Michael Symon Dishes On BBQ, Cocktails, And Cooking At Home - Exclusive Interview

No one does it all like Michael Symon. This star chef has hosted his fair share of cooking shows, competed against the masters on "Iron Chef America," and helped inspire America to cook as a former co-host on "The Chew" (via Michael Symon). Symon has established himself as a true legend of American cuisine and has the pedigree to prove it. Receiving the honor of the title of Best New Chef by Food and Wine magazine in 1998 helped propel Symon to stardom, and has gone on to win the James Beard Award for Best Chef in 2009, among many other honors. 

Symon now has variety of projects about to hit fans in the next few weeks — "Symons Dinners Cooking Out" returns to television for Season 2, "BBQ Brawl" returns with Bobby Flay, Eddie Jackson, and Symon as team leaders, and the acclaimed chef even has a collaboration with Diplomático Rum about to hit shelves. We got the chance to sit down with Symon for an exclusive interview that delved into his collaboration with the rum company, what it takes to make the best barbecue, what it was like working with Anthony Bourdain, and much more.

Michael Symon's latest collaboration

So what's the story with Diplomático Rum? How did you get approached by them, and how did that relationship start?

Well, it's been a rum that we've always featured in the restaurants, and I've always used it at home. So when they approached me, it was one of those no-brainer situations. You know, I just love their approach. I love that it's a family-owned business, I love that they search out the best ingredients they can, they keep it really simple. They respect the ingredient, and they ended up with a great product.

So, I feel that the way that they approach making the rum really is the same way I approach food. It's like, start with great stuff, be respectful of it, don't do anything crazy, and you end up with something really tasty.

What's your role in this new campaign?

Well, my role is I came up with some fun cocktails (like the Diplomático Daiquiri), which is always enjoyable. But even more so than that, I think that something that's always happened in the restaurant industry is chefs have used spirits to cook for a long, long time. It's something that all of us do, it's a way to create interesting flavors, and sauces, and marinades, and things of that nature.

For instance, with the Diplomático Rum, you have the natural sweetness from the cane sugar, you have those toffee undertones, a little bit of vanilla. So you could influence the flavors of dishes very much through the spirit. And I think that that's something that's been happening in restaurants for hundreds of years, but isn't something that maybe the home cook always thinks about.

The perfect rum for an outdoor cookout

What can we expect to see from the Diplomático Rum campaign?

We did a lot with the Reserva. You know, we talked about developing some recipes for them that we did some fun cooking videos, and cooking lessons with, which was actually super enjoyable. You know, try to make people more familiar with the different flavor profiles in those rums, and then how you could use them not only in a cocktail. I think like everybody's like, "Oh, rum, I love a mojito." Which is great, but you know, you could take that mojito and the flavor profiles in the mojito and you could use it in a marinade for chicken.

But there's so many other different, fun cocktails that you could do with rum, where maybe you think of a different spirit in its place. Last summer, for example, and I'm sure I'll do it again this summer — I love a mule in the summertime. Ginger beer, citrus, you know. But instead of making them with vodka, like a Moscow Mule or a Kentucky Mule, using the rum in there. So you use the rum, ginger beer, a little bit of fresh mint, and orange, and lime, and it's just a great summer cocktail.

Where Symon's passion for BBQ comes from

I saw Mabel's BBQ just opened up over in Cleveland. Do you think you're going to be using some of this over at the new location?

Yeah. I mean, we've used it at the original location quite a bit, because rum and barbecue really are, smoke and sweet go really well together, which Kansas City has been proving for decades. So we've done some fun glazes with it in the past for sticky ribs, and we've done a hot and sweet glaze for pork butt. So we'll definitely continue to go in that direction with it.

So you have a lot of experience handling barbecue. Where'd the passion come from?

Well, for me, a lot of it was the first restaurant job I actually had. I was 14 years old and I worked in my buddy's dad's restaurant, which was a barbecue restaurant. I mean, I'm a lot older than 14 now, which you may or may not have guessed. So, I started working in restaurants that featured barbecue 38 years ago.

And then, I had one of those families that just loved being outside on the grill and cooking with live fire. So that was always a passion for me, so one of the things with the shows, the restaurants, all those things, I'm always trying to show people how easy it is to cook with live fire. And you know, not that there's anything wrong with the gas grill, but you're certainly going to get a lot more flavor and impact of flavor over coals and wood than you would by just turning a handle. And it's not hard. I think it always shocks people how easy it actually is to start a fire. You know, you can get more intense heat, you can control the heat more, and you just get so much more flavor.

The benefits of cooking over an open fire

What are some of the biggest mistakes you've seen people make when it comes to cooking over fire?

Well, one is they create an inferno sometimes. It's like, they put the food on and they run. They're like, "Oh my God." Like with the Symon's Dinners where Liz and I are cooking in our backyard, I always really try to show people, okay, you set up your grill. Get one side hot, get your coals going on one side. And then on the other side of the grill really have no coals at all.

