Michael Symon back in action

The Lola chef wins his first Iron Chef competition against Ricky Moore.

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Last time we heard from Michael Symon, chef-owner of Lola and Lolita in Cleveland, he had just battled some of the nation's best chefs on the Food Network's Next Iron Chef to earn the esteemed title of Iron Chef. Joining the four other Iron Chefs -- Mario Batali, Cat Cora, Bobby Flay, and Masaharu Morimoto -- means he will test his skill, speed, and creativity against cunning culinary challengers in Iron Chef America's Kitchen Stadium on a rotating basis.

This past Sunday, Symon jumped right into his new gig by taking on chef Ricky Moore, who runs Agraria in Washington, D.C. The secret ingredient, or in this case, ingredients: Thanksgiving fixings, including turkey, cranberries, pumpkin, and corn. Presiding as judges were Jeffrey Steingarten, food critic at Vogue magazine; Alexandra Guarnaschelli, executive chef of Butter restaurant in Manhattan; and Ted Allen, the culinary brain on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

The challenge struck most home cooks as impossible: create a five-course Thanksgiving meal in one hour. It was a nail-biter of an episode. Moore, desperately heating up his still-raw venison just minutes before the hour's end; Symon, looking somewhat uncomfortable in his new long-sleeved standard-issue Iron Chef uniform; grappa spilling into the stuffing; a just-poached egg splattering on the floor. But in the end both men managed to pull together Thanksgiving and earn, for the most part, high praise from the judges.

It's the numbers that matter, though, and Symon beat out Moore by eight points. The winning menu: salad of grilled sweet potato, corn, and crab topped with fried oyster; an upscale turducken (poached duck egg, crispy-skin turkey, and chicken-liver sauce); crispy turkey livers over whipped potato; a family-style lemon-sage turkey dish with braised legs and thighs; and an apple-and-fennel crisp.

Here, Symon reveals the trials and tribulations of getting dinner on the table.

We were nervous. We certainly didn't want to lose our very first competition. I was allowed to bring two people, and I brought my pastry chef, who's among the top ten in the country--I call him my secret weapon--and I also brought my chef from Lola, who's extremely well-rounded, so I knew he'd be able to handle whatever was thrown our way.

There were a few mishaps. The bottle of grappa--from the grappa and champagne cocktail--got knocked into the stuffing. But I wasn't upset. I knew that grappa makes everything taste better! And when we tasted it to make sure, I knew we were fine. Thing is, accidents happen in a hectic environment; you can't freak out. I dropped one of the poached eggs, too--we were nervous! But I'm always prepared. I always make extra.

That's the thing about being in this business. If I know I need five dishes, I'll make seven. The other night, for instance, we had a young couple who wanted a steak well-done, and they sent it back because it was dry. I could have told them that it would be dry! But my job as a restaurateur is to make the customer happy whether the problem is our mistake or self-inflicted. So we sent out another whole steak, cooked medium, and they liked it.

I'm thrilled that we won--and by a pretty significant margin, too. I was especially happy with the turducken; that seemed to have been what won the chefs over. And we finished in an hour! My wife joked with me after the episode, saying, "Does that mean we can sleep in for Thanksgiving?"

We always host Thanksgiving at my house: friends, family, staff with nowhere to go--they all come over. I probably won't do the same menu, though I might fry up those turkey livers. Depending on how many people show up, we do two to four birds, with one cooked in a traditional style and the others in a more eclectic way.

My restaurants are never opened on Thanksgiving; I want my staff to spend time with their family if they can. My feeling is, if I can't figure out how to make money the rest of the year so that my workers can enjoy the holidays, then I don't deserve to be an owner.

Business continues to be up 20% more than usual, thanks to the show. Most people who come here know about my win on the <i>Next Iron Chef</i>, and we're not advertising it outright, except that on New Year's Eve we'll be doing an Iron Chef menu at Lola, based on my dishes from past challenges. But that's only because people kept asking me, "When can we try those dishes?"! Other than that, I'm not changing anything about my restaurants or the menu.

I'm thrilled that I'm now an Iron Chef, but I want the news to spread organically.  To top of page

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