Symon Wins! Cleveland restaurateur is Next Iron Chef

Winner winner, chicken dinner!
That roar coming out of Tremont last night didn’t come from a mighty blast furnace: It was simply the sound of Michael Symon’s closest friends – all 200 of them -- screaming their sweetbread-lovin’ heads off at Lolita, as the Cleveland chef brought home the title of the Food Network’s Next Iron Chef. “The Cavs couldn’t do it, the Tribe couldn’t do it, but Mike Symon did it!” roared one well-lubricated fan as the show’s Chairman announced the victor in the six-week televised contest. The win gives Symon a weekly presence on the Food Network’s most popular television show (along with Mario Batali, Cat Cora, Bobby Flay, and Masahuru Morimoto), and seems bound to draw foodies from across the nation to his restaurants, Lola and Lolita. Just this past weekend, for instance, Symon says he entertained “food tourists” from Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Kansas City who came to town specifically to check out his digs. (Visiting celebs from the IX Center’s Fabulous Food Show stopped by too, including Iron Chef host Alton Brown, spotted Saturday night at Lola, and Australian chef Jason Roberts, looking dapper in shades and a ball cap at Lolita on Sunday.) And while the buzz is obviously good for Symon’s revenue stream, it’s also a major boost to Cleveland’s cred on the overall culinary scene. Explains Symon: “For so long, Cleveland has been this restaurant fly-over zone, between Chicago and New York. Now, thanks to this, maybe the restaurant world will realize there’s some great food in this city – including places like the (Flying) Fig, Baricelli Inn, Momocho, and Fahrenheit -- and that’s got to be a boost to the city’s image.” At Lolita last night, fans and well-wishers began arriving at 5 p.m. to eat, drink, and watch the 9 p.m. show with Michael, his wife and partner Liz, and his kitchen staff, headed up by chef Matt Harlan. By 6 p.m., the joint was SRO, and a cop stationed outside the door was turning away anyone without reservations. When the crowd finally rose to its feet to hear the final verdict, the love in the room was thick enough to cut with a knife and slather on bruschetta, maybe with some nice garlic paste and garnish of fresh basil. But in his hoody and baggy polo shirt, the down-to-earth Symon looked less like a celebrity and more like the guy who laid the bricks for Cousin Vinnie’s new rec room, as he posed for pictures and accepted hugs from his cadre of fans. “You know, I can’t begin to count the number of people who asked me if I’m gonna leave town now,” Symon, whom we profiled here in 2004, said this morning. “But of course I’m not. We’re always gonna have other projects in the works – that’s what we do. But Cleveland? This is where I’ll always hang my hat.” -- Elaine T. Cicora
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