One of the most exciting days of my life was the day I was chosen to be on an episode of the ABC show The Chew in 2012. I had just won the Julia Child contest (I wrote about this in my recent blog, The JeriLynne/Julia Story) and can recall a Chew producer approaching me in between commercials with a nerve racking request. The producer said, “Hey, can you play up the Michael thing?” “What do you mean?” I asked. She said, “Well, remember when I interviewed you and you said you had a crush on Michael?” “Yeah…” I replied very nervously while producers starting yelling “30 seconds!!” behind us. “What do you mean you want me to play it up??” I said. She looked at me stone cold sober and said, “I. want. you. to. tell. him.” My eyeballs were probably so far out of my head they were hovering outside of my body, I responded, “You want me to tell a married man that I have a crush on him on national television while also talking about how I recently roped my husband into loving me with Julia’s Beef Bourguignon??” She said, “It’s good TV, do it.” I didn’t even have a chance to blink when I felt the heat of the huge stage lights on my face and to my right – Michael Symon, my current cooking flame. We talked about my love for Julia Child and this man could not have been more generous or kind if I wanted him to be.
Let me back up a little bit to 2010 where this all began. I used to work for a lovely gentleman named Frank who was very involved with trying to bring fresh food to the food deserts in Springfield, Massachusetts. On one occasion, Frank needed to have an important meeting scheduled in Cleveland and he asked me to organize a dinner. I googled “best restaurants in Cleveland” and found Michael Symon’s restaurant, Lola. I had seen Michael Symon on Iron Chef so I had heard of him but I didn’t really know much about him. I worked with the manager for Lola (I can’t remember her name but she was lovely) and began creating a really great menu. I teased Frank and told him, “You better get me a signature from Michael Symon and I’d like his cookbook please!” I was joking with him but when he came back he was so excited to show me what he brought. He had an autographed copy of Michael’s book Live to Cook, a t-shirt with the same image Michael has a tattoo of, and a copy of the menu that I helped create at Michael’s restaurant. I could not have been more excited.
After that experience, I started recording every episode of The Chew on our DVR (raise your hand if you remember DVR’s) and Scot and I watched it every night routinely. I couldn’t help but to be charmed by Michael who was like I, a proud Midwesterner that came from a diverse and mixed heritage. He spoke often about his mother’s Greek and his father’s Sicilian heritage. My mother is from the South with English, Welsh, Irish, and Scottish blood and my father has German and Norwegian blood. We were both American mutts. Mix those things with how lovely he spoke about his wife, Liz, on camera (he refers often to his overwhelming respect and admiration for her)… who wouldn’t have stars in their eyes for the man??
Back to being on set with Michael – he was exactly like he is on TV, very warm and bubbly. While we were taping, he told a story about when he was a younger chef and Julia Child came to his restaurant. He was notified that she was coming not long before she actually arrived and he was sweating bullets. As soon as Michael started talking, he was so cool and calm, that I calmed down. He had such a sweet nature and was so authentic and we were having a really easy back and forth that when the opportunity opened itself up, (and with the producer’s eyes on me), I revealed that he was my crush. He told me I made him blush! We both chuckled and chatted about how we found our perfect matches, Liz and Scot, and wooed them with our cooking. All in all Michael, Clinton, Carla, and Daphne could not have been more gracious and welcoming. And I realized later that what I thought was an adult crush on Michael Symon was actually just pure admiration for a man who was not only an incredible chef but who also, on national television, stayed true to his roots and always had his wife’s back.
So how did Michael change the way I looked at food? Let’s start with what he shared on The Chew. There are a couple of his dishes that I made on the regular, especially when I still had children at home. My youngest son, Colin, was a hockey player and my last chick to leave the nest. Before hockey practice, we used to make Michael’s “Cast Iron Pork Pie” using ground pork and Michael’s unique but flavorful pairing of seasonings. It was something very different than I’d ever made before and we thoroughly enjoyed it.
Another dish that would reappear often in our household was his “Baked Chicken Wings with Salsa Verde”. I made this for many-a football game and overlooked the fact that Michael is a Cleveland Browns fan…I forgave him. Let’s go Patriots!
When it is chilly outside, his “Goat Cheese Mac and Cheese” recipe is the most comforting and cozy dish. It is so simple and is made with less than 5 ingredients combined with pulled chicken. Michael actually has a great book called Five in Five, meals in five minutes with five ingredients. It was developed from a segment he would do on The Chew to make fast, easy and delicious meals.
Other quick and easy dinners of Michael’s include his “Pork Schnitzel” which is made with a pork tenderloin cut into medallions and pounded out, his “Homemade Southern Style Salisbury Steak”, and his different but not to be ignored, take on “Chicken Marsala”. All of these are so simple and satisfying.
The cookbook Frank brought for me was my first actual Michael Symon cookbook and I read it like it was a novel. One thing he talks about that I really struck me was his view on salt. I’ve used salt all my life but didn’t realize that it opens your palate to accept the flavor of whatever it is you’re cooking. He goes on to say that sodium becomes an issue when you eat overly processed foods, but you can control how much salt you use in your own cooking, and that’s when you can have some real fun! He also has a section on when to use salt in your cooking based on what you’re making. Salt makes your food taste better people! Make it rain with that salt!