I think sometimes people get confused that when you put the lid on the grill, the grill now is an oven, so anything that you could do in an oven you can do on the grill, it's just all about controlling your heat.

So I think once people understand that you don't want the whole grill ripping, that you actually create zones in the grill, so to speak, of a hot side, a medium side, a cool side, depending on the size of your grill. But even just in, I cook a ton on a little $60 pot belly Weber. And you put the coals on one side, you get them going, and you have no coals on the other side, you get the food marked, you move it over, you close the lid, and it's super simple.

What to look for when ordering grilled food

What do you think people should look for when ordering burgers or anything off the grill? Is there a particular item?

Yeah, I mean, I think if you're doing it at home, you should start simple, and then build your way up. And for me, whether I'm out ordering it or I'm making it at home, I always think that the crust is the sign of someone who is comfortable and skilled working a grill or smoker.

If you're working a smoker and it's a brisket, you want that beautiful bark on the exterior, you don't want a big hunk of steamed meat. If you're having a burger, I want there to be that char and that texture on the outside. So it enhances and accentuates the juiciness of the inside. So, whether I'm going out to eat it or making it myself, or teaching people how to do it, that's one of the things that I really look for.

The biggest grilling myth, according to Michael Symon

Are there any kinds of myths when it comes to cooking — on the grill or otherwise — that you want to set straight for our readers?

This is what I would love to say because people are so funny about it, the smoke ring. People, they've watched too many barbecue shows now. And so they'll comment on if they think something's great or not great because of the smoke ring. And I always try to tell people, it's like, look, I could manipulate, I could make anything, have a smoke ring if I choose to. And often, I do, it's not that I'm anti-smoke ring, but you could have awful barbecue that has a smoke ring, or spectacular barbecue that does not. You can't enhance, you can't cheat bark. You can't cheat tenderness. You can't cheat the moistness of meat. The smoke ring, you could cheat all day.

If I put the meat down... For example, you should let meat come to room temperature before you start smoking it. If I start it super cold, it's going to have a smoke ring. The wood should be aged, not green. If I put on green wood, it's going to have a smoke ring. If I do it with charcoal, from start to finish, it's going to have a smoke ring. If I put baking soda in my rub, it's going to have a smoke ring. So don't get too wrapped up... Admire the smoke ring if the barbecue is still delicious. If the barbecue is terrible, the smoke ring? People will say, like, "It doesn't taste great, but look, the smoke ring is perfect."

I'm like, "Who cares if it doesn't taste right?"

A refined take on some down-home favorites

You have a really great, very pragmatic, direct approach to barbecue. You also have this other side, the fine dining side. Were there any lessons [you took from your training] that translate into both styles of cooking?

In our first restaurant that we opened in 1997, was very high-end fine dining and I worked in fine dining my entire career, and still do. And I think that the approach, whether it be our fine dining restaurants or barbecue, the approach is exactly the same.

When I shop briskets for Mabel's, I shop in the same way as I shop a dry-aged rib-eye for Lola. You know, it's, it's still Creekstone beef, it's always prime. For us, a lot of what we do, again, this is why the Diplomático pairing was so simple for me, they put so much of their energy into sourcing and ingredients, and that's... You have to have good technique to be a good cook, but it doesn't matter how good of a cook you are if I give you crappy ingredients.

I know a bunch of tricks, so maybe I can turn the crappy ingredients into a decent meal. But if you buy great ingredients, there's a very good chance you're going to have a great meal. So those approaches are exactly the same, from the fine dining to the barbecue level.

The biggest difference, I would say, between the two is at a fine-dining restaurant, everything is cooked à la minute. You come in, you sit down, you order, we start cooking. Barbecue, a brisket is going to take 12 to 14 hours. So then you're using all those techniques to cook it ahead of time, and then you have to know how to hold it properly so the customer still gets that great experience.

A sneak peak into Season 2 of Symon's Dinners Cooking Out

I know you've got Season 2 of "Symon's Dinners Cooking Out" coming out pretty soon, right? Is there anything that you can share with us about the new season?

You know, we had a little bit of fun with it this year. One of, I think, the big differences that happened during the pandemic was, one, we're filming at home with iPhones, which is very different, I've been doing Food Network since '98. So, it's very stripped down, which I enjoy, and it's very real.

But because we're filming so closely to when things are showing, it's like I could shoot something out on social and be like, "What do you want to learn how to make this year?" And what the people that are watching the show request could then work its way right into the show. So, there was a lot of that. A lot of people wanted to know how to do fish on the grill, they were afraid of fish on the grill. So, we're doing a couple of dishes that are seafood-focused for the grill.

It's a lot of the same, though. You know, it's me and Lizzie, she does a lot of the cocktails, she does almost all the desserts, because quite frankly, she's better at it than I am. And I do more of the proteins.

