Chef Michael Symon Talks Partnering With Contadina And Cooking With Tomatoes - Exclusive Interview

When we talked to Chef Michael Symon, he was in his house looking at "about 100 tomatoes [he] just pulled out of [his] garden in the past couple of days." It's been a couple of weeks since the "BBQ USA" finale aired, and the celebrity chef is at home in Cleveland enjoying the last fruits of summer.

If he's not gardening, Symon keeps himself busy at any one of his eight restaurants or making appearances in pretty much every single self-respecting food show in existence, including "Worst Cooks in America," "BBQ Brawl," "Beat Bobby Flay," "The Kitchen," "Rachael Ray," "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives," and "Iron Chef." 

If there's one thing that the living myth of the culinary world doesn't like, it's trendy, "overhandled" foods. "The next big trend is going to be simplification, a continual movement back to basics," Symon predicted to Philadelphia in 2017. "It's going to continue to move further away from foams and this and that and all this wackadoodle stuff and get back to great product cooked simply and put on a plate."

That's probably why Symon is a sucker for exceptional tomatoes — be they fresh or canned. The chef, who recently partnered with Contadina, sat down with Mashed to make his case for a solid canned product, remember Ray Liotta on "The Chew," talk BBQ, and let us in on his favorite LeBron James memories.

The food rule Michael Symon learned in Sicily

You've recently teamed up with Contadina. Tell us how this partnership came to be.

It was a really natural partnership based a little bit on [how] I'm Greek and Sicilian, so tomatoes are a big part of what I consume and how I like to eat. As we started speaking about it and different things that we could do, we talked about how interesting and fun it would be to show how you could take a great product like this and use it in different ways than maybe the traditional ways that I grew up eating it, in different tomato sauces and pasta sauces and things of that nature. It's been really fun.

Let's go back to your heritage. You're part Sicilian, but your love for Sicilian food goes a lot further than that. Sicily is a food destination of your choice. Which cooking techniques or ingredients did you pick up from your travels?

One of the first things that you pick up when you go to Sicily is that less is more. When you get a beautiful product like Contadina, you don't have to do a ton to it to highlight it and show how much you could make something better quickly, which is what I've always loved about Sicilian cooking and Greek cooking. They take beautiful ingredients and allow them to shine and [be] showcase[d].

Michael Symon talks cooking with Ray Liotta

One of my favorite memories from "The Chew" is when you were on with Ray Liotta, who passed away early this year. You got to geek out a little bit over "Goodfellas" and its sauce-making scene. Liotta told this really cool anecdote of how it was Martin Scorsese's mom who made the sauce in the movie. What was it like having him on the show? 

Cooking on the show with Ray was spectacular. It was special in a lot of ways. We knew a lot of the same people. [Same with] growing up, eating a sauce of that nature. Watching the movie and then getting to make it with him was one of those special moments for me. [I loved] the whole story about Martin Scorsese's mom and how she would make the sauce every day and bring it to the set and go over how it was made.

What makes food special to me is how sometimes it could bring you back to a place. That type of sauce — if you grew [up] Sicilian or Italian American — it brings you to a place. It brings you to your childhood and sitting around the table with your family. The products that I grew up [with] — that sauce that I made was in that show. It's how my mom made the sauce for me [with] the Contadina tomatoes. That's what made it really cool to me, and that's what makes the partnership really cool to me.

What is your number-one tip for a really good red sauce?

Have to start with really great tomatoes. With food, that's the thing. I don't care how good of a chef you are or how good of a cook you are. If you don't start with something spectacular, it's really hard to make [the end product] spectacular.

I've learned tricks along the way and things of that nature, but you need a great product, and the Contadina is the tomatoes that I grew up with. They are the tomatoes of my youth, the ones that my mom made the sauce with and my mom's mom made the sauce with. You know right off the rip that your start ... At that point, you're 90% of the way there. When you shop for [a] product or get [a] product, the biggest tip that any chef would tell you is [to] take the extra time or spend the extra moment to make sure you start off with something great, because at that point, you're pretty far. You're at third base already. Now you just got to get home.

When canned tomatoes actually outshine fresh tomatoes

You are an avid gardener and you grow a lot of tomatoes. When is it time to use fresh tomatoes, and when is it time to use canned tomatoes?

That's actually a great question because I'm staring at about 100 tomatoes I just pulled out of my garden in the past couple of days, which is a beautiful thing about summer. When it's a sauce or relish or something of that nature that you're going to cook down, I always feel that the canned tomatoes work much better in that premise because that way, you're guaranteeing that they were all picked and prepared at their peak of ripeness, which is huge.

If I'm making a BLT or if I'm making avocado toast with sliced tomatoes or a fresh salsa, that's when garden tomatoes work very, very well. But if I'm making a marinade or a relish or a pomodoro or bolognese or whatever, that's when I go into the canned tomato world.

And in the off-season. I grew up in the Midwest. I spend a lot of my time on the East Coast now. For me to get fresh garden tomatoes, I basically have three weeks where they're spectacular. The rest of the year, I'm relying on buying them from a store. And to me, a fresh tomato — not always, but typically — it's not consistent when you buy it at the store. I'm not in control of when it was picked, if it was gassed, or any of those things. But one thing that I know that is consistent is I grab a can of the Contadina and I know exactly what I'm getting every single time. So from a consistency standpoint, certainly, minimally 11 months out of the year, it's going to be your better option in those types of preparations.

