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
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.