Celebrity Chef Michael Symon Shares Recipe for Success

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Michael Symon has always been a culinary pioneer but he gained his inspiration from everyday foods.

On the eve of opening his first restaurant, Lola, in 1997 in Cleveland, he had a change of heart and changed the menu to Midwestern food.

“What does that mean? We’re going to make pot roast?” his wife and business partner, Liz, exclaimed upon hearing of the new direction.

Symon related the story Thursday evening at Stambaugh Auditorium, where he regaled a crowd of 1,500 with stories of his life and culinary career. Seated on stage in a plush armchair, he was joined by Youngstown State University president Jim Tressel, who relayed questions posed by students and others in a conversational style.

Symon’s appearance was part of YSU’s Skeggs Lecture Series.

The celebrity chef’s first restaurant would go on to become renown for its delicious interpretation of Midwestern comfort food and started Symon on the path of becoming a household name. The chef has been a regular on the Food Network for decades, and regularly appears on shows such as ABC’s “The Chew” and Food Networks’s “The Iron Chef,” “Best Thing I Ever Ate” and others.

One of his first creations at Lola was beef cheek pierogi, which he made from what he says is the most delicious part of the animal.

“No one bought them,” he said, as the name was turnoff. So he changed it to pot roast pierogi and the dish a became a best-seller.

Symon tried to enlighten the people about his choice of meat.

“I would ask, ‘Do you love pot roast?’ Yes, I love it. ’Well it’s made from the [rear end] of the animal. Where do you want to kiss someone? On the cheek or the other part?’ ”

In November 2020, Symon decided to close Lola after 24 years, citing financial stress because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Today, Symon splits his time between Cleveland and New York. He admits to having learned a few things about social media marketing from his son, who is also a chef, and how to leave the customers wanting more.

That lesson includes making a set amount of the day’s special and not making more once it’s gone. The practice initially struck him as all wrong, but he soon realized it creates a sense of urgency in customers.

Symon had some other business advice for those who want to get into the culinary field.

“You will never please everyone so stick to your guns and your vision,” he said. “You will lose your passion and fail if you don’t.”

Symon learned his love of cooking as a child largely from his Greek-Sicilian mother. He attended St. Edward High School in Cleveland, where he was on the wrestling team, but admittedly was not a good student.

He wanted to attend the Culinary Institute of America after high school, but his father insisted he go to college. After a semester or so, he bombed out of school and that’s when his mother convinced his father that chef school was the right path for their son.

“I knew I was in the right place after two days,” he said.

Symon stayed busy during the pandemic-induced restaurant shutdown with a makeshift cooking show that he shot from his home. “It got 30 million views in a week,” he said.

Because of food shortages at grocery stores, he had to tap into his knowledge of cooking with whatever is available, including food from the cans in the pantry.

“People connected with it,” he said. “We did the show for 50 days. It brought people together. It reminded me of what I love about this business – sharing food around the table.”

Today, Symon is the chef and owner of 19 restaurants throughout Cleveland and the Midwest, including Mabel’s BBQ in Cleveland, and Angeline at the Borgata Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, NJ.
He is also the author of five cookbooks.

Pictured: Michael Symon is applauded by the audience and YSU president Jim Tressel after his appearance at Stambaugh Auditorium Thursday evening.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.