Choosing the next Iron Chef: Episode 3
Behind the scenes at a reality show for professional cooks.
(FSB Magazine) -- Michael Symon, chef/owner of Cleveland's acclaimed Lola and Lolita restaurants, is currently competing with some of the country's finest grub slingers on the Food Network's The Next Iron Chef. The show pits professional chefs in a weekly cook-off based on a unique challenge announced at the beginning of each episode. The winner will join star chefs Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, and Cat Cora as a regular contestant on Iron Chef America, also on the Food Network, a subsidiary of EW Scripps Co (Charts). For the next few weeks (until he either wins the competition or gets eliminated) Chef Symon will report on his contest experiences for FSB.
In Episode 3 our would-be Iron Chefs battled it out in the "resourcefulness" challenge. Chefs were paired off and then asked to pack a cooler full of secret ingredients for the other chef to cook with. The competitors and their coolers were then shipped of to the Culinary Institute of America campus in upstate New York. Each chef had an hour to create two dishes using a grill, a few kitchen staples and the contents of their coolers.
There was talk of sabotage as some chefs tossed in ingredients they hoped would trip up their partner. (Pork-loving chef John Besh, from New Orleans, was confronted with rabbit meat and a bunch of flowers.) But Chef Symon blew the judges away with his offering: grilled quail served family style, with polenta, and - bonus - iced blueberry lemonade. Here, Symon shares his thoughts on the challenge:
When I realized this challenge entailed building your own fire and grilling, I knew I had it made. We've got a wood-burning oven at Lolita [one of Chef Symon's two Cleveland restaurants], so I knew what it took.
I think the hard part for most of the chefs was the time limit. We only had an hour from beginning to end, which means you have to get that fire started in twenty minutes, and it's gotta be rippin' hot. That's not easy if you're not accustomed to cooking that way.
I know there was some talk about sabotaging your opponent to get ahead, but it's just not how I operate. As far as I'm concerned, if you need to sabotage your opponent you shouldn't be an Iron Chef. It's the same when it comes to my business. When other chefs want to open a place in our neighborhood, I tell them what they need and what to expect. I wouldn't want to bad-mouth anyone in a million years, even if I thought they sucked. In any case, I think Chris Cosentino [the executive chef at Incanto in San Francisco and Symon's challenge partner] and I cook the same way, so I just filled his cooler with ingredients we both like.
I took a lot of risks that day - the polenta (I knew that would take at least 40 minutes to make, but I doubted anyone else would attempt it), the quail served family-style, and the good ingredients I gave my opponent to work with. But it was a calculated risk. I was in my element, and I did what felt comfortable to me and what I think my customers would like, not just the judges.
I was sweating my ass off that day; it must have been 95 degrees, so I thought a drink would be a good idea. The same goes for that family-style dish, which is not unlike something I'd prepare in the restaurant - a sauce with red wine vinegar, garlic, shallots, olive oil, some greens. And as for the polenta - I was right. No one thought to use the corn meal that way. One judge complained that I should have cooked the quail medium-rare. I would never do that, and I told her so, althought that bit ended up on the cutting room floor.
You have to be true to yourself - that's what makes a good impression at the end. I don't blame Morou for cooking the way he cooks, even thought the judges disliked it. [Morou Ouattara, executive chef of Farrah Olivia in Alexandria, Virginia, was dissed and eliminated by the judges for his plating technique.] My feeling is, all chefs are where they are for a reason, and that's because they believe in something and they execute what they believe in. That's what makes them successful. Mario Batali isn't going to quit cooking Italian if judges (or critics) were to tell him to stop cooking in his safety zone. And Rocco DiSpirito is a great example of how things can backfire when you're not true to your cooking. His place Union Pacific was one of the best restaurants in New York City. That's how he really cooks. But when he appeared on TV I thought he was trying to be something he's not.
I'm thrilled to have won this round. Looking back, I've had to be pretty resourceful running my business as well. When we opened the original Lola 11 years ago, we didn't want to spend a lot on real estate. So we chose neighborhood in Cleveland that was essentially the projects. But the space was cheap; my wife and I are both Cleveland natives who've spent a good bit of time in New York, and this felt like the kind of urban community that would take off. And it did. We signed a fifteen-year lease, and started off paying $1,200 a month. The going rate now is as high as $9,000 a month, although we pay much less.
We started a year behind schedule, with eight dollars left in our bank account. When the doors opened that first day, I had to borrow money from my father so that we had enough cash in the register to make change. We were literally buying only one or two bottles of this or that wine. And we chose short ribs and other hard-to-cook meats because they were cheaper. Steak cost more at the time because anyone can make a nice steak. But we were confident that we could turn lesser-known meats into something delicious, and it ended up working out great.
We took another risk 10 years later, when we moved Lola to a new location. It was still really super-busy, so why change a good thing? But Lola had been going for ten years and we weren't sure how long it could continue being the hottest restaurant in the city. So we changed things up. And we were dying to try a new restaurant concept, so we launched our new place, Lolita, in the old Lola space. People thought we were idiots. But we believed our customers would find us. And they did.
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