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Celebrity chefs take time to chat with culinary students

Chefs Michael Symon (left) and Jonathan Waxman answer questions from West Hawaii Community College culinary students Friday evening before the welcome reception at Mauna Lani Bay Hotel. (Hawaii 24/7 photo by Karin Stanton)

Karin Stanton | Hawaii 24/7 Editor

Most foodies would be thrilled for a chance to enjoy dinner made by celebrity chefs Michael Symon and Jonathan Waxman.

A handful of West Hawaii Community College culinary students instead had an opportunity Friday evening to meet them, ask questions about how they got started and seek advice on starting their own careers.

Symon and Waxman are visiting the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows this weekend as part of the James Beard Foundation Celebrity Chef Tour, which is in Hawaii for the first time.

Symon is a star of Iron Chef America and other Food Network shows, including the recently launched Food Feuds, owns Lola and Lolita restaurants in Cleveland. He also has authored a cookbook.

Waxman is an author and star of Top Chef Masters on Bravo, is chef-owner of Barbuto restaurant in Manhattan and previously worked at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Michael’s in Los Angeles.

The two men spent about an hour Friday evening chatting with some of the Big Island’s student chefs, touching on everything from favorite foods to learning proper techniques to launching a kitchen career.

Symon said he comes from a Greek food-loving family, but had his sights set on a college wrestling career. An injury sidelined him for good and he was not happy at college.

“I was too dumb for regular school,” he joked, and ended up at the Culinary Institute of America in New York.

Waxman, meanwhile, was content playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band, until the night the band broke up in Lahaina, Maui.

“My friends said if you want to stay in Maui, you have two choices: selling drugs or working in a restaurant,” he said. “I didn’t think I would make a very good drug seller, so I got a job at the (now closed) Rusty Harpoon.”

Eventually, Waxman returned to the mainland and worked as a Ferrari car salesman. His boss’ wife encouraged him to go to cooking school, so he headed for Paris.

“I got lucky,” he said, of a career that started as a busboy and ended up as a restaurant chef-owner. “It was like a dream.”

The chefs were happy to share their experiences.

“Young chefs want to be creative before they master the techniques and you can’t do that. The biggest mistake young folks make is they want to make cooking a formula and you can’t do that with recipes,” Symon said. “That’s the beauty of cooking. You taste as you go along.”

On the other side, Symon said, chefs can get a little too creative.

“Some chefs … they just get too smart. It’s overdone,” he said, and that can ruin the dining experience and the food.

What makes a good restaurant?

Waxman said it all starts in the kitchen.

“It’s like a football team. There is always going to be a quarterback, that’s your chef,” he said. “And you just have to play to your collective strengths.”

Symon votes for being passionate about food.

“The best restaurants are the ones that you can almost feel the passion coming out,” he said. “That creates more soulful food. You can taste passion.”

Best compliment?

“The greatest compliment,” Waxman said, “is when someone says, ‘hey, your recipe worked!'”

For Symon it’s more about bringing people together.

“I think it’s ‘I cooked that for Sunday dinner and we all ate together around the table,'” he said. “Bringing family and friends together in the kitchen and around the table – that’s the most important thing.”

Favorite dish that’s hard to make?

“Meatballs. Most meatballs suck,” Waxman said. “And you know why? Because the recipes are wrong.”

Symon has another idea.

“I’d rather have a hamburger, to be honest,” he said. “It’s much more difficult to make a great hamburger than a filet mignon.”

Favorite ingredients?

“Oh, there are none,” Waxman said.

Symon has three ingredients that definitely are not on his favorite list: olives, yogurt and octopus.

Symon has a 28-3 record on Iron Chef. Guess which secret ingredients stumped him? He admits his Greek mom scolded him for those.

“You don’t (prepare for Iron Chef). I’ve been doing this my whole life. You just cook,” he said. “For me it’s pretty straightforward. I like to let the food speak for itself.”

Still some tasks are more difficult than others.

“I’m happiest when they hang a big piece of meat up there for me. Or fish. Or even vegetables,” Symon said. “The hardest is something like basil. It might sound simple, but it’s hard.”

As the secret ingredient, basil then is supposed to be the star of the dish, he said, but “too much basil in anything and it’ll taste like shit.”

Being a chef isn’t for everyone, they agreed.

“It’s a hard business. It’s not 9 to 5,” Symon said.

When young cooks come to him and express their desire to be chefs, Symon said he explains to them it will be 15 years of hard work, with no going to friends’ weddings, no honeymoon, no weekends off.

“At that point, they either cry or they show up the next day,” he said.

“There is no proven road to success,” Waxman said.

Waxman said he sees a chef’s role as much more than just serving up food.

“Cooks are kind of like stewards. We get this bounty from the ocean and land and it’s our job to treat that with respect,” he said.

Second-year culinary student Nicole Humphries said chatting with the superstar chefs was a valuable experience.

“I really learned a lot about not doing frou-frou stuff and sticking to the basics and learning what you can to become the chef you want to be,” she said. “These guys were really good to talk to.”

Along with the chefs, national award-winning cocktail mixologist, Manny Hinojosa, is making a special guest appearance throughout the weekend as a representative for Grey Goose, and creating signature cocktails to complement the cuisine.

Saturday evening’s gala six-course dinner includes each chef preparing a different course. They will introduce the dishes, answer questions and mingle with guests.

The Celebrity Chef Tour is a nationwide series helping to raise money for the James Beard Foundation, which celebrates and preserves America’s culinary heritage and diversity through scholarships, publications, food and beverage industry awards and maintenance of the historic James Beard House in New York City as a venue for special culinary events.

– Find out more:
James Beard Foundation:
Celebrity Chef Tour:
Michael Symon:
Jonathan Waxman:

Big Island culinary students get a special hour-long audience with super chefs Jonathan Waxman (left) and Michael Symon. (Hawaii 24/7 photo by Karin Stanton)

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