But for me, it's as enjoyable as doing a cooking show could be. I get to do it in my backyard. We get to teach people how to cook. And "Iron Chef" is great, believe me, as a chef, it's nice to be able to go out and flex a little bit, so to speak. But it's even more enjoyable to show people how to make a meal or a cocktail, and then the next day on your social media, they're like, "I fed my family with this tonight." It's just way more rewarding.

Michael Symon's favorite memories from The Chew

That probably plays into the same experience you got with "The Chew," right? Thinking back on that, what was your favorite memory from "The Chew?"

Gosh, I mean, it was great, we did seven years and 1500 episodes. It's a lot TV. And there were a hundred and what — 120 people that worked on "The Chew," roughly? And I would say of those 120 that we started, aboutwith a hundred were the same after year seven. So it really became very much a family atmosphere. And I made friends for life doing that show. The older you get, it's not like you meet a lot of, most of my friends are from my childhood. So, in my 40s, at the time, to be able to meet people that I still talk to on a daily basis made it really special.

Would you say that's the biggest thing you missed from it, or was there another aspect?

Oh, a hundred percent. Yeah. You know, Clinton Kelly and I laughed so hard every single day, giving each other grief, and making fun of each other, both off-camera and on camera, I miss that tremendously. I miss Carla losing stuff, like "Where did I put that?" I'm like, "I don't know, I'm not following you around."

It's just the day-to-day friendship part of it. And fortunately, all of us still talk a lot, but being able to go to work, especially once we got to Seasons 4 and 5, and sharing family experiences going to work, it was like hanging out with your best friends every day.

Making memories with Anthony Bourdain

You also appeared on Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" as well, right?

Yeah. Anthony was a dear friend. I knew him for gosh, well over 25 years.

What was it like interacting with him and being on the show?

It was great. I mean, because I met Anthony in, I want to say, the early '90s, and Tony was just a great guy. I mean, he was just, he was one of those rare people that was a tremendous listener. Not only was he a great host of television, but he was a tremendous listener, and he was one of those people that was a huge smart-ass, but still had the ability to bring people together. He could talk s***, but still make you feel good about the situation, and bring people together.

And I think that was one of his greatest gifts. I think about him a lot. And especially with everything that we went through in the past and stuff, Tony would have been great in this type of situation, because he was good at bringing people together. He's as good a human as there is to sit down and have a cocktail with.

What is Michael Symon's favorite food?

I know that our readers want to know what your favorite food is, and also what's your favorite thing to cook?

Oh, that's a good question. My favorite food changes a lot. A dish that I miss a lot because I don't get to have it quite as often anymore, is my mom's lasagna. I don't see her as much as I used to, so I do miss that quite a bit.

For cooking, I love anything that's a process. I enjoy the process of food and the technique of food. So the reason that barbecue always pulls me in is because it's not like I put it on a grill, it's done. It's like, "All right, I've got the wood going, I got the smoker going," and now this is anywhere from a four to 14 hour process, which I enjoy.

I love making salami, like hanging prosciutto. I like the process of watching something and I'm not worried about the instant gratification of it. So I wouldn't say it's a specific item, but the slow technique of cooking, whether it's a braise, or smoking, or curing meats, or any of those kinds of things, or pickling things, or fermenting things, that's always been my favorite thing about food.

What Symon eats in a day

Do you consider yourself someone who likes to eat out more often than not?

The past year we've only stayed at home. Typically I would say I stick at home a bit, but I got to be honest, I can't wait to start eating out again. Literally, the stove that is behind me has cooked every meal for the past year. So even myself, who loves cooking and cooks constantly, am very much looking forward to sitting in restaurants on a regular basis again and having dinner with friends.

If you have been cooking at home all day, what do you typically eat in a day?

Well, I mean, I typically have some version of eggs for breakfast. I love cooking eggs. It's usually either like a super-soft scramble, or a runny omelet, or a really hard fried egg. When I fry an egg, I like it to be super-crispy on the bottom, but with my scrambled eggs, I like them to be like custard.

Michael Symon's top home cooked meals

I do enjoy a smoothie every once in a while, which might surprise people, but it's a great way to start the day. You know, through the pandemic, our bigger meal was typically in the middle of the day, and then it was a little bit lighter at dinner time. I don't know if that's the pandemic or I'm getting older. But we just kind of mix it up. We roast a lot of chickens. I love a great roasted chicken. We eat a lot of pasta. I love a simple Bolognese, or Pomodoro, or Carbonara, or a classic Alfredo. So a good amount of pasta.

And obviously I'm living with my wife, Liz, and then Katie, our culinary director has been with us through the pandemic too. And they eat tons of vegetables. So I've probably consumed more vegetables and salads and such this year than maybe in my whole life. I don't feel any healthier, but allegedly I am. Katie makes a lot of overnight oats, so I tend to have those a lot in the morning too. Look at me, I'm a health enthusiast!

Check out the Diplomático Rum website for a complete list of their rums and cocktail recipes. Keep up with Michael Symon by visiting his official website and following him on Instagram and Twitter