symon's shadow: a (long) day in the life of an iron chef
Within moments of touching down at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, Michael Symon embarks upon a marathon day of business meetings, book signings, restaurant visits and too-brief social get-togethers that will last well over a dozen hours -- and that's not counting the travel time from New York City, where he woke up hours earlier.
By design, the life of a celebrity looks effortless. It's all fancy clothes, beautiful friends, swanky apartments, fat paychecks and stretch black limousines. And while many of those trappings indeed are perks of the gig, the engine that drives that lifestyle is a non-stop schedule that would sap the strength of far weaker men.
I know, because I tried to keep up (and I'm still recovering).
When I first catch up with Symon at his B Spot
restaurant in Woodmere, he is not eating, drinking or working the room; he is in the kitchen showing a cook how to properly toast a burger bun. The James Beard Award-winning chef noticed that the new, all-natural buns were toasting up differently than the previous ones and that the cooks weren't making the right adjustments.
"These guys are cooks not chefs, so you can't just say 'toast the bun,'" Symon explains. "You have to show them and tell them exactly what you want. I said toast the bread until it looks like the outside of a grilled cheese sandwich."
Another cook, who had knuckled his way up and out of the dish room, was eager to show the big boss his improved knife skills. While making quick work of an ingredient, the cook was beaming up at the Iron Chef.
"Watch the onion
!" Symon screams, fearful he might hack off a digit.
Patiently waiting for a few minutes of Symon's time was Sam Lindsley, director of operations of Michael Symon Restaurants, and corporate chef Derek Clayton. The three men conducted a speedy business meeting in a cramped booth, where they discussed issues such as food costs, new products and restaurant expansion. The team is considering future B Spot locations in Detroit, Columbus and Pittsburgh. Between Lola
, B Spot and Bar Symon
, the restaurant group manages about 750 employees.
At some point, Symon fires off a tweet announcing the times and locations of the day's two book signings. He has roughly 150,000 Twitter
followers and 90,000 Facebook
fans, making him one the more popular chefs on social media. The medium allows him to interact personally and directly with his fans, something he genuinely enjoys.
"If you're not going to do it yourself, why do it at all?" asks the chef, referring to celebs who pawn off social media duties to staffers.
Two days earlier, on October 24, Symon got a call from his publisher at Clarkson Potter, announcing that his just-released cookbook, Carnivore: 120 Recipes for Meat Lovers
, had made the New York Times
Best Seller list. It would debut at the #9 spot in its category. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, an appearance on that coveted list leads only to more and more sales.
To get there, Symon has been maintaining a grueling publicity schedule that includes non-stop book signings, television appearances, and radio shows. This, of course, is in addition to his daily tapings of The Chew
, which recently enjoyed the #2 spot in daytime TV, behind only The View
. One particularly taxing day had Symon running from The Chew
, to The View
, to the Rachael Ray Show
, to Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
Symon says goodbye to the staff at B Spot, hops into his car, and makes the short drive over to Williams-Sonoma in Beachwood for the first book signing of the day. On the way, I ask him if the process is a bit like going to the dentist -- smiling through pain.
"You have all of these people who are a fan of you, the book, or both," he says. "It's not like Twitter and Facebook where there are plenty of angry people out there. Everybody is very nice. I haven't met one mean person at a book signing."
He has, however, met a few crazy ones. There was the gal who asked Symon to sign her baby -- right before she asked if she could lick his clean-shaven dome. He allowed neither.
Even before stepping inside the shimmering white kitchen store, we can see a line of people snaking throughout the room. As Symon, who is wearing dark jeans rolled at the cuff, a black felt bowler, powder blue scarf, and black puffer vest, crosses the threshold, the crowd erupts in cheers.
Over the next two hours, Symon will stand, sign and smile his way through approximately 200 people who purchased approximately 300 books. For a few fleeting moments, the star chef is all yours, and everybody uses their time differently. Some deliver homemade gifts of food, others are ready with a prepared question, still others moon like star-struck teenagers, and everybody gets a photo.
"What do you recommend for somebody who has a slight fear of cooking organ meats?" asked Erin Zavasky, who drove in from Mentor to see her favorite chef.
"Just think of it like you would any other muscle," Symon shoots back. "Beef tenderloin is a muscle, heart is a muscle. Just try it and I promise your life will be changed forever."
Like a stubborn faucet leak, the line seems endless. Just when you think the last has arrived, another group saunters in from the parking lot. When it finally does end -- hours later
-- Symon gets into his car for the long, slow slog across town. Thanks to the rain and rush hour traffic, the drive to Crocker Park takes over an hour, meaning he won't have time to stop at B Spot for a pre-signing bite as planned. His dinner is another double espresso.
"Hey, you're Michael Symon!" bellows a young kid in a Browns jersey as the chef enters Barnes & Noble.
Symon high-fives the boy before heading upstairs. It's not until we step off the escalator that we see the crowd: a seemingly infinite line that wraps clear around the second-floor mezzanine. Joining Symon for the signing are his folks, Angel and Dennis, who take advantage of every opportunity to spend time with their son, even if it means sharing him with 300 strangers.
After the last fan makes his way through the line -- hours later
-- Symon, his folks and a few close friends walk over to B Spot for a beer. I'm sure he'd love to grab a seat and relax, but there are a few customers and cameras standing in his way. Finally, a dozen hours after landing in CLE, Symon seems to exhale, relax and enjoy a moment of easy comfort.
On the long, dark drive back to the East Side, I tell Symon what book signings look like from my angle. Despite long drives in the rain, long waits in the line, and impossibly short encounters with the chef, people -- without fail -- depart the exchange grinning like chimps, stealing quick glances at the picture on their smartphone and the freshly inked inscription in their cookbook.
"That's great to hear," says Symon, somewhere on I-90. "I never get to see that side of things. You really hope that it's worth it for them. I'm glad it is."
It's close to midnight when Symon finally lands at home. After a day like that, I'm guessing he could sleep for days. Too bad he's getting picked up at 4 a.m. for an early flight to Chicago to do it all over again.
Photos Bob Perkoski