Michael Symon headshot

Interview with Michael Symon on his new cookbook “Bringing Home Sunday Supper”

Michael Symon brings home cooking and restaurant quality together in his new book “Simply Symon Suppers.” The book is full of new and interesting pairings, as well as some of Symon’s childhood favorites, like his mother’s lasagna. Instead of being categorized by course or food type, Symon chose to pair dishes together to provide ready-to-cook menus for the home chef, along with some batch cocktails and approachable desserts. Symon offers up categories such as “Sunny Days, Cool Nights” and “Hot and Easygoing,” which gives the book a homey feel and personal touch. While many of Symon’s dishes are meat-heavy, there are many options for the veggie-inclined.

With this book, Symon brings everyone home for Sunday supper with him. We sat down in an exclusive interview with Symon to discuss his new book and find out more tips and tricks from this seasoned chef. Like his book, Symon provides thoughtful and approachable insight, sharing simple hacks and good eats.

The whole meal

Simply Symon Suppers

The first thing I wanted to ask you about was when designing this book, why did you decide to pair together dishes and organize them by meal rather than by individual sections?

That’s actually a great question because, at our house, this is growing up and as an adult, we cook a lot at home, but we do Sunday suppers a lot. If we’re not traveling, we’ll have anywhere between six and 20 people over on most Sundays to eat. When I cook or when I think about what I’m going to feed my friends and family, I never think of a specific dish. I think of the meal, like, here’s what the meal’s going to be tonight, and I start planning the meal.

Ccookbooks are always laid out either purely by season or by entrees, the apps, salads, whatever. For me, it’s always been a full thought about the entire meal. I wanted to show people, “Here’s how I think about a meal.” If you want to piece it together any way you want or if you want to pull a salad or an entrée or something from that meal, that’s easy to do and works too. Most of us, especially when we’re entertaining or having friends and family over, we’re sitting down for a meal. We’re not sitting down for a salad or an entrée.

Is there any particular recipe or meal that stands out to you in this book?

It’s like picking your favorite kid. There are ones that I lean into a little more. 80% of the book is things that we make on … We took you through 52 weeks of our life. These are all things that we make. The ones that stick with me a little bit more are the ones that bring me to, remind me of childhood or family or things that I ate as a kid. My grandfather always made stuffed cabbage. I don’t think stuffed cabbage is something that most people eat on the regular anymore. It brings me to a place. It’s the same thing with the [chicken] paprikash, and spaetzle brings me to a specific place. The Sunday sauce with the ricotta cavatelli and my mom’s salad — that was our Sunday supper as a kid, pretty much every Sunday. Those ones are my favorites, because they bring me to a really specific part of my life.

Better with a drink

juicing lime with tongs

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Your book has an impressive cocktail section. What is one of the most important things to think of when you are pairing a cocktail with a meal?

Make sure that you are married to someone who makes incredible cocktails. Marry someone who has been writing beverage lists for restaurants for 35 years. That’s the key. The way it works, to be honest, it’s no different than when Liz and I ran the restaurants together. Whenever I was putting a menu item on, I would work on the dish and then I would bring her the dish to taste and she would have comments. She would always think of, “What wine, what am I going to talk to the staff about, what I would love with this?”

It works that way when we’re doing dinners at the house, too. I’m like, “Lizzie, here’s what I’m making,” and then she starts thinking about things that pair up. One of the great lessons though, when entertaining, and this is what Liz is so good at, is we want to entertain but enjoy the party. She doesn’t want to be making drinks for everybody the whole night. I don’t want to be cooking through the entire party. One of the things we wanted to focus on in the book and we focus on when entertaining is making batch cocktails. You have a batch cocktail that goes with the meal that you put out and people can enjoy it throughout the party and you’re not sitting there mixing drinks for everyone.

In a recent Instagram video you showed how to use tongs to squeeze limes, which I thought was really cool.

It’s my oldest trick in the book. It’s a whirlwind. Maybe I’m dating myself a little bit, but we’re living in an era of chefs where there’s so many fancy toys and I am such a simpleton in the kitchen. I like the things that I have to be very nice. I have a knife collection and that kind of stuff, but I don’t want a million tools. People are always like, “What are the must-haves in a kitchen?” I’m like, “A chef knife, a bench scraper, a rasp, and a good spoon.” They’re like, “What are you talking about?” There’s nothing that you can’t make with those things.

