes -- rabbit strudel and lobster pierogi, for example -- but nothing of the sort is offered on a recent weeknight. Tonight, it's hot dogs and French fries, laid out picnic-style on the kitchen counter. Okay, so the ketchup is homemade, and the fries are fragrant with rosemary, but the meal is still far more down-home than what's served on the other side of the kitchen doors. Pre-occupied staffers snap the dogs up and stuff them down before wandering off to resume their duties.

The ritual gathering is necessarily brief and hectic, but there is a genuinely familial atmosphere. In an industry where turnover is a recurring headache, Lola's key employees have racked up remarkable tenure. Executive sous chef Frank "Frankie" Rogers has worked with Symon for 12 years. General manager Doug Sebusch and bar manager Frank Ritz have been on board for nine; day chef Matt Harlan and server Nolan Cleary, seven.

This reflects well on Symon, but he waves away the compliment, redirecting the credit to his wife and partner. "They like Liz," he insists with a giggle, a sort of warm-up to his trademark goofy laugh. "She coddles them, and I yell at them. It's just like at home!"

Cleary disputes this. "Well, actually, in seven years, [Symon's] had a chance to yell at me a coupla times," he says. "But it blows over fast. Five minutes later, and you're all friends again."

The relationships clearly are more than just professional. But spend some time with Symon and it's easy to see why. A smoking, tattooed, Harley-riding former wrestler who's more than capable of handling the occasional obnoxious drunk, Symon is more rough-edged than his artistry in the kitchen might suggest. He is, in short, a regular Cleveland guy. Loyalty to friends almost goes without saying.

What is remarkable is that Symon has stayed with them, and the rest of us.

When a sports injury put an end to his high school wrestling career, a 17-year-old Mike Symon turned to cooking, mostly just for something to do. Turned out, though, that he was good at it. Following graduation from St. Ed's in 1987, Symon was off to Hyde Park, New York, to attend the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, where his obvious talent landed him internships in some of Manhattan's hottest kitchens.

In 1990, it was back home to Lakewood, where he quickly found work at Players, a neighborhood hangout that was a magnet for area hipsters. Word began to get around that Symon was pretty hip himself, and two years later, the promising young chef was snatched up by veteran restaurateur Carl Quagliata. At 21, Symon found himself in charge of the enormous kitchen at Quagliata's Piccolo Mondo, the flagship of Cleveland's nascent Warehouse District. From its first night, Piccolo drew crowds of Clevelanders hungry for big-city style, and Symon dished it up by the plateful.

In 1994, the Piccolo gig led to his breakout performance as exec chef at downtown's Caxton Café; it was there that local media types finally got a whiff of Symon's chops and christened the pierced and bearded young man Cleveland's "rock and roll chef."

In 1997, with partner and future wife Liz Shanahan, Symon launched Lola in Tremont. The joint not only set its rundown, blue-collar neighborhood on the road to yuppie revival, but made Symon the city's best-known chef.

Word soon got out. He reaped a crop of national awards, Food Network put him on the air, and from there he began hobnobbing with other celebrity chefs in venues all across the country. The buzz still has not abated: Recently, his schedule included a dinner at the Beard House, the culinary Mecca in New York City; a Share Our Strength fund-raiser in Michigan; and four out-of-state speaking gigs. He's hired an agent and is kicking around concepts for a cookbook and TV show. And, oh yeah, he provides consultation and menu design for other restaurateurs around the country -- including Liz Symon's ex-husband, whom he describes as "a really nice guy."

Somehow, he's kept Lola humming as well (Gourmet magazine praises it again in the November issue). He's on the floor at Lola at least 50 hours a week and claims to know nearly two-thirds of his guests on any given night. Of course, it helps immensely that his culinary team, headed by Rogers, is rock-solid, so dedicated and well trained that Symon's presence has become almost irrelevant.

A chef consumed with his own fame might downplay this fact. Symon brags about it.

"That's the greatest compliment I can get as a chef," Symon says emphatically, "that I have taught my guys to do things the way I want them done and that they do it as good as I do -- and maybe even better!"

Many restaurateurs would kill to have a weekend crowd as large as Lola has on this Wednesday night. Two private parties, with a total of about 45 guests, will be seated in the two upstairs dining rooms, and about 60 tables are reserved in the main salon. On the patio, a party of 10 is booked for a cooking demo and dinner.

Symon had hoped to begin the demo around 7 p.m., so he could help prepare for the private parties; but by 7:15, some of the patio guests still haven't arrived. While he waits, the chef passes the time with one of his favorite activities -- schmoozing.

