It’s always interesting talking about wine, beer and food with chefs, but when the chef in question is a vibrant rock-star personality like Michael Symon, the newest Iron Chef, 2009 James Beard Foundation Award winner and owner and executive chef of Lola and Lolita restaurants in Cleveland, a lively discussion on the evolution of the restaurant scene is guaranteed. Wine Enthusiast had the opportunity to chat with the chef and restaurateur during a beer and food pairings demonstration at New York’s Astor Center.
WINE ENTHUSIAST: What is your advice for food and beverage pairing?
MICHAEL SYMON: A lot of people think about pairing like oh, this is a rich food so it needs a big beer or a big wine to hold up to it, but when I’m eating something rich and bold I want something a little crisp, sour or acidic to bust out and continuously cleanse the palate. I’m in the contrast camp.
WE: How do you like being an Iron Chef?
MS: It’s great! It’s a fun show to do and you get to go up against peers you know. It’s very competitive but it’s also fun most of the time. Fortunately I’ve won a lot more than I’ve lost so it makes it that much more enjoyable.
WE: The Next Iron Chef judge, Donatella Arpaia, said that to be an Iron Chef you have to be competitive and a showman; do you think you fit that bill?
MS: Yeah, I’m very competitive and I think I’m a good showman. People make a big deal of being a showman but if it doesn’t come naturally you’re screwed because if you’re not focusing on the food you’re going to lose. You look at someone like Mario [Batali], he’s naturally a showman and makes great food. [Masaharu] Morimoto is a showman in that you watch him and you’re like holy sh&% . . . did he just do that with a knife?
WE: You’ve now partnered with the Czech beer Pilsner Urquell to promote beer and food pairings; how did you get into that?
MS: I sort of have a reputation as a chef who loves beer and food. I’m really trying to build people’s acknowledgement and acceptance of how well they go together. I’ve always thought that it was incredibly overlooked.
WE: Have you always been a beer lover?
MS: Yes. Liz [Symon, Michael’s wife, business partner and sommelier] has always been a wine person, and I’ve always been a beer person. But I like both; Liz was never really a big beer drinker but the more she tries and tastes, the better it gets. I don’t think I’d ever get her to admit that beer pairs better with food than wine but she’s certainly taken a giant leap in being more open minded.
WE: There are a lot of chefs bringing in beer sommeliers or trying to improve their beer lists. What do you think is driving that?
MS: Like 20 years ago beer took a giant leap into the dining world. More and more places opening now are casual restaurants with great food. Beer just fits in better than maybe it did 30 years ago when waiters wore tuxedoes and all the tables had white tablecloths.
WE: So what does the future hold for you?
MS: We have two new restaurants: Bar Symon opens June 29 and The B Spot opens in September. Bar Symon is going to have 100 beers, 50 on tap, and Lizzie is only going to do about 30 wines by the glass which for us is a totally different approach, but we’re excited about it. The B Spot will be like a biker burger bar, but with great food.
WE: And you have a cookbook coming out?
MS: Yup, November 10…Michael Symon, Live to Cook. It’s going to be lot of fun, with recipes from my childhood until now. Things I made with my grandparents and parents, things Liz and I cook, some Lola stuff, my restaurant stuff, some Iron Chef stuff; it should be a really approachable book that’s going to take some of the pretentious bull out of the whole thing. People who know me know that I love food and I love to cook, but I want to have fun, and I think the book really says that.