By Marc Bona, cleveland.com
COLUMBUS, Ohio – As he was entering the Mid-American Restaurant Expo’s spacious hall of food samples, products and stages, the always animated Michael Symon grinned when asked if he brought his A game.
"B game at best," the chef said.
It was a joke. Symon doesn't get near a stage without his A game, and that means stories, advice, entertainment and education rolled into one package near stove tops and cameras.
Symon again delivered the keynote address at the annual food show at the massive Greater Columbus Convention Center. The two-day expo, presented by the Ohio Restaurant Association, brings together foodies and industry professionals cooking up burgers, slicing cheese, hawking grills, showing off plates, sauces and more. If it can be found in a restaurant, the two-day expo has it.
Symon has a knack for turning whatever dish he is cooking into an educational experience, sprinkling pieces of advice along with dashes of salt. As usual, few empty seats were found as expo-goers learned about Symon's love of food and cooking tips between his trademark giggles.
He guided the audience Sunday on creating Bolognese with lamb, a comfort-food Italian dish on a day when temperatures hovered near freezing.
"One of the important things about food and cuisine is - we kind of don’t get our heads around - if you go to Italy … we probably would not be able to find a red sauce. No eggplant parmesan, no chicken parm, no meatballs and spaghetti. Meatballs are antipasto, served as appetizer."
What was used in traditional sauces, he said, is fresh ingredients - "uber seasonal."
"They find what's freshest - maybe they killed a hog that day, so they put pork in it that day."
The key to Italian food is its simplicity, he said. "It's very ingredient-driven. You're
not able to hide behind things. Rarely do you see an Italian dish with 15 ingredients. It's three or four. Simple food with great ingredients cooked the right way. … One of the big things in Italy is less is more."
He made Ricotta cavatelli with flour parmesan, ricotta and egg, showing how you can use a knife (butter knife works best, he said) to roll and cut the dimpled pasta. He added a drizzle of butter, virgin olive oil and mint toward the end (so the mint would not cook off too soon).
Despite the culinary plates Symon keeps in the air (television appearances, books, Lola Bistro, Mabel's BBQ, "Iron Chef," other endeavors) he makes time for shows like this, surrounded by his people - foodies. He quips his way through, and by the time he's done you laughed and realized it's as if you have read a well-written cookbook.
Symon’s cooking tips
• Fry beef ahead of time.
• If you see the word 'lean' on ground beef in a grocery store, "keep walking. … You need that intermuscular fat to give the meat flavor."
• Here's how to avoid meat sticking in a pan: When cooking, heat the pan first, then add fat to the pan. Let the fat get hot, then add protein. "You don’t need a non-stick pan for things not to stick. You need to go through the right procedure so things don’t stick."
• "You need salt for food to taste good."
• Use a bouquet garni (tied mini bundle of herbs with string hanging outside the pot). It's a "good little trick" to pull out the herbs "so you're not fishing around" for them later.
• Cook vegetables to "translucent, not caramelized like the meat."
• Use a wooden spoon to scrape and mix in the wine. It pulls in the fond's flavors from the bottom.
• Simmering time varies based on your palate and tomatoes. For sauce, it might take 15 minutes with great tomatoes to two hours with ones that have more acidity. "You have to determine that."
• Symon doesn’t salt dough, he salts water. "The most important part of pasta in Italy is water," he said. "Season the water 'cause the water is going to become part of your sauce." Also: Don't dump out the water. You need the starch. "Sauce in pasta is like the condiment. Think of it as a salad dressing; it needs to cook the pasta. The name of the dish is 'pasta', not 'sauce.' "
Symon’s general words of wisdom
• "As Julia Child said, 'Everything in moderation including moderation'. There's never been a better statement in life ever."
• "The thing I loved about food and what made me get into this business is the camaraderie it brings." Symon said he learned about cooking with family get-togethers on Sunday after church in Cleveland. It remains a vital part of his life. "Cooking as a family is tougher now, but know you can take one day a week and cook."
• His favorite place in the world to eat? Sicily. "And not because I'm Sicilian. The coolest thing is it is so influenced by everything around it. It’s a little bit of Italian food, a little bit of Greek food. You get anchovies, capers, lemon, vinegars. It's bold food."
• Everyone should know how to roast, sauté, braise and grill. If you know those things you can cook anything."
• "Gluten is not the devil. This is the year of gluten!" Regarding flour, avoid bromated, bleached or enriched flour, he said.
• "Don’t salt eggs until they are cooked a little."
• "Salt, acidity and horseradish open up your taste buds."
• "I started on the Food Network when it was big only in prisons and nursing homes. I used to make that joke until I started getting letters from men in prison."
• Use your visual gut feeling to gauge your cooking. "If you get too wrapped up in a recipe your instincts go away."
When asked about his most challenging "Iron Chef America," he had a clear memory: "Battle artichoke." The show uses a secret ingredient requiring chefs and sous-chefs to work quickly to move from a recipe's creation to the plating of several dishes. In Battle artichoke he cut off the tip of a finger, requiring multiple towels and cutting boards throughout the process.
"We won," he said.
The aftermath: "Battle lemon was the next day."
Said Symon: “Every time I squeezed the lemon I saw God.”