Celeb chef Michael Symon is a familiar face on The Chew, Iron Chef, The Best Thing I Ever Ate, and has popped up on other TV shows. The gregarious James Beard award-winner is a Cleveland and New York-based restaurateur and the chef-owner of numerous restaurants in the greater Cleveland area: Lola, Lolita, The B Spot and Michael Symon’s Roast (also known as Roast) in Detroit. Symon grew up in a family with Greek and Sicilian roots and has written for Bon Appétit, Esquire, Food Arts, Gourmet, Saveur and O Magazine. Because his cooking is known as “meat-centric” — one of his books is even called Michael Symon’s Carnivore — I wanted to witness him butchering a young pig and chat over menu items like strawberry BLTs and country pork rib with smoked tomato and roasted peppers at a recent Knob Creek Bourbon dinner at Rich Table. Knob Creek’s dinner series was billed as a unique nose-to-tail dining experience showcasing Kentucky small batch bourbon and “big, full, signature flavor in dishes created by the country’s best chefs.” Witnessing celeb-butcher demos before or during a meal is not necessarily a new trend to the Bay Area. Events at diverse locales ranging from Bloodhound bar in 2009, to SFMOMA and the popular 2010 Eat Real Festival Steer Competition helped initiate butchery-while-you-eat into a full-fledged trend years ago. Symon busted out the hacksaw for his demo and we soon sat down to learn finer sipping points like breathing in the spirit with an open mouth to avoid getting potent alcohol fumes. The Bay Area is one of the biggest bourbon markets and this meat-centric dinner appeared to be nearly sold out. It feels like bourbon drinking and meat eating go hand in hand: Symon and a few guests joked about whether or not there were any vegetarians in the house–even the dessert from Chef Sarah Rich had bacon bits in it.
Michael Symon did ask during his butchering demo if we have good peaches in the Bay Area, and riffed with Rich Table chef Evan Rich about how amazing New Jersey & Cleveland peaches, corn and tomatoes can be–a chance to rev up a good-natured West Coast vs. everyone else rivalry, perhaps? According to Symon, Thomas Keller loved the corn from Cleveland so much he said, “You’ve gotta send me some of this corn,” when he visited Symon’s restaurant in Cleveland.
Symon may be working with Knob Creek because he says he’s been a longtime bourbon drinker and that good things — like dry-aging beef, and making prosciutto — take time. While attentive and chatty throughout the event, Symon did have other business to attend to and headed out towards the end of the porcine meal to catch a red-eye flight to NYC for two early morning tapings of The Chew.
Bay Area Bites: What is your connection to the Bay Area? Symon: I have a lot of chef friends: Traci Des Jardins and Chris Cosentino. It’s a great food town. It doesn’t get much better than San Francisco.
Bay Area Bites: What do you think about Greek food in the Bay Area? Symon: I fly out tonight, so no eating on this trip. I went to Kokkari five or six years ago and it was good. Greek restaurants in the United States are incredibly bad. [Laughs.] It’s one of the mothers of all cuisines yet you don’t see that in restaurants. There are great spots, like Cleopatra’s Needle in New York.
Bay Area Bites: What’s your connection to Rich Table? [Knob Creek hosted a bourbon dinner at Rich Table in December 2012]. Symon: I haven’t been before. This is my first time. It’s a beautiful space, with nice people. You can kind of feel the love in the restaurant, which is nice.
Bay Area Bites: You say that your focus is on meat-centric cuisine. What does that mean? What kind of meat do you use and value? What meat would be essential to have in a “desert island” type of situation? Symon: I am a Midwestern guy and a chef that grew up in the Midwest and opened his first restaurant in the West. When we opened our first restaurant 17 years ago we could get walleye perch. It was tough to get great meat, fish and vegetables back then. Early on in my career that’s what I focused on in my cooking. I was able to establish fantastic relationships with farmers. We would bring in what they had, and they’d say, “Take it, this is what I got,” and we had to learn how to use the entire animal. I was never really thinking of it but doing it for all this time made us very sustainable and farmer friendly.
My favorite meat to work with is pork. It’s just so versatile. That’s would be what I would lean towards for my desert island animal. There’s so many parts you can cure and make last. You can make things for immediate results and versatility. I have a pig tattooed on my chest. I got it at Voodoo Monkey, 17 years ago.
Bay Area Bites: What are current food trends? Symon: The farm-to-table movement continues to go in the right direction thanks to the work of Alice Waters. But cities like San Francisco really drive that and it’s continuing to take a real foothold with anyone that really loves food. I continue to eat Korean and Vietnamese and Chinese food. Those are cuisines that I wasn’t trained in and I don’t cook often. I’ll go to Mission Chinese and chow down because that’s not something I would make for myself at home.