This is part one of my interview with Lon Symensma, executive chef of ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro. Part two of that interview will run in this space tomorrow.
Lon Symensma talks faster than a hyped-up auctioneer, the words rolling off his tongue like double Ds spilling out of their cups. His eyes -- a vibrant blue hue -- sparkle with just a hint of mischief, and his easy, broad smile reveals a dentist's dream mouth. It's a mouth that's served Symensma well during his 33 years on earth, the majority of them spent cooking for, and alongside, some of the most exalted chefs in the world -- Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Paul Bocuse and Gray Kunz among them.
Born in Iowa, Symensma, the executive chef/partner of ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro, began his restaurant career as a dish dog when he was fourteen, but long before his first stint scraping plates, he knew that he wanted a career in the kitchen. "My father was a veterinarian, and he'd buy a cow from a farmer and break it down," remembers Symensma, "and my mom had a huge garden, so we were almost always cooking with what she was growing, and we were canning and pickling when I was really young."
During high school, Symensma worked in the kitchen of a country club, taking turns on every station, including omelets and ice carving; he'd play hooky from class just to get more time on the line. After graduation, he did a one-year, American Culinary Federation-certified culinary apprenticeship program at a local community college, and at eighteen, he was participating in culinary competitions across the country, going toque-to-toque against chefs twice his age. His talent didn't go unnoticed. "There was a judge at one of the competitions who was choosing people to be on the next U.S. Culinary Olympic team, and I was one of four people who made it," says Symensma, who later attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, where he was named the ACF Junior Chef of the Year.
"From there, my career just blew up," says Symensma, who graduated in 1999 with the highest grades in his class. He stayed on at the CIA, as a student teacher working in the Escoffier room alongside a French chef who soon sent him packing to France, where he honed his skills in a pair of two-star Michelin restaurants and lived in the family house of French-born, New York-based superstar chef Daniel Boulud, often foraging for mushrooms at 4 a.m. with Boulud's father. "I was living my life speaking in nothing but French, doing time in Michelin-star restaurants, getting schooled in the old-school regime with chefs who whip sauté pans at your head, cooking for people like Paul Bocuse, living in the house of Boulud's family, and I was only 23 years old," recalls Symensma, who then spent three months doing a loop of Europe, traveling to thirteen countries.
He eventually jetted back to New York City, where he learned that the CIA was offering an Italian food and cooking immersion program, so for the next six months, Symensma buried himself in Italian cuisine -- and was rewarded with a one-month itinerary in Italy. "We went all over the place, as far south as Naples and as far north as Venice, and it was while I was in Italy that I really developed a passion for Italian food," explains Symensma, adding that his next restaurant concept, which he's currently plotting, will be European, with an emphasis on Italian.
When he returned to New York, he landed in the kitchen of Jean-Georges Vongerichten's namesake restaurant as a "pastry bitch," a position he held for four months, until he was offered the sous-chef stint -- which he turned down. "I wanted to travel," he admits. It turns out that Vongerichten was opening another self-titled food temple in Shanghai, so Symensma caught the next plane there, opened the restaurant and then spent a year backpacking around China and Southeast Asia. He ultimately made his way back to New York, touching down on the same day that Spice Market unlocked its doors; Symensma was tapped as one of the opening sous chefs.
Before packing his suitcases for Denver, where he opened ChoLon last fall, Symensma was the executive chef of Buddakan, one of the highest-grossing restaurants in America. But Symensma wanted a change. "I felt like I was selling out, and I just didn't want to continue slugging it out in New York," he says.
During this chat with Symensma over beers at the ChoLon bar, he dishes on bird's nests (the Chinese kind), cooking with rage, taking on Masaharu Morimoto on Iron Chef and asparagus pee.
Six words to describe your food: Balanced, technical, modern, aggressive, multi-layered and consistent.
Ten words to describe you: Friendly, driven, hyperactive, hardworking, fair, animated, intense, motivated, precise and determined.
Culinary inspirations: Travel. Visiting other countries and immersing myself in their cultures and cuisines has always been a tremendous source of inspiration for me, not to mention something that I feel is very important for a chef to experience. My most recent trip to Asia inspired me to create modern interpretations of traditional dishes for the menu at ChoLon.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Several years ago, before opening Buddakan in New York, my friend Angelo Sosa and I opened a restaurant named Yumcha in the West Village of New York. Paul Bocuse, one of the world's best French chefs -- he's like Escoffier -- came in for dinner, and while it was nerve-racking, it was also a tremendous honor to cook for him. I've cooked for him twice -- once in France, when I was just a little piece of shit, and once in New York. I was also the graduation commencement speaker at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, in September 2009, which was an amazing experience as well.
