With less than an hour before 150 audience members rush to their seats, the set of The Chew is packed. The 30-plus crew buzzes, busily arranging shiny steel pots and pans, coordinating green place mats, napkins and dishes, and placing watermelon, limes and oranges on the sleek, white countertops.
As a handful of producers huddle around a table to run through the ABC talk show's segments for today, a kitchen assistant rushes a container of sauce into the set's stainless steel fridge full of beer, herbs and a bottle of Bertman Ballpark Mustard.
Michael Symon casually sips a cup of coffee in cuffed jeans and a trucker hat as props are rolled onto the stage. The Cleveland-born chef and TV personality is in the middle of a friendly argument with some of the crew. Naturally it's about food — pizza to be exact.
"The best slice in New York City is a block from my house," says Symon.
"What's the best pizza in New York City?" asks a cameraman.
"Joe's Pizza," says Symon, "at Bleecker and Sixth."
"That's according to him," says the cameraman, pointing to Symon and shaking his head in disagreement to the group.
"Also according to Mario and Bobby Flay," challenges Symon, who isn't afraid to name-drop his famous friends if it means winning an argument.
"Their palates are questionable at best," deadpans the cameraman.
Symon lets loose his rip-roaring laugh that's become the hallmark of the rambunctious, happy-go-lucky Iron Chef.
All the attention quickly turns to Symon as he heads behind the counter to join his fellow co-hosts Clinton Kelly, best known from TLC's What Not to Wear; Daphne Oz, author and daughter to TV Dr. Mehmet Oz; and Carla Hall, who competed on seasons 5 and 8 of Bravo's Top Chef (co-host Mario Batali, the Italian chef and TV personality, has the day off).
Symon does a quick read-through off the teleprompter for his cooking segment with actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan.
"Our next guest tugged America's heartstrings in Grey's Anatomy and kicked butt in Watchmen, but now he's deep in the heart of Texas in the thrilling new show Texas Rising. Please welcome Jeffrey Dean Morgan," he says with a boyish charm that makes you feel as if the 3 million viewers of the ABC show are right in front of him.
It's that mix of charisma and cooking that won Symon and his co-hosts a 2015 Daytime Emmy for outstanding informative talk show host and has elevated our culinary ambassador to the Food Network first team alongside the likes of Flay, Emeril Lagasse and Giada De Laurentiis. With a recipe for stardom as uncomplicated as his approach to cooking, he is juggling a full plate — writing cookbooks, running his restaurant empire and working on opening his latest concept, Mabel's BBQ, later this summer.
"The greatest compliment I could get is when people go, 'You're famous, but you're just a normal guy,' " Symon says later. "That's all I want to be, and that's all I am."
Minutes before filming begins, he is unapologetically loud, funny and genuine, taking his place at The Chew's kitchen table with Kelly, Hall and Oz, cracking jokes and waving to fans.
That playfulness continues once the cameras start rolling. During the opening segment, the hosts give their opinions on everything from a new flavor of Oreos to a company that sells socks in sets of three.
"I lose my sock all the time and I end up never finding it," says Oz. "It literally disappears into the ether."
"So what?" questions Kelly. "You lose a sock."
"Not all of us are big fancy talk show hosts," says Symon. "Sometimes we want that third sock."
The audience cheers.
The worn red bricks that cobble together Cleveland's East Fourth Street have felt the hopeful steps of our city's hard-working residents for more than 100 years. Today its small block of buildings has been transformed into downtown's hottest area for dining and entertainment.
As the main course of the culinary lineup here — and in all of Cleveland, for that matter — Symon's Lola Bistro redefined how we looked at fine dining. The New American restaurant and all its attention turned Symon into a local celebrity.
Almost 10 years after Lola's move from Tremont, Symon — now an Iron Chef and James Beard Award winner — is looking to set the tone again for Cleveland's culinary scene.
Next door to Lola, the red art deco sign for the now-shuttered La Strada still remains, but white paper lines the tall windows with the words: "Coming Soon: Mabel's BBQ, A Michael Symon Restaurant."