With the tongs, it really all started for me in restaurant kitchens, because in our restaurants, especially our first couple of restaurants, the kitchens were teeny tiny, very small. We didn’t have space to put a juicer and this and that. As my hands started getting sore as I aged, it’s like, “Oh my god, this is the easiest way to juice fruit ever.” You get every single bit of juice out of it, and if you need to run it through a little mesh strainer, you do. I guarantee you I could get more juice out of fruit with my tongs than anybody can with a juicer.

What your kitchen really needs

Bench scraper

Ground Picture/Shutterstock

Do you have any other helpful kitchen hacks for people who don’t want to clutter with all of the one use items?

A bench scrape. I get the plastic cheap bench scrapers. You could get them online for a couple bucks. I literally can’t cook without one. If I look down and it’s not there, it’s like my Woody, almost. It helps you transport things from board to pan so you’re not trying to scoop things with your knife. It also helps you keep everything clean and organized and it costs you three bucks. I go online and buy 20 at a time and give them to people. It’s like my parting gift. “Here you go.”

I do like a rasp because you could zest with it, you could grate spices with it, and you could grate cheese with it. You don’t need a cheese grater or this or that. Use the side of your knife as a garlic press. The garlic press itself has to be the dumbest invention in the history of inventions. It takes you 10 seconds to press the garlic and four years to get the garlic out of all those little holes.

I am a big fan of the great Kunz spoons. I always have my little Kunz spoons on the side, because they’re big enough to stir with sauce with. It’s such a great universal spoon. A great chef knife, in the world where everybody wants to sell a knife set — it’s amazing. You buy these blocks of knives. I look at them and I crack up. I’m a professional chef. I’ve been working in restaurants since I’ve been 13 years old, and 98% of what I do is with a chef knife. What the f*** do you need a tomato bagel knife for? What is that even for? I can’t cut a bagel with this or a tomato with this? It cracks me up. Spend the money on a great chef knife, instead of spending the money on a block of knives, where you only are going to use one or two of them.

Do you have a brand of knife you prefer?

I have a guy that makes me knives. I use a lot of Denox. Those are expensive knives, though. There’s a guy, Middleton knives, and he makes gorgeous knives, but that’s in the $200-$300 range of knives, as is Denox, or more sometimes, for my knives that [stay] hidden. For the everyday knives in our house, Maiden makes a very solid affordable knife. There are some out there that are affordable, that work fine. A really solid WÜSTHOF is still a good knife, or an F Dick is still a very good knife.

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Grilling reigns supreme

Grilled peaches

Rudisill/Getty Images

You mentioned in your book that while you love desserts, you don’t always love making them. What are some tips for people who are intimidated by desserts and trying to find their way?

Grill fruit. Cooking is very intuitive. Qhen we write cookbooks, people follow me around and measure, because I just cook. I’m a cook to taste person. It’s how I was taught, it’s how I was raised. I taste and add taste and add until I get to where I am. With pastry, you can’t do that. Do what is fun for you but doesn’t stress you out. If you don’t like to bake, don’t say, “Today, I’m going to make a soufflé,” because you’re asking for failure. 

To make a crumble is delicious. When fruits are in prime season, you can do those to taste a little bit more. When peaches are great, a peach crisp, a crumble’s delicious. Do the kind of desserts that lean into the season more, where you have a little bit more freedom as a cook and you’re going to have better results with your desserts.

For grills, where do you fall on the gas versus charcoal or wood grill debate?

Gas, to me, isn’t a grill. It’s a stove. Someone explained to me why that’s a grill. It’s burners that create heat, just like the one inside your house. I’m charcoal or wood all day. I’m a live fire guy. That’s what I am. It adds a tremendous amount of flavor to food. They’re really not hard to work on anymore. They’re very easy to get lit. They’re very easy to maintain temperature. Charcoal that I’ve been using a lot lately is a coconut charcoal that burns very slow, even heat, doesn’t have flare-ups, and is sustainable. There are great options out there. Wood is also fabulous. I tend to use wood a little bit more in my smoker and charcoal a little bit more on my grill.

Turning up the heat

Uncooked skirt steak

Mironov Vladimir/Shutterstock

For your fire roasted potatoes, what are the benefits for cooking them on a grill and why do you add chicken stock?

A lot of the benefits of cooking certain things on a grill is being outside, and clean up is easier. Being born and raised in Cleveland, when you’ve got nice weather, you got your ass outside. That’s why I always tell people anything you cook inside, you can cook outside. It’s easy to turn your grill into an oven. I bake cakes on my grill. With the addition of that, you get the flavor of the wood or the charcoal. You also get the benefit of being outside, where it’s more pleasant and cleanup is easier. Typically, if we’re entertaining, especially in the spring, summer, fall, we’re outside, so you’re part of the party too. 

