Tastemakers: ‘Worst Cooks in America’s Michael Symon Teases ‘The Best of the Worst’

michael symon
Q&A
Courtesy of Food Network

Cleveland rocks — and so does the city’s bighearted James Beard Award winner Michael Symon, who’s all about helping folks through food. “One of the great things about being a chef is mentoring people who are learning their way around the kitchen,” he says.

That attitude should be a bonus in his new gig on Food Network’s Worst Cooks in America: The Best of the Worst, where he and fellow chef Anne Burrell lead past contestants in a battle royal of foodie failures. “They had slightly different skill levels,” he notes of his team members. “But for the most part, they really couldn’t cook.” Below, the philanthropic Iron Chef champ dishes out info.

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Who fired up your love of cooking?

Michael Symon: I have a Greek-Sicilian mother, so food was at the forefront of everything we did. As you were eating [breakfast], she was talking about what we were going to have for lunch. We were the house where everybody on the street ate.

What is the worst mistake someone can make in the kitchen?

Wow, there’s so many. [Laughs] When people take a piece of protein and put it in a cold-ass pan and then turn the pan on.

How should they be doing it?

You turn the pan on, over a medium to medium-high heat. Once the pan gets hot, you add your fat, then you wait another 20 to 30 seconds. If you’re cooking a protein like a fish or meat, you make sure that it’s dry and then you put it in the pan. You wait for four minutes before you even move it.

Michael Symon Anne Burrell Worst Cooks in America

(Credit: Food Network)

What is your team on Worst Cooks like?

My team is wild. There was a lot of laughter and a lot of tears. We were Team Emotion. The thing that was so fascinating to me was how bad they all wanted to learn to cook and how quickly they did learn. It was really pretty remarkable.

How’s your Michael D. Symon Foundation going?

When restaurants closed down [because of COVID], it gave us the ability to keep some of my staff working to make food for a lot of the restaurant employees who were out of work and for the food banks in Cleveland. Food banks had food, but they didn’t have [enough] people to cook the food. So it enabled us to help a lot in that manner. And through the course of the pandemic, we’ve probably been able to raise and donate close to a quarter-million dollars.

Worst Cooks in America: The Best of the Worst, Sunday, April 25, 9/8c, Food Network, Discovery+

Smoky Mac and Cheese

(Credit: Food Network)

“I never had mac and cheese ever as a kid — the only cheese we had was Parmesan or Feta,” jokes Symon of his Mediterranean background. Thanks to a Southern mother-in-law and his son’s spicy palate, Symon has learned to love the classic dish…with a kick.

Serves 4–6

Ingredients

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 pound dry rigatoni

4 cups heavy cream

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

3 shakes hot sauce, optional

8 ounces cream cheese

8 ounces Gouda, shredded

1 pound ham, diced

1 cup panko bread crumbs

½ cup grated Pecorino

½ cup sliced scallions, optional

Directions

Heat a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta according to package directions for al dente, then drain and set aside. Combine cream, paprika, cayenne and hot sauce in a 12-inch cast-iron skillet or heavy-bottomed enameled pan. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer and keep simmering until cream mixture is reduced by half and thickened — about five minutes. Whisk in cream cheese and Gouda until fully melted. Stir in ham and cooked pasta and continue to mix until combined. Stir together panko, Pecorino and scallions in a medium bowl. Sprinkle panko mixture evenly over mac and cheese. Move skillet to oven and bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes until golden brown and bubbly.