Cafe Society

Lon Symensma, exec chef of ChoLon, rips on bird's nests, extols the virtues of lop chong and admits that his favorite macaroni and cheese is made with Velveeta

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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.

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Lori Midson
Contact: Lori Midson