Expected to open by the end of summer, the space designed by Scott Richardson and Symon's wife, Liz, is inspired by a '50s backyard barbecue with wood picnic tables, aluminum trimming and two custom smokers.
Symon's journey to open Mabel's has been slow-cooking since his first job at Geppetto's at age 15.
"In the '80s, there was only one Geppetto's, and it was on Warren Road. They used to win the rib burn-off every year. It was a rib joint that served a little bit of pizza," he recalls. "I feel like I am going back to where I'm from."
Symon is a barbecue junkie — give him a half-hour and he can school you in the various styles of barbecue in each part of the country.
"The great thing about barbecue is you go to 100 different pit masters and see 100 different ways," he says. "It completely changes from state to state and region to region within the state."
Symon has traveled the country from Kansas City, Missouri, and St. Louis to Austin, Texas, and Memphis, Tennessee, to try various barbecue spots. He's spent time picking up secrets from championship pit masters such as Mike Mills, who owns two 17th Street Barbecue restaurants in southern Illinois and two Memphis Championship Barbecue restaurants in Las Vegas.
"His nickname that the barbecue guys call him is the Legend," says Symon. "He was pretty inspiring."
So it should surprise no one that the guy who wrote a cookbook titled Carnivore fires up his smoker 80 percent of the time when he's cooking at home. That knowledge has also helped Symon on his new Food Network show Burgers, Brew and 'Que that debuts this month.
"For me, barbecue is a passion," he says. "And I think in Cleveland it's an incredible need."
To fill that void, Mabel's menu, which is inspired by Cleveland's Eastern European roots, goes whole hog with brisket, pork roll (the belly and the loin rolled together and smoked), smoked pork belly, beef ribs, pork ribs, chicken and house-made kielbasa.
The chef also plans to serve up hearty sandwiches such as the Mr. Beef with brisket, onions and pickles, and the Big Pig with pulled pork, cracklin' and coleslaw. Southern-inspired sides include burnt-end beans, smoked corn on the cob and mac 'n' cheese waffles.
What will set Symon's style of barbecue apart is his brown mustard sauce made with none other than Bertman Ballpark Mustard. Greenhouse Tavern Co.'s beer vinegar and Ohio maple syrup will be mixed in with chilies to give it a unique tang — one he hopes will have a lingering taste.
"There's not a Cleveland style [of barbecue]," says Symon. "Our goal is that 40 years from now people would say that there's multiple places doing barbecue like Mabel's. It's a far-fetched dream, but it's a dream nonetheless."
Symon walks the streets of New York City, American Spirit cigarette in hand, on his way to catch the subway.
"When we first started doing the show, we had Hugh Jackman on. I lived in SoHo at the time, and he asked how I was going home," Symon says. "I go, 'Oh, I'm just going to jump on the subway.' And he goes, 'I'll get on the subway with you.' We get on, and no one bothers him the entire time. And I think, If they don't bother Hugh Jackman on the subway, they could give a crap about me. That's kind of the weird beauty of New York — everyone just goes about their business."
And most people do, but while riding the subway home after today's show, someone approaches Symon.
"Good to see you. I'm a big fan," says a man in his mid-40s. "You make very good food."
"Thank you. I try," says Symon while shaking his hand.
"I need a picture with you," says the man as people start to gather around.
"He's famous," the man tells the group. "He's a real man, a real man."
"I want your picture too," a teenager in the crowd pipes up. "I watch your show all the time!"
"Take his picture! Take his picture!" yells someone else as the excitement reaches a boiling point. Symon stays relaxed and takes a selfie with everyone who wants one.
He never lets all the attention and success go to his head. He's had the same group of best friends since childhood and a Greek mother who's helped him stay grounded.
"She would beat the shit out of me if I changed," he half-jokes.
He also makes it a point to retain some kind of routine in his life regardless if he's staying at his new $5.14 million West Village townhouse or his Cleveland Heights home.
"I just think I am normal," he says. "I just live my life like I always have. I've got my little coffee shop, got my little butcher, got my little bakery. I don't have anyone do my shopping for me. I do those things because I like doing those things."
