Choosing the next Iron Chef: Episodes 1 & 2

Behind the scenes at a reality show for professional cooks.

By Michael Symon

(FSB Magazine) -- Chef Michael Symon, chef/owner of Cleveland's acclaimed Lola and Lolita restaurants, is currently competing with some of the best chefs in the country 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. For the next few weeks (until he either wins the competition or gets eliminated) Chef Symon will report on his contest experiences for FSB.

You've got to have some confidence in yourself to go on a show like The Next Iron Chef. These chefs are arguably the top chefs in the country. And so, there's never going to be a situation where you put food in front of them and they won't know how to cook it.


Episode 1 was a pastry competition, and I made a French toast and bacon ice cream topped with bacon with pecans and maple syrup. We had 240 covers on that day and sold 70 of those desserts, which is huge. And I didn't even win. I came to the show thinking I was going to cook in the style I cook; I wasn't going to do food that wasn't the kind of food I do. If you cook in that vein, win or lose, you're fine. If you go out and you try to wow the judges and do something in a style that's not yours, then it does nothing for your business. You don't want to be perceived as something you're really not.

I was thrilled with the way my lamb tartar came out in the first challenge on Episode 2 [in this challenge, the chefs were asked to create a dish consisting of a single mouthful, that reflected their personality.] I was in my element. I'm really about farm-fresh food with a Mediterranean twist, so I couldn't have asked for a better situation. I had that heirloom tomato for sweetness, and that tang from the yogurt. I had garlic, olives, and mint in it. I couldn't have been happier about it.

[In the second challenge on Episode 2, the contestants were asked to cook with chemicals and equipment more commonly found in chemistry labs than kitchens.] Cooking with some of those chemicals and equipment ... I had never seen that before. I started by looking at what was on the ingredients table and picking the ones that looked at their peak. I didn't know what I was going to cook yet, but I knew that if it was fresh, then it would taste good.

The tomatoes were beautiful, and there were several fish up there, but the yellowtail looked like the best of the bunch. After that, it was totally spontaneous. I ended up making a tomato dish that included a red pepper sauce sweetened with xanthan gum, and a yellow-tail-and-lobster corn chowder, done sous-vide. The judges said I didn't stretch my creativity enough, but I took that with a grain of salt. Besides, they also said that my food tasted good, and that's what matters to me as a chef and to people who might come to my restaurant.

It's a long-term investment, being on a reality show. You do it for the exposure. Cleveland is a mid-market town, but if you're on a show, you get the recognition of a chef from New York or San Francisco. Coming across badly or being nervous in front of the camera wasn't a concern for me. I've worked with the network back in the 1990s so I knew what to expect. When I was on the show - Melting Pot - business at Lola, my first restaurant, which I opened in 1997, increased by 20 percent. Of course, it would be an honor to win and become Iron Chef, too. I live for competition, and to be able to compete with some of the best chefs around is a great thrill for me. Top of page

Talk back to Michael Symon here.

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