Finally, at 7:30, the patio people are all in place, and Symon begins his demo. Almost immediately, a guest interrupts him to ask if Symon will wait until they order dinner to resume. If this aggravates the busy chef, neither word nor glance reveals it. He smiles agreeably and turns off the portable propane burner.

Fifteen minutes later, he begins again, dispensing kitchen tips -- about the importance of fresh ingredients, say, and the right way to use salt. He demonstrates the preparation of his signature mac and cheese. But when all the helpful hints have been dispensed, he flies up the back steps to the upstairs kitchen, where within seconds he's ladling soup and fussing over salad greens.

He sizes up the situation in the two dining rooms. "Frankie told me I'd better get up here and take control," he says sheepishly. What follows is about 15 minutes of tightly choreographed chaos, with Symon centering his upstairs staff as they prepare, plate, and start to serve what will amount to nearly 130 courses.

When potential crises have been averted, Symon smiles. "It all works out," he says. "I don't know how, but it all works out." Then he's off again, running downstairs to schmooze with some Browns players who have just arrived. He's a huge fan.

The high-pressure restaurant scene is notorious for drug and alcohol abuse. But that's another potential crisis that Symon addressed head-on. Watching others in the business slide into alcoholism, and recognizing his own obsessive tendencies, he gave up drinking about 10 years ago. "Now, it's not a big deal," he says. "But I never wanted to take a chance of going into something and not being in full control of it, you know?

"I've had anxiety attacks ever since I was a kid," he admits. "Not like every week, but maybe six times. But I've always been good about dealing with pressure. Maybe it was the way my parents raised me. Maybe it was from wrestling. But it's always been pretty easy for me."

Drinking "just goes against our grain," Liz adds. "When we're on vacation, he may have a glass of wine. But we have a no-drinking policy at Lola, and we always have; in this business, [drinking] just becomes commonplace, and then what happens is you stop working, and that's when trouble begins."

So, the cigarettes, the Harley, the piercings and tattoos?

"I didn't say I was saintly!" Symon laughs. "I just said I didn't want to be drunk!"

Similarly, he has reined in the hotshot tendencies in the kitchen.

"I used to do a lot of food with shock value then, maybe to the detriment of some of the flavors," he says. "I wanted to show people food they had never seen before, and maybe I went too far trying to accomplish that. Today, I think my approach to cooking has gotten simpler. More refined, but simpler. But looking back, the biggest difference between then and now is that I am confident enough; I had an ego then, but I didn't have confidence. Now I have the confidence to say, 'That's the best piece of pork I can buy, I don't have to do anything else to it to show it off.' I just buy it right, cook it right, and move on."

This is not to suggest, however, that Symon is no longer competitive. He's been nominated repeatedly for the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef Award -- the restaurant world's equivalent of a Best Actor Oscar -- and still aims to win. But he knows it's a long shot, in large measure because he refuses to move.

For award purposes, the foundation divides the country into regions. The Midwest region includes both Cleveland and Chicago, and over the years, chefs from the Windy City have, by and large, dominated the Best Chef category. There are more voting members of the foundation living in Chicago than in Cleveland, and Chicago's dining scene is considerably larger, attracting proportionally more buzz.

But relocating to a culinary capital, as many talented chefs do and Symon certainly could, seems to be out of the question. Symon would rather stay and elevate his hometown's status. Of all his achievements, he's most proud of those that are as much about the region as himself. Like cultivating a network of local farmers and producers who supply much of his restaurant's raw ingredients. And helping to foster Tremont's renaissance.

"More importantly, though, I guess I would like people to think that I helped move the culinary standards to a new level and was fortunate enough to bring a good amount of national recognition, and nationally renowned chefs, to Cleveland."

There has been talk recently of placing Chicago in its own category for the Best Chef Awards, separate from the rest of the region, and Symon admits that might be a good idea. Then he lets loose with the laugh. "But if I did win and Chicago wasn't part of it, I think I'd feel worse. That's my competitiveness, right? I know I cook as good as those fuckers in Chicago!"

It's a little after 9 p.m., and Lola's Wednesday-night crowd is drifting away. Symon is still on the floor, though, mingling with the stragglers, while general manager Sebusch starts to tally up the night's receipts. There's a $2,000 tab here, a $750 tab there, and at least one $300 bottle of wine to take into account.

After running the numbers through his mental calculator, Sebusch nods. "It's been a good night for Lola," he declares. "Maybe tomorrow, we can have something other than hot dogs for family meal."

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