Like visiting his favorite pizza shop, Joe's Pizza, which he finds hard to resist when walking his Old English bulldog, Ozzy.
"I'll find a person on the street and say, 'Will you hold him for a second? I'll be right back,' " he says. "When there's a big line, it gets really busy so the pizza gets a little burnt — like right on the edge of burnt, but not quite burnt. That's when it's my favorite — kind of charred, a little bit black. Ooh! It makes me very happy."
Today the tiny shop is packed with customers ordering $3 slices during a busy lunchtime as Symon shakes some chili flakes onto his pie and folds it over like a true New Yorker.
"I go to Naples, Italy, and I still like the pizza in New York better," he says. "It's perfect. It's crunchy, not too saucy, not too cheesy."
He walks outside and takes a few more drags on his cigarette before heading to his red brick townhouse, where Ozzy excitedly greets him as he opens the door. Inside the three-story home, Liz is curled up on a couch in the main living room reading a magazine and answering emails from her phone. The third-level den, Symon jokes, has been off-limits to his wife during the Cavs' recent playoff run.
"Every game played on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, I've watched in my den, and we're undefeated," he says. "So if I don't make it home to Cleveland for some of the championship games it's because I'm sitting in my den by myself. I wouldn't even let Liz up there. She came up, and I'm like, 'Get out!' "
The couple moved into the 2,560-square-foot property, built in 1852, mostly because of the chef's kitchen in the English basement. With exposed wooden ceiling beams, a wood-burning fireplace and stainless steel appliances — including a refrigerator that holds Symon favorites such as Graeter's Ice Cream and Bertman Ballpark Mustard that he has shipped to him from Ohio — it's a cozy and ideal place for cooking and collaborating.
This is where he meets Katie Pickens, his culinary director and former sous chef at Lolita, who cooks and tests all his recipes for The Chew and his cookbooks such as his 5 in 5 For Every Season, which will be released this fall.
"Between the show and the books, we test 200 recipes a year," says Symon. "And every recipe that goes on the show or in a book, we test three times."
Today, they are working on a salad with burrata, grapefruit and pistachios as well as a sherry vinaigrette dressing that could pair with a grilled chicken on The Chew.
That level of commitment — testing all his recipes in a home kitchen as opposed to a restaurant — has helped make his cookbooks best-sellers.
"We sell more cookbooks than most celebrity chefs," he says proudly. "It's not because of me, it's because people know if they buy one of my books that the recipes work. We work really hard to make sure of that."
It all started with his mom's baklava. Symon was around 6 years old when he first started helping her make the flaky Greek dessert — watching her chop walnuts, pistachios and grinding graham crackers to layer over the delicate sheets of phyllo.
"When I learned how to make it, it felt almost like a rite of passage for me," he says. "I still can't make it as good as her."
While at St. Edward High School, he worked part time at a few restaurants and fell in love with the business.
"I just loved the pace of it," he says. "You make something and people would eat it and they'd be happy."
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in New York in 1990, Symon returned home to Cleveland where he met Liz while the two worked at Players on Madison. They began dating in 1994 while at the Caxton Cafe, where he hired her as the general manager.
With Cleveland's foodie faithful noticing his New World cuisine, finding time to go out together was tough. But Symon found ways to impress Liz — even teaching her how to make creme brulee one night at the restaurant.
Their connection to food kept their personal relationship strong and fueled their professional careers as well.
"We had been friends for a really long time," says Liz. "We're both pretty creative people and we were just drawn to each other."
The two opened the original Lola in Tremont in 1997 and the accolades soon followed. Food & Wine named Symon one of the 10 Best New Chefs in America in 1998, and he won the James Beard Foundation Award for best chef of the Great Lakes region in 2009.
"His approach was really unique," says Greenhouse Tavern chef and owner Jonathon Sawyer. "He took a modern stance to food and cuisine that no one really had taken before."
In 2004, Symon hired Sawyer as executive chef for Lolita, which opened a year later in Lola's Tremont space after Symon decided to move it to East Fourth.
