The reality of it: A conversation with Chef Michael Symon

With the proliferation of food programming on television, it has become common place for many to view the culinary profession as one of glamour. I mean, really. You whip up some food, fly away to enchanted lands to try new cuisines and cooking techniques, then return to instruct the world on how to replicate your results. Easy peasy, right?

Well, the truth of the matter is that any chef, any line cook, any one that’s busted their butt in the back of a restaurant will tell you the same thing. Cooking. Is. Work. Hard work, at that. I had the opportunity to speak with Michael Symon, chef, restauranteur, and author of the cookbook Carnivore: 120 Recipes for Meat Lovers. During our conversation we talked about what the life of a chef is really like, how he got his start in the industry, and his personal food memory.

Michael Symon
Michael Symon

Foodie Journal: When was it that you realized that cooking was something that you wanted to do as a career?
Michael Symon: I grew up in a big food household.  My mom is Greek and Sicilian.  My father is Ruthenian, so food was a central part of our family.  I was kind of always in the kitchen as a kid.  Started working in restaurants when I was 13, almost 14 years old, and just fell in love with the business and worked in restaurants through high school.  Shortly after high school I decided I wanted to go to culinary school, and that was it.

FJ: In those early years, was it mostly like what a lot of other chefs started out doing, like washing dishes, or were you actually doing any cooking in those early days?
MS: I was lucky.  It was a restaurant that my buddy’s dad owned.  I got to cook pretty early.  I was doing a lot of prep early and I was working the line by the time I was 15.  In that sense I was very fortunate.  I just kind of fell in love with the camaraderie of it all.

FJ: Can you talk a little bit about your experience attending the Culinary Institute of America?
MS: Well, I went to culinary school in the 80s.  It was certainly a different time.  There was no Food Network.  There weren’t really celebrity chefs.  That didn’t exist.  I went to culinary school to be a chef. When I went, I was 18, 19 years old at the time.  Most of the people in my class were in their late 20s, early 30s. Some maybe had been cooking for a long time already, and others maybe changing their livelihood.  But, it wasn’t young kids that were aspiring to be chefs.  For me it was tremendous because I got to work with so many people that were my seniors.  One good thing was that I think it made me more mature, and two, I learned that good food all on its own is a good school.

Obviously there are great chefs that haven’t gone to culinary school, and there are great chefs that have.  The one thing that culinary school gives you is it shows you a lot of different things. Every three weeks you’re working with a different chef.  They all do things a little bit different.  In the two years that you’re there, you get to see the opinions and techniques of 30 or 40 different chefs. You would never be able to do that in that amount of time if you were working restaurants.  You can’t switch jobs every two weeks.

FJ: So, if somebody came up to you and said, “Hey, I want to be a cook,” what would your advice be?
MS: I would say get as much practical experience as you can before you go to school.  I had worked in restaurants for about five years, almost six years prior to going to culinary school, so I had a good foundation.  I think too many people that go to culinary school now don’t have a good foundation when they get there, so they don’t get to learn as much while they’re there.  I would say find the best chef you know or the chef that you respect most, and put in your year or two years with them to build a nice foundation so when you’re going to school you’ll really be able to get the best experience.

No one would ever skip grade school or high school, and then go to college. They’d never be able to keep up or they wouldn’t be able to learn as much.  I think too many young kids watch Food Network or all kind of things and they say, “I want to be a cook,” or “I want to be a chef,” and they go right to culinary school with very, very minimal experience.  They don’t get to learn nearly as much as they would with their schooling, because they’re always playing catch-up.

FJ: With the Food Network, and all the interest in the food industry these days, it has brought a lot more attention to cooking as a profession. It seems like many have started to see being a cook or a chef as being a glamorous profession rather than a craft. Do you think that’s a problem, or should people dream big?
MS: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with dreaming big.  I think dreaming big is the greatest thing you could ever do.  I do think there’s probably more schools than there should be now.  When I went to school there was the Culinary Institute, and there was Johnson and Wales, which were both incredible programs.  Now there are culinary schools all over the place, and who really knows how reputable they all are.  I do think that too many people go to culinary school thinking that the life of a chef is a glamorous life.  The reality of it is different. Thinking about the people that have been around for a long time, and have been doing the Food Network on and off since ’98, you know, like Mario, Bobby, and Emeril.  All these people were chefs that were fortunate enough to eventually do television.

If you’re going to culinary school to become a chef and you’re expecting this glamorous lifestyle from it, the reality of it is that for over 20 years of my life I worked 15 to 17 hours a day on my feet in front of a 600-degree stove.  I missed holidays, weddings, family events, weekends, all those things because my dream was to be a great chef.  It never felt like I was missing anything, but it’s just the reality of it.  I think a lot of kids get out of culinary school now, and unfortunately because of what they see on television they think that it’s this very glamorous lifestyle and it’s not.  It’s one of the toughest businesses in the world.  It was like my dad’s joke when I was working 90 to 100 hours a week and was in wedding parties, but could only go to the church and not the reception.  He was like, “I told you you should have went to college.”  You have to know what you’re getting into while you’re going into it.  If you’re going to culinary school because you want to be on the Food Network, chances are you’re going to be disappointed.  If you’re going to culinary school because you want to be a great chef, you won’t be disappointed at all.  There’s just not that many chefs on television at the end of the day.  I think you have to know what you want to accomplish when you’re going to school.

FJ: My final question for you.  Everybody that I’ve spoken with that has a love for food always has a memory that they like to think back on.  What’s your favorite food memory?
MS: My favorite food memory is going to my Sicilian grandmother’s house, my mom’s mom on Sundays.  The smell of tomato sauce cooking down with ribs in it, and sausage, and meatballs. Just this delicious ragout that she would make.  I could talk about it and I smell it.  It’s that Sunday dinner with my grandparents.  That Sunday supper with my grandparents is to me really what food is all about.  It brings family together.  It’s delicious.  It’s cooked from scratch.  You sit around a table as a family and you break bread and you talk and you laugh and you cry and you enjoy a delicious meal.

Michael Symon is chef/owner of various restaurants, including Lola Bistro, located at 2058 East 4th Street in Cleveland, Ohio. He can be seen regularly on ABC’s The Chew, and on The Cooking Channel’s Symon’s Suppers.

3 thoughts on “The reality of it: A conversation with Chef Michael Symon

  1. Great interview. Living in Australia, I have never heard of Michael Symon and do not watch the Food Network, but chefs and their lifestyle are also overly glamorised here nonetheless. I adore how Symon says “good food all on its own is a good school”, an ethos that comes through when he says “Sunday supper with my grandparents is to me really what food is all about”. Just great!

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