Round two with Lon Symensma, exec chef of ChoLon
1555 Blake Street
This is part two of my interview with Lon Symensma, executive chef of ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro. In part one of that interview, Symensma rips on bird's nests, extols the virtues of lop chong and admits that his favorite macaroni and cheese is made with Velveeta.
Favorite restaurant in America: Jean Georges. It's been one of New York City's four-star restaurants for years, and you'll always have an unforgettable meal there. Jean-Georges is French, but trained in the Asian realm, and he was one of the first chefs to lighten things up -- using lemongrass-infused broth and fresh juices, for example, instead of butter and high-caloric cream. It's a very cool and chic restaurant, not stuffy, and the waiters know the food really well, and Jean-Georges is just a really cool, well-rounded guy. I'm very proud to have worked there with that level of talent.
Best food city in America: New York is definitely where many of the best chefs in the world are located, and it's where I believe you find the highest level of talent and the widest range of cooking styles and cuisines. If you can't represent what you do with consistency on that level, you'll get destroyed -- and that keeps the bar extremely high.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: I've had great meals at Fruition, twelve and the Kitchen in Boulder. When I'm off, I also enjoy the dim sum at Super Star Asian, the pho with a side of cubed brisket at Pho Duy, and I get my Mexican fix at the Los Carboncitos on Sheridan.
Favorite dish to cook at home: I usually make something on the fly with whatever's in our kitchen at the time, and sometimes I have to get really creative. Whenever possible, it's been all about the outdoor grill, especially since I have a back yard for the first time in years. My fiancée got me a charcoal-and-gas-combo grill a week after we moved in, and on the charcoal side there's a crank to get the grill rack as close to or as far from the charcoal as you want. I love cooking over charcoal, and that feature is great.
Favorite dish on your menu: A few months ago, I sat down and had dinner at ChoLon for the first time when my family was visiting, and we pretty much went through the entire menu, and afterward, I was most impressed with the roasted chicken dish. I think it's the best chicken I've ever made.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? My own version of chili crab, using Dungeness crab served in the shell. It's one of the most popular dishes in Singapore, and I'd love to do it here, but it can be really messy to eat, which may not appeal to some guests.
Current Denver culinary genius: I have a lot of respect for Alex Seidel and what he's doing at Fruition and Fruition Farms. They just started producing Pecorino, which is great. Part of my excitement about moving from New York to Denver was to explore opportunities that were previously unavailable to me. We're in our own planning stages of building a rooftop garden, and I'm really looking forward to experiencing the pride you feel from using product that you've grown and harvested on your own.
One book that every chef should read: Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire. It's the culinary bible of classic French cuisine and was a large part of my early education.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? My grandfather passed away and left me some antique kitchen equipment. In the collection, there was a really cool meat grinder, an old Amish butter churner, a coffee mill and some cast-iron corn-shaped pans for cornbread.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? A simple tomato sauce with basil, prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano Reggiano and an egg cracked in the center that's baked in a wood-fired oven and finished with some freshly ground black pepper and a drizzle of really good olive oil.
Guiltiest food pleasure? I'm a sucker for chicken wings. From traditional Buffalo-style wings with blue cheese to the best I've ever eaten that were spit-roasted over an open fire at Newton Market in Malaysia, I can always be counted on to order them if they're on the menu. At ChoLon, I confit the wings in duck fat overnight before they're grilled and then tossed in a Vietnamese-style caramel.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Bunches of fresh herbs.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Don't rely too heavily on recipes; they should be used more as a guide. And have fun and taste your food as you go, because it'll make you a better and more confident cook.
What's your favorite knife? My favorite is my first Japanese knife, which Gray Kunz gave me after helping him with a dinner event years ago in New York. I've used nothing but Japanese knives ever since, especially my Misono UX10 and Nenox.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? When I was the chef at Buddakan, Morimoto was our sister restaurant around the corner, so I've always wanted to take on chef Morimoto on Iron Chef. I don't really have any desire to pitch a show to the Food Network; I think that market is a little oversaturated as it is.
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be: I'd love for Anthony Bourdain to come into ChoLon. He's a cool guy who's very passionate about Southeast Asia, and he won't hold back; he'll definitely let you know what he thinks.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Follow your recipes precisely, always keep your station and the walk-in spotless and organized, support each other as a team, and cook hard or go home.
Favorite celebrity chef: Tom Colicchio. He's an incredibly talented chef who's been a huge part of New York City's food scene, and I really like watching him on Top Chef.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Every chef decides the direction that they want their career to go in, and I'm not going to judge anyone for it. That said...while Bobby Flay is a nice guy, I think the level of attention he gives to the media aspect of his career has adversely affected the quality of his restaurants.
Are chefs artists, craftsmen or both? Both. As a chef, creativity and proper technique are both necessary for success, but I think that every chef first needs to focus on the craftsmanship aspect by learning all the fundamentals of cooking before exploring and developing his or her creative side.
What's next for you? Helping my fiancée, Noelle, start planning our wedding and hopefully buying a house in the near future. I have my hands full with ChoLon right now, but I eventually want to start exploring other restaurant concepts, and I really enjoy cooking Italian food, so I would love to return to Italy at some point. I ran my second half-marathon this past September, and I'd like to run a full marathon someday. I'd also like to get up to the mountains more often to become a better skier. And we're also working on building a rooftop garden above the restaurant.
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