I put chicken stock in for flavor. If you’re a vegetarian, you could certainly use wine or beer or water or a mushroom stock also. It’s to create moisture in the potatoes and for flavor.

You also include a recipe for grilled skirt and flank steak. What’s the biggest mistake you see people making when grilling steak?

For those two steaks they cut them with the grain, which is a disaster, because then they’re chewy and they can’t figure out why they’re chewy. Whenever you get a cut that is a naturally a little bit of tougher cut, you’ve got to cut it against the grain to make it more tender, or else you’re going to be eating a rubber band. The other mistake that people make with steaks is they get caught up into a specific temperature. Temperature depends on what steak you’re eating. A filet has no fat; I don’t like it cooked past rare. A ribeye has a lot of intermuscular fat and it tastes best closest to medium, where that fat could melt into the steak and you get the benefits of the fat.

Don’t just think in your head, “I like rare” or “I like mid rare” … I always tell people, if you like your steaks well done, pick the appropriate cut of meat that has the best chance to holding onto that. I’m not going to beat people up because they don’t like steak cooked to the temperatures that I like to cook, but at least don’t get a filet and order it well done. It’s going to be like eating shoe leather. If you like your meat cooked all the way through, maybe a steak isn’t what you want. Maybe you want a short rib, where it needs to be cooked well done and that’s when it tastes the best. It’s about picking the right cut of meat for how you like your meat cooked.

To buy or not to buy?

Blues Hog BBQ sauce

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In a pinch, do you have a favorite store-bought barbecuing sauce?

If I bought barbecue sauce, I’d burn in hell. [If] I’m a Sicilian mother, I don’t buy tomato sauce either. I will say this, and this is from doing the show “BBQ USA.” A lot of people use a brand as a base. I have tasted it. There is a brand called Blues Hog that a lot of people use on the barbecue circuit. That actually is a pretty solid sauce, not too sweet, and doesn’t feel too mass processed.

Barbecue sauce is so easy to make. I never have understood why people buy salad dressings either. It’s literally oil and vinegar. Why are you buying this?

With football season fast approaching, do you have any new game day recipes you’re looking forward to cooking?

Not new, but I really get into full barbecue mode in football season. I love barbecuing in the fall and when it’s a little colder outside, it’s the food that I love to eat. I also love making a cute brisket chili that time of year, no bean, big chunk of meat, Texas style chili. I love barbecuing at that time of year. I love being outside when it’s a little crisp. Quite honestly, it’s easier to keep the temperature of your smokers down that time of the year, so you could really do the low and slow well. Who doesn’t love eating smoked chicken wings or smoked chicken or ribs during a football game or a tailgate? Because I’m a born and raised Cleveland Browns fan, I need a lot of beer, because the misery’s coming quickly.

If people want to keep things simple on Sunday using a dip or using canned foods, do you have any recommendations?

There’s things out there nowadays that you could jazz up a little bit. One of the great chef cheats is — a lot of chefs in fancy restaurants, you’ll go to their kitchen and there’s canned beans, which there’s nothing wrong with. Give them a rinse, buzz them up with some garlic, extra virgin olive oil and lemon, and you got a really great simple bean dip that would be good with pizza or anything like that. 

You could do the same thing with black beans and add cilantro and tomatoes and cheese to it. You have something that’s great with tortillas. Leaning into the canned beans is a great way to put dips together very quickly. Things that work really well as game day spreads — cooked chickpeas, you could make a hummus in pretty much no time at all. I actually have had some pretty good store-bought hummus that you could jazz up with your own flavors.

Barbecue favorites

Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q sign

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Aside from your own restaurant, what’s your favorite barbecue spot in the US?

A dear friend of mine, LeAnn Mueller, just passed away, but La Barbecue is one of my absolute favorite barbecue places in Austin, Texas. In New York, Billy Durney is, right now, at the absolute top of his game when it comes to barbecue. He’s really pushing the envelope and making hyper regional Brooklyn, New York barbecue, which is very cool and interesting. 

There’s so many good ones out there. Lewis Barbecue in Charleston does a fantastic job. I’m still a sucker for some of the old places, like Big Bob Gibson’s — not a better place to get pork butt or Alabama style white chicken. 17th Street with Amy Mills — her father, Mike Mills, before he passed, was one of my big mentors. I don’t think anybody does ribs better than them. Slaps in Kansas City — if you want Kansas City style barbecue, Joe at Slaps does that style barbecue better than anyone.

“Simply Symon Suppers” is now available to order.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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