By the end of July, Michael Symon had already cooked Thanksgiving dinner twice.
He did this while also running six Cleveland restaurants (plus one in Detroit), taping three cooking shows, scrambling to finish a book about meat and rehearsing to cohost ABC's new daily talk show, The Chew.
The first Thanksgiving, for this story, took place in a Manhattan apartment. The crowd of guests included chef and friend Jonathan Waxman, restaurateur Laurence Kretchmer and Symon's wife, Lizto whom, he says with great appreciation, he has been married "for four million years." The meal was an idealized version of a Midwestern Thanksgiving. The turkey was stuffed with apples, sage and garlic and glazed with a cider-butter reduction that turned the skin auburn. And there was plenty of gravybecause Symon believes in copious gravy for allcombining stock, more cider, pan juices, pureed turkey liver and a golden, German-style Dortmunder lager. "You should cook with what you want to drink," says Symon. "Liz cooks with wine because she wants to drink wine. I cook with beer because I want to drink beer."
Turkey dinner number two came courtesy of Iron Chef America's "The Thanksgiving Battle" episode, and for this one, Symon, in a sixth-floor New York City television studio, was on the clock. With cameramen swarming, Symon rushed to butcher and debone two turkeys. He stuffed a roulade with a mixture of pancetta, olive oil, garlic, orange zest and chile flakes and set it in a sous vide bath. Then he got to work peeling potatoes, poaching eggs and breaking cold butter to bits with his fingers, all so he could assemble 11 courses and ultimately be judged by The Fonz.
Both of these are prequels to Symon's real Thanksgiving, which takes placeand will always take placeat his home in Cleveland. "It's my favorite holiday of the year," he says. "It's definitely the holiday we blow out the hardest. People come early and stay late." Symon's entire extended family will be there, including his 94-year-old grandfather Sy, who still bakes his own bread. His 13 nephews will all be clamoring for some love from the man they refer to as Uncle Monkey. It's the whole Midwestern-Sicilian-Greek-Carpathian family; all of the parts that define Symon. Also attending will be cooks, hosts and servers from Symon's restaurants who can't spend the holidays with their families out of town. "I lay all the food out right down the middle of the table," he says, "and let everyone have at it."
Symon's Thanksgiving menus are full of the Mediterranean touches he's known for: capers and anchovies in his brussels sprouts, dill and feta (he likes the Dodoni brand) in his shaved-vegetable salad, a tangle of carrots, beets and celery root sliced hair-thin. But the dishes are also directly Midwestern. "I don't think any other holiday embraces the food of the Midwest quite like Thanksgiving," says Symon. "There's roasted meat and mashed potatoes. But being here is also about heritage. Cleveland is really a giant melting potnot only is my family a melting pot, but so is the city. There are tremendous Greek, Italian and Eastern European influences here, and my holiday reflects that."
By the time November 24 actually rolls around, the 42-year-old Symon will already be two months into the highest-profile gig of his career, costarring on The Chew with his buddy Mario Batali, Top Chef's Carla Hall, health expert Daphne Oz and style maven Clinton Kelly. The show will cover food issues from all angles, with Symon not just leading live cooking demos but discussing, with his fellow hosts, issues about food production, diet and the significance of eating together as a family.
Gordon Elliott, The Chew's creator and executive producer, couldn't imagine doing the show without Symon. "He's the guy from Cleveland who can't believe his own success," says Elliott. "He's got tattoos. Loves his wife. Adores his family. He loves to laugh, loves to teach, and he connects with everybody. When he teaches, he wants to stand beside you, wrap his arms around you and show you how easy it is to eat well." After taping ends on Thursdays, Symon will be flying home to Cleveland, hopping on one of his three Harley-Davidsons (he has models from 1932, '49 and '95) and situating himself at the pass of his flagship restaurant, Lola, just in time for dinner service.
