I was making small talk at a wine tasting in Healdsburg a few years back when the topic turned to occupations. "I'm a restaurant critic in Cleveland," I told the knot of Wine Country foodies, a revelation that brought the hobnobbing to a screaming halt. Finally, one woman put everyone's thoughts into words. "There are restaurants? In Cleveland?"
To which I can now gleefully respond: Bite me, bee-yotch. Not only do we have restaurants, we've got a real live Iron Chef.
If there remained any doubt that Cleveland has developed into a great food town over the past decade, chef Michael Symon's Sunday-night ascension to the title of Next Iron Chef should finally put it to rest. The win gives Symon a weekly national presence on Iron Chef America, the Food Network's most popular television show, and his appearance already has begun luring food tourists to his restaurants, Lola (2058 East Fourth Street) and Lolita (900 Literary Road).
The final episode in a six-part series, Sunday night's finale was taped in mid-September; Symon and his crew were sworn to secrecy on the outcome. But on Monday morning, he finally was able to unsheath his pride. "You work your ass off every day in this business, 90 hours a week," he says. "I've had five days off in the past six months, and I don't think I'm an exception. So when you're recognized for your efforts, it's just great. And to those people who've said, 'You can't have that kind of success in a town like Cleveland . . .,' well, it's just a fantastic shot in the arm."
As America's newest Iron Chef, Symon will defend Kitchen Stadium in four upcoming episodes, including one that airs November 18. Meantime, his workload isn't getting lighter: Together with wife and partner Liz, he's considering consulting opportunities in New York, Las Vegas, and for Starwood Hotels in Detroit, as well as shopping around a proposal for his long-awaited cookbook.
But don't think Symon's new national stardom will have him turning his back on his hometown. "We're always gonna have other projects in the works — that's what we do," he says. "But Cleveland? This is where I'll always hang my hat."