Even if Cleveland chef Michael Symon’s home team rarely makes it to the play-offs, his annual Super Bowl party is always the place to be, thanks to his delicious spicy buffalo wings, bacon-spiked chili and sweet corn bread.
Ever since Michael Symon was a boy growing up in Cleveland, football and cooking have gone hand in hand. “Every weekend throughout my childhood, Pap would come pick me up,” he says, referring to his grandfather Preston “Sy” Symon. “We would buy food at the West Side Market, then go back to his house and spend all day cooking and watching football on TV.”
Pap worked as a pipe fitter during the week, but on weekends, he taught Michael the fundamentals of pierogi, sausage, chicken-and-dumpling soup and other staples of his Ukrainian heritage. These lessons—and a big, food-loving family in which all the men were great cooks—were a critical influence in Symon’s life.
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In 1998, F&W picked the 28-year-old Symon as one of the country’s best new chefs, a distinction he has more than lived up to. He’s well known in Cleveland for his raucous laugh and busy restaurants, Lola and Lolita, which have been lauded for pushing a behind-the-times food scene to the forefront of American dining. His dishes are simple and hearty without being mundane. The potato-and-cheese pierogies of his boyhood have become beef-cheek pierogies; the dumplings that once floated in chicken soup now serve as a bed for pan-roasted Great Lakes walleye. And while Symon has just been named the Food Network’s next Iron Chef and is exploring options to open restaurants in other cities, he has no intention of abandoning his hometown. He senses intuitively that his drive and imagination come directly out of the rugged, rusted city where he grew up.
In school, Symon chose wrestling over football, a four-season commitment—until he broke both bones in his right forearm during practice. Antsy and unable to wrestle, the 15-year-old got a job making pizza and ribs at a local restaurant, jump-starting his career. He left Ohio to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, then returned to work his way through Cleveland restaurant kitchens. A head chef by age 25, he earned local acclaim before opening his own restaurant, Lola, in 1997.
For Symon, cooking and football still go together. He and one of Lola’s chefs, Frank Rogers, take turns throwing an annual Super Bowl party for anywhere from 45 to 75 people. This year, he decided to try an intimate gathering for family and friends only. No matter the size of the guest list, what drives the menu is what has always driven Symon: taking the food he grew up eating—a gallimaufry of American, Eastern European, Greek and Italian cuisines—and putting it into the vernacular of a modern chef, without losing the simplicity of its origins.
“I do a bunch of stuff,” Symon says. “A big pot of chili, a couple of dips with chips, a lot of chicken wings.” For today’s party, the crispy wings—which couldn’t be further from Buffalo—are marinated in olive oil and crushed spices like coriander and cumin, then coated in a fiery sauce made with Sriracha (a Thai hot sauce). Symon’s chili is stepped up with the addition of ultratender pork cheeks, chunks of bacon and black-eyed peas, and it gets a serious hit of flavor from fresh jalapeños and smoky chipotles. As an accompaniment, Symon says, “I make some sweet, dense corn bread to beat the heat of the chili.”
“Crab salsa—that's for the girls,” he says of the fresh, light lump-crab dish made with cilantro, bell peppers and almonds that he’s set out with thick-cut potato chips. Asked why he’s serving arugula salad, which combines the peppery leaf with olives, feta and dill, Symon darkens slightly. “Who eats vegetables at a Super Bowl party? You eat fried food. Rich food. Stew. But I gave in, because I know some people are watching their waistlines!”
Symon doesn’t believe in holding back—he wants his guests to have plenty of everything. At the party, guests include his wife and business partner, Liz; chef Sam Talbot of Top Chef renown; and fashion designer Marc Ecko. “I serve the meal all at once, as soon as people start arriving.”
Symon loves beer with food, especially this kind of food. “Beer and chili?” he says. “Beer and wings? Come on.” His brand of choice is Great Lakes Brewing Company, and not just because it’s brewed minutes away from both of his restaurants. “It’s unbelievable,” Symon says. “I think it’s the best beer in the country. It’s got incredible depth and complexity—they make beer like a winemaker makes wine. You wouldn’t want to swill a six-pack. It’s great with food.” In a nod to Symon’s beer fixation, his pastry chef, Cory Barrett, has spun some rich and creamy Guinness Stout ice cream to go with crunchy chocolate-covered pretzels.
Symon has the misfortune of being a sports fan—and a fantasy-football fanatic, for 15 years—in a city whose team, the Browns, has never been to the Super Bowl, and has in fact been a loser for decades. But “I cheer for the Browns, period,” he says. “Then, if the Browns aren’t in the play-offs, I pick another team to root for. And that team usually breaks my heart, because I tend to root for a team like the Browns—the team that really doesn’t have a chance!”
Which, happily, allows him to focus more on the food than the game—because the food is truly what makes watching this ultimate contest of the football season one of America’s best annual celebrations. Cleveland is lucky, even in its sports humiliations: If the Browns were any better, Michael Symon’s food might suffer.
Michael Ruhlman is the author of 12 books, most recently The Elements of Cooking: Translating the Chef’s Craft for Every Kitchen.