With 12 restaurants, a co-hosting segment on ABC’s The Chew, and the coveted “Iron Chef” title under his belt, Chef Michael Symon is something of a mogul. But at his core, he’s also just a food-loving guy from the midwest, whose enthusiasm for Cleveland’s rapidly-growing dining scene is positively infectious. Ahead of his upcoming appearance at The Borgata Hotel & Casino this weekend in Atlantic City (where he, alongside Bobby Flay will be smoking “several hundred pounds of pork chop” for an expected 1200 people at an indoor street food festival on Saturday), Chef Symon sat down with us to share his thoughts on kielbasa, Cleveland’s hottest neighborhood, and why he can’t stand Chicago-style pizza.
You own 9 restaurants in the midwest, but spend a great deal of time in NYC. What’s it like commuting back and forth?
I spend a couple days a week in NYC for my TV show, then head back to Cleveland; I’m in Detroit every four to six weeks. My friends in New York give me a hard time for the locations I’ve chosen for my restaurants. They say, “Where are you gonna open your next restaurant, Iowa?”
How has Cleveland’s dining scene changed over the years?
I moved back to Cleveland from NYC in 1993 to open my first restaurant, Lola. It was tough then – there were very few dining options, the quality just wasn’t there. Now, the restaurant scene has really blossomed. For a major city in the US, it has really sparked a lot of interest. Compared to Portland, or other cities of similar size, Cleveland has a much stronger culinary scene. Tourism in general has increased dramatically, and you can see that change in the volume of out-of-town diners that we’re serving. Originally, 98% of our customers were within the Cleveland zip code – now it’s more like 60% locals, 40% visitors.
Does the Westside Market live up to the hype?
Absolutely. It’s the oldest free-standing non-chain market of its kind in the USA. A lot of the stands are predominantly Eastern European, and many have been owned by the same families for 100 years, selling homemade sausages, jerky, meats, that kind of thing. There are some great artisanal vendors too, like Ohio City Pasta, Urban Herbs, and 201 Cheeses. The whole place is really a national treasure; when I bring chefs from other parts of the country to visit, their jaws hit the floor.
So, which is better for Eastern European cuisine: Cleveland, or New York?
In Cleveland, I can get kielbasa on every street corner; in New York, I have to send out a search party. Whenever I’m in New York, I visit Michael Anthony at the Gramercy Tavern; his bar menu has homemade kielbasa. That’s my “I can’t wait to get to get home to Cleveland” meal.
Any other Cleveland chefs we should know about?
Don Sawyer (Greenhouse Tavern, Noodlecat), who used to work for me, has gotten a lot of press over the years. Also, Eric Williams (Momocho, Happy Dog, El Carnicero) and Paul Manillo (Flour).
For someone who’s never traveled to the midwest, what areas would you recommend?
There’s all kinds of great farms to check out: The Chef’s Garden is just outside Cleveland, and in my opinion it’s one of the greatest farms in the country. I’d also recommend a ride through Amish Country to try fresh farm cheeses. Pick a spot in each city to try its signature dish: for example, Cleveland is famous for the Polish Boy. And there’s no way you’re visiting Detroit without getting a Coney Dog. In Toledo, try Tony Packo’s version of the hot dog, which was made famous on M*A*S*H. This is all simple food that you can get for a couple of bucks, but it’s helped define each of these cities. Of course, Chicago’s great too, but don’t talk to me about that pizza.
Not a fan of Chicago deep dish?
If you can’t pick it up and eat with one hand, it’s not pizza! If they just called it a casserole, I’d be fine with it.
What are some other things about the midwest that travelers might not know about?
New York and LA are renowned, but the arts scene is in Cleveland is pretty impressive. One of the greatest orchestras in the world is in Cleveland; the Cleveland Ballet has been world-renowned for years; plus, there are tons of great theaters. People would be shocked at all the little neighborhoods. Tremont is a great example: it has this wonderful mix of old Eastern European families, young artists, and, for lack of a better term, a lot of hipsters are there now, too. The old families have been there for generations, then artists moved there because it’s affordable, and then the restaurants and galleries followed. It’s a really nice mix of young and old; everyone gets along, and everyone has tremendous pride.
What places in particular do you recommend in Tremont?
I lived in Tremont for a long time, and opened my first restaurant, Lola, there in 1993. As far as other places, I like to go shopping at Banyan Tree, which features a ton of local artists. There’s a great breakfast place called Lucky’s: best biscuits and gravy I’ve ever eaten in my life. Fahrenheit is a wonderful restaurant specializing in hand-tossed pizzas. Down the street, The Velvet Tango Room has homemade bitters and hand-crafted ice cubes, and the owner, Paulius Nasvytis, consults all over the country. This place was around years before Milk & Honey. In Cleveland – who would have thought?