If you’re looking for perfect summertime meals, Michael’s “Red Potatoes with Arugula” pairs nicely with barbecue and his “Soft Polenta with Mascarpone” is simply delightful. Summertime dishes also usually include a fish dish, which I’ve never been 100% confident in cooking. I didn’t grow up eating a lot of seafood outside of lake fish like walleye, trout or crab, but Michael’s “Olive Oil Poached Halibut with Fennel, Rosemary, and Garlic” completely elevated any idea I had on what fish could be like. I love how easy this recipe is and it truly changed my perspective on cooking fish at home.
Searching for a great steak recipe? Every bite of Michael’s “Grilled Hanger Steak with Steak Sauce and Pickled Chilies” is so good and the sauce and pickled chilies make a great combination. He has a whole chapter on pickling pulling from his Easter European flair and those pickles are top notch.
His next cookbook that I got was Carnivore. This was after I’d already met Michael and now that we were friends, I had to support him, right? His love for meat matches that of my husband’s. Even though Scot is a very adventurous eater, he is Irish after all, and is a pure meat and potatoes kind of guy. Michael’s “Prime Rib with Horseradish Beets” has been on my table every Christmas for the last nine years. It is one of the best, easiest, and no-fail prime rib recipes I’ve ever made and is a family favorite. His use of horse radish beets is stellar and I love that he uses unsuspecting spices in different ways. He has a shaved Brussels sprout recipe that uses caraway seeds. I would have had no clue to use caraway seeds with Brussels sprouts but if you think about it they are like small cabbages so the flavors totally marry well. The first time I made beef tartare was Michael’s “Beef Tartare with Avocado and Uni Mousse” and it is definitely a special dish to make for a dinner party with friends.
The next cookbook of Michael’s that I got was Fix it with Food. He talks about having autoimmune diseases and cooking with autoimmune consciousness and it was just another thing we had in common as I too am an auto immune disease person. I was very interested to see what he had to say because I’m really not into diet books. I don’t even like to use the word “diet”, I prefer to just call what I eat my lifestyle. I totally know whenever I eat or drink something that does not agree with my body, I feel pain in my muscles and bones. It is not a fun feeling so I really try to be aware of what I’m putting into my body and it was very cool to see that Michael is the same. He is much better than I am as far as being consistent and regimented, he even has a cleanse that he recommends. I just try to listen to my body and enjoy good whole food.
As if it were any surprise, all of the recipes in Fix it with Food do not disappoint and are anti-inflammatory recipe gold. His “Kyle’s Coconut Rice” is outstanding – it’s not sweet and it’s a great side dish with chicken or fish. I always have the ingredients to this recipe in my pantry ready to go. His “Farro Salad” is another recipe that I have made on repeat. It feels so indulgent but nobody needs to know that it’s healthy for them. His “Ginger and Chile Roasted Chicken” also pairs really nicely with the coconut rice. Michael has a new Fix it with Food cookbook that I unfortunately have not yet cooked through but it looks just as interesting as the first.
For father’s day last year I bought Scot a Traeger grill. Living in Texas, it is automatically assumed that one knows how to grill, barbecue, and smoke like you’ve been doing it for years. Coming from New England, we used our grill a couple months out of the year and that was it. Scot is a great sous chef and grills what I ask him to for the amount of time I ask him to, but when he opened his Traeger, his first question was “Well, Michael Symon has to have a cookbook on grilling, right?” Of course he does honey. Of course he does. Michael’s Playing with Fire cookbook was promptly ordered and it has been Scot’s Bible. There are so many tabs coming out of this book that I chuckle every time I see it because my husband historically has had no desire to cook anything but he has read this thing cover to cover.
We’ve made all of his rubs, which are all amazing, and have made a couple of his barbecue sauces. His “Cleveland BBQ Sauce” is a mustard based sauce that is outstanding. We’ve also made his pulled pork and his sides are not to be ignored, his “Smoked Green Beans” are out of this world. The first meal that we made was last Christmas when my daughter and son-in-law were visiting. We put together the barbecue sauce, spread the rub on the ribs and made the smoked green beans. The meal was absolutely outstanding. There are so many recipes that Scot has marked that we have left to try and I can’t wait to get back to you to let you know how they all are.
I would be remiss to not speak about Michael’s positive presence once again appearing in my life, this time during the pandemic. Michael Symon, the sweet man that he is, created a daily Food Network Facebook live cooking show to help people feel a little more comfortable while they were stuck in their homes, and taught recipes using ingredients commonly found in your pantry. He would give you the grocery list and made you feel like you were cooking his recipes right alongside him. Michael got me through the spring of 2020 and gave me something positive to focus on every day when I was working at a hospital.
Michael’s influence and infectious laugh can still be found on the Food Network’s Iron Chef, Beat Bobby Flay, and on his current show Symon’s Dinners Cooking Out featuring his wife Liz. It is a wonderful show and I enjoy watching it every Saturday.
Michael Symon is a beacon of light. He is all soul and not unlike his recipes, he is a truly inspiring Chef.