Michael Symon's rule of thumb for selecting quality canned foods

What are the kind of things we should be looking for on the cans? We know you're a big proponent of Contadina. Specifically, what makes it stand out? What should be our telltale signs as consumers when we're going to get a really solid product?

When you grab a can of anything, a very good thing to be aware of immediately is how much or how little is on the can. If I grab a can of something and it has 47 different ingredients in it and 39 of them I can't pronounce, [it's] probably not a good option for me [for] the way that I like to cook or choose to cook. But when you look at something and you're like, "Oh, there's not a ton of things listed here," we're in a great place right off the rip. That's a very important thing to me.

I can't think of a good word that I can't say. But a lot of times with the canned stuff, there's a lot of things that you can't pronounce, can't say, and that's not what you're looking for when you're looking for a product. You want less things in the product. You also want to make sure that it doesn't have artificial flavors or preservatives. I'm looking for things that don't have GMOs in [them]. That is important to me.

How a tomato is peeled or processed is important to me too. Contadina, I like it because they're steam peeled, so there's no weirdness going on with how they're choosing to peel the tomatoes before they end up in the can. They do things the old-fashioned way. I know that it's pure Roma tomatoes, which I also enjoy in a canned tomato. Those are the things that I'm looking for. I would prefer it to be a Roma. I don't want GMOs. I don't want artificial flavors in there. The manner that they're peeled is very important. And it's a vine-ripened tomato. It's not a tomato that they're picking green and then gassing to get it to be ripe.

What Michael Symon learned doing BBQ USA

Let's shift gears to your barbecue restaurant. When you opened it, you told "Playboy" magazine that your hope was that 20 years from now, when people think of barbecue in Cleveland, they think of applewood-smoked meats, brown mustard, and sauces. Do you feel you have successfully institutionalized Cleveland-style barbecue?

I think it's continuing to move in that direction. A lot of the new barbecue restaurants that have opened up in the city are leaning into some of those flavor profiles. I think [for] people that grew up in Cleveland, those are the familiar flavors of Cleveland. When we decided to open Mabel's, it didn't make sense to us to do Texas barbecue in Cleveland or Kansas City barbecue in Cleveland. Cleveland has tremendous food culture and history, so we wanted the barbecue that we did to reflect that. I think other pit masters and chefs in the community are starting to do the same thing.

You've just dropped your "BBQ USA" finale. During the show, you traveled the country in different competitions. Is there anything you learned specifically from competitors on the show that you've begun to implement in your own barbecuing techniques?

Yeah. One of the great things about food is, the minute you stop learning, you're doomed. I always have taken the attitude [that] even if it's something that I don't incorporate or do, [I want to] see it and [experience] different things to learn along the way. I think it's important with cooking. I think it's important with life in general.

I've always used strictly, basically offset smokers. Some of those barrel smokers that were used are really interesting and fun. Where they're cooking things — as opposed to [using] the super tried-and-true, low-and-slow method that has been so common in barbecue forever — where they're pushing certain ingredients and they're able to cook them quicker because of the barrels with great results, that's fun to me, especially with things like chickens and ribs.

In the finale, they did it with a whole hog, which blew my mind. It's still hard for me to get my head around, but it was spectacular. Those are things that I learned that I'm doing at home and at the restaurant. We're cooking some cuts of our meats a little bit quicker than we have in the past because I feel that the results are a little bit better.

Michael Symon on working with LeBron James

You are very faithful to Cleveland and its sports scene. You once famously offered LeBron James "Iron Chef"-style dinners to stay with the Cleveland Cavaliers. We're curious if he ever responded to your offer.

We've done a lot of charity work and stuff like that with LeBron. Over the years, we've worked really tightly with his foundation, which has been an honor. Our restaurants and our restaurant groups have done many dinners for him, both for his charities and at his house. So I don't think that's what made him stay or come back. He didn't stay, but he did come back, and then he left again. I have the utmost respect for LeBron and what he does in the community. He's in Los Angeles now, but what he does for the Akron and the Cleveland community with the school and working so hard to get kids that probably didn't have that opportunity to get a great education — he's a special human. That we're able to be part of that in some sense has been great for us, and cooking for his charity and for his family has been something that we've really enjoyed doing over the years.

What's his favorite food that you've cooked for dinner?

He used to come into the restaurant when ... It's interesting because he's eaten at the restaurant since he's ... You got to remember, he's been around Cleveland forever. Even when he was in high school, he was always being courted. So he used to get steaks quite a bit. He used to get them cooked a little bit more than he does now. Still, one of his favorite foods, which I don't make, is he loves sushi and he loves sashimi. One of my dear friends is actually his personal chef these days. He always loved beef. He doesn't like pork. He doesn't eat pork, never eats pork, but he does beef. We used to do a truffle mac and cheese that they always enjoyed at the house quite a bit.

Chef Michael Symon developed a new recipe for his partnership with Contadina! Check it out by visiting his Instagram.

This interview has been edited for clarity.