Choosing the next Iron Chef: Episode 5

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 Five, the three surviving chefs were dropped off in front of the Eiffel Tower. Each chef received a red envelope containing 2,000 euros and a list of the Iron Chef Chairman's favorite food purveyors in Paris. The challenge:"Lead and Inspire." Each had three hours to shop for a three-course dinner party for twenty people.


Three hours later, their shopping bags brimming over with French delicacies, the three chefs were dropped off on the immaculate grounds of a 19th century estate - the residence, it turned out, of the U.S. ambassador to France, Craig Stapleton.

The guests, the chefs were told, would be several of Stapleton's foodier Parisian friends, along with foreign dignitaries and French celebrities. Guests and judges would sit down to dinner together, and everyone would comment on the food.

To help them create, cook, and plate the food within, again, just three hours, chefs were assigned a sous-chef with whom they had never worked. Chef John Besh seemed to have the upper hand, possessing a working knowledge of the language and a Gallic cooking style. Chef Chris Cosentino was determined to give the guests a culinary tour of the States. But Chef Symon had ideas of his own ...

When I heard the term American food, the first thing I thought of was family: how I was brought up, the cookouts we had, and the food we ate. I also knew, from running my restaurant, that customers love fresh spins on old classics. They want something that's familiar but also new.

That's how I came up with the hot dog made from lobster and topped with shaved peppers and onions; and the root beer float constructed out of cheese ice cream and blueberry-lemon sparkling water. And then I thought, what's more French than paté, and what's more like paté than meatloaf? So that's how I got idea for the entrée made with ground veal and duck liver. I thought I was off to a good start.

I was glad to have help in this challenge. My sous-chef spoke broken English, and I speak broken culinary French, so it worked out perfectly. One of my strong points is being a good leader, which is what being a good boss is all about. You have to be secure, you have to teach and listen at the same time, and you've got to stay focused. Things don't always go right, and you have be the one to make sure everyone is on the same page to get the job done.

That turned out to be really important in this challenge. Honestly, it was the first time [in the competition] when I thought I might not make it. There were so many things that went wrong. The mixer broke, the oven was down, and the cream was spoiled. We really had to bear down, regroup and push. I played football and wrestled in school, and I think that really helps in business and in the kitchen. You have to be a team player. You have to be humble yet confident. Lots of people come to my restaurant with some big fancy-schmancy CV, and I don't look at it too much for the most part.

A strong resume will get your foot in the door, but I care more about work ethic and personality. I think that's what helped us with this challenge. We didn't have a defeatist attitude when things went wrong. That's huge in business, too. Some people run into some challenges early on, and then they get this woe-is-me attitude. You can't do that. You have to stay positive, and when you stay positive your staff does too.

I'm thrilled I made it through the challenge [Chris Cosentino was the unlucky chef sent home this episode]. The judges didn't declare a winner this time around, though I think Besh would have won if they had, so he must feel pretty confident about the finale. Still, I'm really excited. I don't think you can really prepare for something like this. You just have to keep a clear head and an open mind. I don't have any rituals; I don't need more sleep. I never sleep anyway - maybe four hours a night, but that's it.

The worst thing that could possibly happen is if I choke. Of course I don't expect to do it here. I live for good competition; as I said before, I like it when my back is against the wall. I cherish this kind of stuff. I've got 20-something years of experience. I intend to stay focused and I intend to win.  Top of page

Chef Symon's previous blog entries:
Episodes 1 & 2
Episode 3
Episode 4

More about "Choosing the Next Iron Chef" on the Food Network.

To write a note to the editor about this article, click here.