Symon opened Lola in 1997 on a budget of just $170,000. He was 26 and intent on building a menu around his roots. Symon took inspiration from Cleveland itself. He tapped into his city's Eastern European and Mediterranean ancestry. He homed in on its love for pork in all forms and its insistence on hearty, homestyle portions. At Lola, Symon made pierogies, like everyone in Cleveland did, but his were stuffed with beef cheeks instead of mashed potatoes; his were plated with wild mushrooms and horseradish crème fraîche instead of just sour cream. He had invented a style of modern fine dining by Clevelanders, for Clevelanders. His instincts were perfectly aligned with the local culture, and for that reasonas well as for his technique and creativityhe was named one of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs in 1998.
"After the award, everyone started crying, 'Oh my God, you're going to leave us,' " says Symon."I told them, Why would I leave now? I've achieved everything I wanted and never thought I'd be able to in my hometown. There's no reason ever to go." (This is perhaps the fundamental difference in temperament between Cleveland chefs and Cleveland basketball players.) With Lola perpetually packed, Symon began expanding within the city. He moved Lola downtown, and in 2005, the old space in the Tremont neighborhood became Lolita, which is more bistro-like in both its offerings and its prices. Just recently, Symon had to raise the price of a main course to over $20 for the first time, and it seems to pain him. "We tried to keep everything under 20 bucks for so long," he says.
Over the years, Symon's new concepts in Clevelandfour B Spot locations, the B standing for burgers, bourbon, beer, bratwurst and bolognahave followed a pattern: They keep getting more casual for diners, while standards remain as high as ever in the kitchens. "We take these places as seriously as Lola," says Symon. "We use as many local ingredients as we can. We make our own pickles, we make our own brats. We make the bologna. We have a truck bring in Pat LaFrieda meat from New York four times a week, because no one here can supply that kind of quality. We cook 1,000 burgers a day and take the temperature in every single one." What Symon is doing, with grilled meats and sausages and pierogies in Cleveland, is what Bruce Springsteen has done with songs in New Jersey for the span of his career: Every day, he's making anthems.
One thing Symon's not making, however, on our tender national day of all-you-can-eat gratitude, is Thanksgiving dessert. Though Symon does on occasion put together a truly exceptional apple brown Betty, with buttery slices of apple and soft brioche bread crumbs, his own holiday tradition dictates that other people bring the sweets. "Liz's mom makes incredible pumpkin pies," he says. "Liz will usually make a late-fall crumble, with apples and cherries. My dad will make a trifle with chocolate pudding, whipped cream and brownies, and my mom always brings trays and trays of baklava." After dessert and naps and football, there does remain one last task for Symon: packaging. "This is Thanksgiving," he says. "Everybody's going home with leftoversenough for a late-night snack and a breakfast turkey sandwich."
Michael Symon's Ideas for Thanksgiving Leftovers
Because Michael Symon tends to overdo the cooking on Thanksgiving (he generally buys five turkeys, one or two just for making stock), there is invariably a lot of extra food. Here, three of his favorite dishes for leftovers.
"I love having these the day after Thanksgiving," says Symon. He piles toasted sourdough bread with sliced turkey, chunks of avocado and lime mayonnaise (mayo mixed with a little lime juice and lime zest). He finishes the sandwiches with a drizzle of Sriracha and a handful of cilantro leaves.
Quick Breakfast Bread Pudding
Symon sees breakfast potential in leftover stuffingeither butternut squash with corn bread or lemony mushroom with pine nuts. He dices the stuffing, whisks up a bunch of eggs with strips of dark turkey meat and some whole milk, then bakes it in a deep skillet. "I have it right out of the oven, before anyone wakes up," says Symon. "Then everyone else eats it all morning."
Symon uses leftover turkey stock and meat to make this soothing soup. He cooks sautéed carrots, parsnips, celery root and onion in the stock, then adds leftover turkey. He also adds dumplings made with flour, eggs, milk, turkey fat and tarragon; the dumplings cook in the simmering soup right before serving.