"We waited 10 years before we opened our second restaurant," says Symon. "We were in no hurry. When East Fourth came along, we made a decision that we really loved the direction that street was going."
In quick order, the reopening of Lola in 2006 and Symon's victory on The Next Iron Chef in 2007 changed Cleveland's dining scene. People throughout the country were now curious about the city Iron Chef Symon called home, and he used the opportunity to spread his love of Cleveland.
"Mike was this creative innovator who was super into his city, his farmers, his cooks and his chefs," says Sawyer. "When you give a whole sort of generation of cooks this opportunity just to prove themselves, I think you'd be amazed at what can happen."
Sawyer, who recently opened the northern Italian-inspired Trentina in University Circle, brought home his own James Beard Award earlier this year. He considers Symon a mentor, talking to him at least once a week about everything from sports to food to family.
"Twenty years from now, everyone will be able to look back and clearly say that the entire renaissance of Cleveland's culinary scene is because of Mike," says Sawyer. "It continues to be because of Mike speaking to everybody — meaning 3 million people every day on The Chew — about what's good with downtown Cleveland."
"Cut!" yells the director. "That's a wrap." Symon and his co-hosts are done filming for the day. The audience claps to Kool and The Gang's "Celebration" and Symon leaps into the stands for some dancing, handshakes and hugs with his fans.
Although he's a TV veteran who first appeared on Sara's Secrets with Sara Moulton back in 1998, working on The Chew requires a different set of skills.
"When I did Iron Chef, I felt like it was a really fun show that showed what we were capable of doing in a kitchen," says Symon. "The Chew is a show that teaches America how to cook."
Since the show started in 2011, he's worked hard to make his interviews more casual. He takes time to read up on guests, discovering if the celebrities like to cook or are foodies such as today's guest, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who owns a farm and raises his own chickens. He's had to adjust to filming two shows a day Tuesday through Thursday and balancing it with running his restaurants. But one thing he's never had a problem with is the food.
"I love teaching and I think the show is the greatest expression of that form. I get in 3 million living rooms every day and teach people how to make dinner for their family," he says. "My fans want to learn how to cook from scratch and maybe get slightly outside of their comfort zone. But they don't want to do it with 30 ingredients and four days of prep."
Although Symon has been friends with co-host Mario Batali for close to 20 years, he didn't know any of the others before joining The Chew. Yet, he now considers Carla Hall, Daphne Oz and Clinton Kelly all close friends.
"We fit together really well," he says.
And those ties make the show spark.
"We like each other, so we can kid around with each other and no one ever gets offended," he says. "As a kid, I was the class clown and here I am on The Chew — 46 years old and I'm a class clown."
His co-hosts agree.
"He's a jokester," says Oz. "He's like the naughty brother or uncle who just keeps everything very lively."
But Hall is quick to point out Symon's passion too.
"Michael wears his heart on his sleeve," she says. "He loves big, he laughs big. He just has a really big heart."
That translates to his immense love for Cleveland, which comes through on the show with segments of him judging a brunch competition at the Cleveland Heights Fire Department and of his local favorites such as the Galley Boy burger from Swenson's Drive In.
"It is amazing to me the Cleveland pride that runs so deep through people," says Oz, whose father, Mehmet, was born in Cleveland. "One thing is very clear, they have a lot of Cleveland pride, and obviously there's a lot to be proud of in Cleveland."
Like getting ready to celebrate Lola's 20th anniversary. In a few months, Symon will start writing his next cookbook for publication in 2017. It will be a mix of stories about the history of the restaurant as well as recipes.
"That book's going to be a ton of work," he says. "But I'm really looking forward to it."
Until then, he will continue serving up Symon-sized portions of his infectious personality — from opening Mabel's BBQ to flying to Los Angeles for his friend Bobby Flay's Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony to championing Cleveland on The Chew.
"I want to give more people the opportunity to be able to experience what I've experienced in that city," he says. "I still think the city has tons of hidden gems and tons of different things that even native Clevelanders haven't seen that I hope they continue to explore."