Choosing the next Iron Chef: Episode 4

Behind the scenes at a reality show for professional cooks.

By Michael Symon

(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 4, the four remaining chefs jetted off to the catering facilities of Lufthansa Airlines in Munich, Germany, for their most stressful challenge yet: "create under pressure." Jet-lagged, surrounded by giant-sized cooking equipment, and operating in unfamiliar territory, they were given 90 minutes to prepare three courses fit to be served on the airline's new luxury double-decker plane, the Airbus A380. The dishes needed to withstand freezing and reheating and still satisfy the discriminating palates of the most upscale travelers.


Our man Michael Symon wowed the judges, winning for the second week in a row. His offering: tuna crudo with vinegar-lemon dressing; slow-roasted salmon over creamed leeks and seared mushrooms; and curried venison with parsnip puree and carrot salad. Guest judge Bernd Schmitt, the executive chef for menu design at Lufthansa, said it all: "Wow."

Here, Symon shares his thoughts on the challenge:

I call my wife after every challenge [and before the judging] to let her know how I did. This time, I had absolutely no idea what to tell her. It was the hardest one we've had. We knew when we signed up for the show that we had to bring a passport. But we didn't know what it was for, and we certainly didn't know we were flying to Germany. By the time we got on the plane, we were all so tired - we had been working 15-hour days, filming the show - I basically took a Xanax, had some tequila, and slept the entire way.

Once we got there, we were shocked. My first thought was: How can I come up with something that will heat properly and still retain its moisture and flavor? I ended up making salmon with cream. Salmon has a high fat content, so it keeps its moisture pretty well. It's not that kind of fish where if it's cooked past medium it's hopeless. There's a lot of good oil in it. The cream also helps retain the moisture and richness.

They say that your taste buds dull when you're on a plane, so I kept that in mind. I seasoned pretty aggressively, using curry on the venison. Curry really elevated the flavor of the dish, and the venison held up to it.

What got me most was that Saran wrap. It didn't come in a little box like it does here, but in this big roll you had to cut yourself. At that point, I wasn't thinking about how I appeared to my employees or customers at all, I was just focused on getting that Saran wrap cut. All I could think was, "I'm not going to win because I can't do Saran wrap?!"

I think the fact that I travel for business helped with this challenge. Owning a restaurant in a mid-market city, I know that the opportunity to cook in New York or San Francisco for charity dinners and fundraisers is well worth the effort. It's for a good cause, and, from a business perspective, it increases the scope of our customer base. Unlike an ad, it doesn't just tell people we exist; it helps us build relationships. After they meet you and taste your food, they'll remember to come to your restaurant when they're in town. In any case, cooking food on the road taught me that it's good strategy to heat up the food until just ready, so that when it comes time to reheat and serve it, it won't be overcooked. That worked out really well here.

Luckily my restaurants are always filled close to capacity, but winning challenges is still great for business. Our employees got really excited after I won last week's challenge, . I think the guys in the kitchen get especially charged up when we win. They work for us because they want to be great chefs some day. Working at Lola and Lolita is a way to further their career, and when we win, it helps cement the idea that they made the right decision to be in this kitchen.

There was a lot of chatter among customers, too. Sunday night we put up two TVs so people could have dinner with us and then we watch the show together. Sunday is usually a lighter night, but now it's more like a Saturday. People have been pretty excited during the week, too. I've noticed that we've sold more "foodie" dishes in the past few weeks: sweetbreads, beef cheeks, tongue. Increasingly, customers are willing to try something if we say it's good. It's always great to know that we've built up that trust. Top of page

Were you rooting for Chef Symon? Did you agree with the judges in Episode 4? Sound off here!

Read the chef's blog: Episodes 1 & 2, Episode 3.

More about "Choosing the Next Iron Chef" on the Food Network.
To write a note to the editor about this article, click here.