This weekend, the gym at Saint Martin's University was transformed into an expansive dining room, with billowing curtains, soft blue lighting, and staff rushing around preparing place settings, flowers and dialing in the ambiance. In recent years the Lacey university has begun tapping celebrity chefs to host its annual charity dinners. Which is how Michael Symon came to be in town this weekend.
Symon often cooks in front of TV cameras but on Saturday night was overseeing an elaborate dinner for 600 people. A Cleveland native, Symon owns three restaurants in his hometown. These days the James Beard Award–winner spends much of his time in New York shooting for his show, Symon's Suppers, and the cooking-themed daytime talk show, The Chew, where local native Mario Batali is a fellow host.
I met Symon a couple hours before he took to the stage. He smiled and apologized for a mouth full of chips. There is something incredibly calming about finding a man who is about to cook a five-course meal ($400 a ticket) eating potato chips. He then sat down with me to answer some questions.
Welcome to Seattle! Why are you here?
I'm here for the Saint Martin's event. I'll be cooking dinner for about 600 people. It should be a fun day.
Have you spent time here before?
I have. My uncle worked at Boeing for 30 years, so we used to come up here to visit him. It's a beautiful city.
What do you think of the restaurant scene in Seattle? Do you have any suggestions?
Salumi! Mario Batali's dad's place. All of Tom Douglas's restaurants are amazing.
You have your hands full these days: cooking, TV, writing. How often do you do charity events?
I do about five to seven big ones a year. I do a lot with Autism Speaks and Share Strength. There is a local community charity in Cleveland called Urban Community Schools that I do a bunch of stuff with.
You’ve spent a lot of time cooking in front of people. Do you ever get nervous?
I've been doing it forever, and it's never made me nervous.
Do you have any kitchen mishap stories from The Chew?
It's live TV so things do go wrong sometimes; 95 percent of the time it comes out well, but even Mario and I have had dishes that aren't our proudest moments. Once the range went off in the middle of a segment. I just faked it, and pretended that everything was still cooking in the pan.
What was the move to TV like?
It's been interesting. Fortunately for me I can just be myself, which in theory shouldn't be a hard thing to do. I'm used to being in a kitchen with 30 people, now we are in a studio with 150 people in the audience, 100 people working on the show, and 3 million people watching everyday. I still take the same approach: I want to teach people how to cook and make it fun.
Do you get to spend much time in Cleveland these days?
Almost every week. If I'm not doing an event I'm back home.
If I visited Cleveland from Seattle, where should I eat?
We have our restaurants, Lola, Lolita, and B Spot, but Green House Tavern is another great restaurant in Cleveland. There's a great old polish place that has been there for about 110 years called Sokolowski's that is spectacular.
If someone comes to your house for a meal, what do you cook?
It depends on the person and it depends on the season. You can never beat a roast chicken. I had some friends over the other day and did a huge paella.
What are your plans for Thanksgiving?
For the past 20 years I've hosted Thanksgiving at my house. And we have had 50-60 people over every year. We are in between houses in Cleveland, so I am not going to be cooking this year. I am having Thanksgiving at Bobby Flay's house. I'm sure I'll still do a lot of cooking but it will be the first Thanksgiving I haven't hosted in 20 years. It will be a little weird.
Any tips on cooking the turkey?
The biggest mistake people make is they cook it by time and not by temperature. Put a meat thermometer in there and when the thigh reaches 160 get it out of the oven and let it rest for at least 30 min before you slice it.
What are your thoughts on the turducken?
I am not a fan of the turducken. I think either cook a duck, a turkey, or a chicken. There is no reason to stuff all three inside of each other.
What's your ideal food destination (apart from Seattle, of course)?
Sicily. It's my favorite food destination in the world. New York is the best food destination in the United States.
Seattle is getting on the food truck bandwagon. If you were going to do a food truck what would it be?
I am not a huge fan of the food truck. But if I were going to open a food truck I would do homemade hotdogs. I would do a bunch of different flavored hot dogs with all kinds of wacky toppings.
Top five spices in the kitchen?
Coriander, cumin, chili flake, smoked paprika, and chipotle. I don’t count salt but obviously salt would be first.
Top five tools in the kitchen?
A sharp knife, bench scraper, microplane, food mill, and a wine key!
Anything you would like to say to the people?
Get in your kitchen, and don’t be afraid to cook. There is nothing better than sitting around the table with your friends and family.