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Chef Michael Symon is known for exuberant, meat-focused cooking at his five restaurants (four in his hometown of Cleveland, plus Roast in Detroit), and his role as an animated co-host on ABC’s The Chew. He talks to F&W about perfect braising technique, his beef cheek pierogis and where to find the best sausages in Cleveland.
What’s your most requested recipe, the one dish you’re most known for?
Either the beef cheek pierogis or the smoked pork chops. Those are the dishes that have made me most known as a chef; they’ve been on the menu at Lola since day one. I’ve always tried to do food that summed up the Midwest to me, especially northeastern Ohio, and those two embrace the culture that I was brought up in. Everybody in Cleveland knows a pierogi. When we started doing them with beef cheeks (which we originally called pot roast pierogis because 17 years ago we couldn’t sell beef cheeks), it explained the best what our restaurant was all about. And because Cleveland has always had this incredible love for sausage and charcuterie and pork, the cold-smoked pork chops have always been an enormous hit.
What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
White Heat, by Marco Pierre White—for the stories even more than the recipes. When I was a young chef and read it, I just thought, “My god, these chef guys are so cool, they’re so crazy!” I’ve certainly have never been as crazy as Marco Pierre White. But my business partner Doug Petkovic, before we owned restaurants together, when we were working together 20 years ago, every time I’d yell at a server, he’d go, “Settle down, White Heat!” It’s probably his most hated cookbook, but probably my favorite! Those who’ve worked with me know I’m about as chill as they get, I’m much more of a coddler than a yeller or a screamer. It came out in 1987 or 1988, before Bourdain or any these people wrote about how crazy a kitchen was. Marco explained it best 25 years ago, which I guess shows how old I am.
What’s one technique everyone should know?
How to braise. To take an inexpensive cut of meat and make it into something delicious is much more skillful to me than throwing a steak on a grill, and much more affordable, and so many people do it wrong. You’re not boiling meat, you’re braising it. All home cooks would save so much more money and get so many more delicious meals if they understood the basic theory and technique. First you need to get that beautiful caramelization and sear. Some people throw everything into a Crock-Pot and turn it on, but you miss out on the beautiful Maillard effect and the depth of flavor that you get from searing it properly. Then you want to build up flavor in your broth. And then, most importantly, you don’t want to cover the meat completely in the liquid. You want to let the fattiest part hang out on the top, and let the liquid come only about two-thirds of the way up, so you get that beautiful caramelization on top. You want a very slight simmer—if I have it on the stovetop I’ll have bubbles barely percolating up. If I put it in an oven, it will probably be around 275-ish. You want to baste the meat every 30 to 40 minutes as it’s cooking, to help develop that moisture and flavor and all that kind of magic. And if I’m cooking a meat that has a beautiful fat cap on it, I’ll pull the lid or foil off toward the end and turn the heat up to about 375 to get that great caramelization.
So you need great caramel, superflavorful broth that doesn’t cover the meat and then you need to baste. If you do those three things, and cook until it’s tender—not until it’s mush, but tender and slightly toothsome, you could get a magical stew or braised dish that isn’t that expensive, that you can keep on your stove for a couple of hours. I love when fall and winter hits because that kind of braised food that time of year fills your house with aroma, and is just so soul-satisfying to me.
What are your 5 top don’t-miss places on a trip to Cleveland?
- You have to go to Rock Hall. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame represents so much of Cleveland now. We fought hard for it, since everyone thought New York should get it. I’m a huge music buff, but even if you’re not one, there’s so much history, there’s something for everyone there, from classical music to hip-hop.
- You have to see the West Side Market. There’s not an Eastern European market like it in the country. When I take New Yorkers there it takes their breath away. It shows you what Cleveland culture is all about. I love J&J, I think they have the best jerky in the world. Ohio City Pasta makes fresh pasta all day; they’ve been there forever. If you want to get some cool, unique spices, Urban Herbs grinds spices daily; it also sells whole spices and they’re always superfresh.
- There are some really cool historic eateries like Sokolowski’s, which is close to 100 years old. It’s a cafeteria-style Polish restaurant where you can get pierogis and stuffed cabbage and kielbasa, all of those delicious things. And I believe it’s fourth generation.
- I also love The Sausage Shoppe in the Old Brooklyn neighborhood. They smoke their own meats, they make their headcheese, they have the best bratwurst, kielbasa and headcheese you’ll ever find.
- For shopping, where our original restaurant Lola is down in Tremont, there’s a great little store next to it called Banyan Tree, which sells great, esoteric, unique clothing, art and jewelry. It’s gotten me out of trouble many times. They have great things for men and women.
Background Trained at the Culinary Institute of America. Worked at Piccolo Mondo and Caxton Café, Cleveland.
How he got into cooking "After I blew out my arm wrestling in high school, I knew I couldn't get a college sports scholarship, so I started working at restaurants for money."
First food memory "Making baklava with Mom when I was six."
Menu bomb Pot pie with a filling of shrimp and escargot.
Favorite place to eat Aureole, New York City.
Best thing about cooking in Cleveland "Customers are open-minded. And it's my hometown."
Food vice The Romanburger at Cleveland's Mr. Hero. "It's a hot sub with a hamburger patty, piled high with salami and cheeseI call it a heart-attack sandwich."
Recipe tip If you don't have time to make pierogi dough, use store-bought spring-roll wrappers instead.