Favorite ingredient: Tamarind. Sour is my favorite flavor, and tamarind represents acidity in a unique way that adds a lot of depth as an ingredient.
Most underrated ingredient: Items like corncobs and shrimp shells that you can extract a ton of flavor from to use in another preparation. I hate seeing a potential ingredient being thrown away.
Most overrated ingredient: Bird's nests are a very expensive delicacy in China. They're actual nests made from the saliva of swallows and traditionally believed to provide numerous health benefits. I tried them a few times when I was in Asia, and I can't quite appreciate it, especially given the price. I also think that filet mignon is extremely overrated for what it is. I prefer to use "lesser" cuts of beef, which showcase more flavor given the proper amount of cooking time. For me, it's worth the wait and well worth the price.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Aside from Il Mondo Vecchio's Chinese sausage, I love the white loaf we get from Grateful Bread. It's an airy, rustic white bread that toasts beautifully for our Kaya toast at the restaurant.
Favorite spice: Saigon cinnamon. It has an intense aromatic quality that you don't find in other types of cinnamon. I use it in my curries and braising liquids, and it's a must for a great pho.
Best recent food find: Il Mondo Vecchio's lop chong, or Chinese sausage. It was really exciting to find a local, artisanal sausage with an Asian flavor profile. I use it in the Chinese-sausage fried rice on the menu at ChoLon.
One food you detest: One of my first apartments in Iowa after leaving home was next to a Heinz factory, so I'd wake up to the smell of vinegar and tomatoes in the air every morning. I haven't been able to go anywhere near ketchup since.
One food you can't live without: Macaroni and cheese. It was my mom's specialty growing up. She used sharp cheddar, Velveeta, macaroni and a béchamel sauce and baked it in the oven. Love it.
Favorite music to cook by: A mentor of mine would always tell me to "cook with rage," and blasting some Tool in the kitchen gets me going for a busy Saturday-night service.
Biggest kitchen disaster: I lived in France for a year shortly after I graduated from culinary school, and I was spending some time with a friend at Daniel Boulud's family's house outside of Lyon because my friend was married to his nephew. We were cooking Easter dinner for the family, and I was making tripe, which I didn't have much experience working with. Tripe is part of an animal's stomach that has small holes all over it and kind of looks like honeycomb, and when I put it in a really hot pan of oil, I guess it wasn't thoroughly dry, and the oil splattered all over my face and arms -- and on some other people as well. The burn marks were still there when we sat down for dinner. It was definitely one of the most embarrassing experiences I've ever had in a kitchen.
What's never in your kitchen? Iodized salt, canned water chestnuts, pasteurized crab, pre-packaged ice creams or desserts and lazy cooks.
What's always in your kitchen? Grapeseed oil, a Vita-Prep and a sense of urgency.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Food trucks and better Indian, Thai and barbecue options.
Aside from chains, what you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I'm still fairly new in town, and I haven't been out as much as I'd like since the restaurant opened, but I have noticed the proliferation of bad Mexican food. Before we moved out here, I thought the Mexican food scene would be a lot more developed than it is, but it seems to be more about quantity than quality.
Weirdest customer request: I did a dinner party for a couple in the Hamptons, and I was asked to change the morel-mushroom-and-asparagus appetizer I'd put on my proposed menu. Apparently, it was because there was only one bathroom in the pool house where the guests were dining, and the wife didn't want everyone to smell each other's "asparagus pee."
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: I saw people lining up for a food stand that was at the end of a pier on the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, and while I couldn't get to the front to see what they were serving, I got in line anyway since whatever it was seemed in high demand. When I finally got to the front, I was handed an egg with a hole at the top of the shell so you could drink the fluid and see the duck embryo inside. I decided to give it a try, but it's pretty hard to get past the little feathers.
Hardest lesson you've learned, and how you've changed because of it: I've learned that you must spend time in and work through each station of the kitchen before becoming a true chef and leader. If you can't hop on any cook's station and show them why you're the one in charge, then you can never be a real leader or someone whom your cooks can look up to. Although it's not necessarily the most financially rewarding path to take, the result is well worth the effort, and the result is a more well-rounded career.
Last meal before you die: I'd like for it to be many, many courses somewhere on a beach, and it would have to include a grilled ribeye steak and a side of macaroni and cheese.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.