Perseverance, Sacrifice, and a Side of Salsa: A Thanks to Michael Symon

Submitted by LeoNard Thompson.

I have since forgotten the name of the now defunct Mexican restaurant in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, that apparently was in dire need of a dishwasher. After a relatively quick stint, my cousin quit the position. Since I’d be home for the summer my family thought this would keep me out of trouble until the fall. They also knew from prior experiences that I had no desire, skill, patience, or competency for manual labor of any kind, nonetheless, I signed on. Little did my family know that my short time there would direct my perspective on who I was in terms of determination and resolve at that particular time in my manhood, and where I wanted to be.

I hadn’t seen a sink like this before. The only thing that differentiated it as a sink, as opposed to small pond, was the food remnants floating near the uncovered manhole in the middle of the cavernous gray stone bottom. It had to have been five feet deep, five feet wide, and six feet long. The faucet was actually no faucet at all. It was a super high velocity fireman’s hose, disguised as a showerhead, pretending to be a faucet. And although there was a blue side for cold, and a red side for hot, the blinking neon magenta indicator for blistering must have been turned up so high it had broken off, allowing for pore cleansing steam, and complementary lava pellet massage for all who operated the machinery.

Salsa was made by the bucket, or by the humongous gleaming, dripping, stainless steel mixing bowl, still fresh with chunks of tomato, garlic, poblano and jalapeño peppers, cavalierly splashing their way into the soapy molten water. The mix of burning detergent, and pungent jalapeño capsaicin is as fresh in my mind today as it was standing for hours on end in the back corner of the small kitchen, out of the sightline of a majority of staff, secluded from the rest of the prep and cooking areas.

I don’t remember many of the people from the restaurant, their faces and names faded from memory, except for one. And that was because of his laugh. He had a high-pitched, out of nowhere, belly emanated high decibel chuckle. They called him Mike, and I remember thinking when I saw him how much he did not fit the description of a ‘chef’ to me. He wore an open black bandana on his head; the kind guys wear to cover up balding spots. He was stocky, with a potted belly, and in bad need of a shave. We hardly spoke, in fact, I hardly heard him talk at all, just always his monotony breaking laughter.

The one and only time I heard his speaking voice was while talking to a group of other chefs while he shared a new recipe creation, and I was invited to partake. I cannot remember the full conversation, but he was telling them that he would not be working at this restaurant long, that he was tired of restaurant hopping, and that he and his girlfriend had plans of opening a restaurant of their own, and that it was “time to grow.” He continued as people with big dreams do about what he wanted to accomplish, and how one day they’d be eating his food “all over the world.” I could surmise from the look on the faces and feedback from other chefs in the crowd that while they appreciated this guy’s vision, they doubted he would succeed, probably based on their own lack of success. I wished him the best, but admittedly had my doubts, too.

After being asked to clean and sweep out the cellar of the restaurant (see first paragraph), I handed in my resignation, and prepared for the Fall Semester. Later that following school year, I made an impromptu visit home to see family, and clean clothes. I would routinely sleep on the couch in the basement, wake up, iron and pack. As I was standing in front of the board, I heard the instantly recognizable laugh of the cook from the Mexican restaurant. Surrealism set in, because of how unmistakable it was. But, in those milliseconds of thought I could not imagine why I just heard it. Then it occurred to me that I left the TV on the night before, the volume low, on the opposite wall of the washroom. Not sure why it was tuned to the local public television station, however I watched on as a chef wearing a black Kangol backwards was chopping onions and conversing with the host. The name on the screen read, “Michael Simon, Chef.”

It was Mike. Cleaned up neat and shaven, except for a small patch below his lower lip. He had lost a few pounds, he looked much younger than I remembered, but his smile and laughter had not changed a bit. He was demonstrating a recipe, and talking about his new restaurant. I thought, “Huh…cool.”

Fast forward years later, I had graduated, moved away, and was visiting home and out to breakfast with a friend. As I flapped the edges of the sugar packets for my coffee, I glanced up at the TV behind the bar to catch the Food Network show, ‘Iron Chef,’ coming back from break, a show I loved watching over the years, but had been a good while since I’d last seen. A particular shot of a very familiar face flashed across the screen, with a familiar name, “Iron Chef, Micheal Symon.” I was floored. I asked the bartender to turn up the volume, but he couldn’t due to the hour of day.

So I watched from the bar, and fired off questions to both my friend and the bartender about Michael, who filled me in about the local chef made big time, who was a show host with a new cookbook, and owned restaurants around the country.  I shared with them the story I just shared with you. How I met him years ago, and what he had shared with a group of cooks in a little kitchen in Heights. The bartender listened and continued, “He is always representing Cleveland, and it’s cool because they are eating his food all over the world.”

I tell this story often because it is encouraging  to pass on to others that no matter what your present circumstances, how small your current surroundings are, how others perceive you, or whether they believe in you, the possibility of achieving your desires are not supposed or hypothetical, but very real.

Michael Symon is my tangible concrete example that success has no dress code, modus operandi, or map to follow. It looks exactly how you want it to, because it is your creation. Whether it is manual labor, small surroundings, poor resources, no peer support, or the possibility of staying in hot water. You either feed the situation with something they have never experienced before, or manufacture your reality out of the dreams you and other positive people who love you are willing to wake up to.

It must have been something in that dish he served, because when I think back to that day years later, I have a hunger for more, and more, and more.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.

4 comments on “Perseverance, Sacrifice, and a Side of Salsa: A Thanks to Michael Symon

  1. I realize more and more each year what a small world it is after all. Nice story.

  2. I like this story. A lot. Very, very cool. 😀

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