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Michael Symon was the first Iron Chef I ever encountered in person. And I am delighted to say that, during the last three years, I have had the opportunity to hear his all-too-famous laugh on many more occasions, both as a co-judge on The Next Iron Chef as well as when I am lucky enough to judge his battles in Kitchen Stadium.
Just before he entered into battle against his fellow Iron Chefs, I took the chance to catch up with one of my favorite Food Network chums and demand answers to the following questions.
You once told me that you feared only “My wife, my mother and God — not necessarily in that order.” But is there any chef that you would hate to come up against in Kitchen Stadium?
MS: Not really. That’s not because I don’t think there are any chefs out there that are better than me, but because I live for competition and the battles in Kitchen Stadium. So win or lose, there is no one I’d be afraid to go up against.
Is there ever a day when you don’t think about pork?
MS: No. The addition of pork simply makes most things more delicious. It starts when I decide between bacon or ham for breakfast, and it goes on from there throughout the day. There is rarely a point when I am not thinking about pork or some pork-based snack.
Where did that laugh come from? Your Mom? Your Dad? Or is it a Cleveland thing?
MS: I was just born with it. Lizzie (my wife) calls it my tracking device, because she can always find me in any room. My Mom says that my first laugh sounded much like it does today. I suspect I might be half Greek-Sicilian and half hyena.
Who, in your opinion, is the most-influential TV food personality of all time?
MS: It would be Jacques Pepin, without a doubt. The thing about Jacques is that a professional chef of any level could watch him and learn a lot, and a home cook could also watch him and learn a lot. No other chef that I know has that magical combination. I don’t think we will ever see his like again.
Is there any ingredient you refuse to cook with or simply refuse to eat?
MS: A lot of people might think I might say vegetables. But I am definitely not anti-vegetarian in any way at all. I really do dislike the heavily processed junk fake-meat substitutes on the market, however, and would never use them. They are just nasty.
What piece of kitchen equipment could you not live without?
MS: I literally freeze if I don’t see a bench scraper in my kitchen. It keeps your cutting board clean and helps you move things very easily from your board to your pan. You can buy one for as little as $3 and it will transform the way you work in the kitchen.
What has been your biggest disaster in Kitchen Stadium?
MS: I once tried making a making a mole with a Vitamix. I forgot to check the settings and left it on high. There was a huge mole explosion and the contents shot 20 feet into the air. It all happened in super slow mo, so I can remember every detail.
Which part of the country do you think we should be looking toward for some great up-and-coming chefs?
MS: I hate to sound like a homer, but I think there are a lot of cool chefs coming out of Cleveland. But I also think Portland, Oregon, is a place to watch for great food.
Wine or beer? And you can’t say both.
MS: It’s definitely beer. It would not be even a close choice for me. I particularly like aged sour beers, and I think the best brewer in the country right now is The Jolly Pumpkin Brewery in Dexter, Michigan.
You are easily the most-competitive person I have ever encountered on Iron Chef. Does that carry through into your non-culinary life?
MS: Absolutely. It doesn’t matter what we’re doing, we could be playing Tiddlywinks and I’d still want to crush you. My sister is exactly the same. Our parents instilled in us the importance of winning. But they also taught us the importance of losing gracefully. You’re not always going to win, but if you lose, you lose with class. As Bobby Flay says about me, I am a very graceful loser and a terrible winner.