Iron chef Michael Symon had to change his mindset about food in order to heal himself

The James Beard Award winner opens up about his personal journey of using food to ease inflammation and joint pain

By Joseph Neese

Deputy Editor in Chief

Published December 7, 2019 5:53PM (EST)

Chef Michael Symon ("Salon Talks")
Chef Michael Symon ("Salon Talks")

As one of the preeminent chefs in America, James Beard Award winner Michael Symon needs no introduction. You know him from the Food Network as an Iron Chef and the host of "Burgers, Brew & 'Que." Before that, he was the co-host of the long-running ABC talk show "The Chew." A prolific author, his sixth cookbook hit shelves this week.

Fix It With Food is no ordinary cookbook. Like Playing With Fire, his last collection of recipes, it was not born out of one of his award winning restaurants. Like his 5 in 5 series, it was not about how he gets food on the table quickly for his family. A former wrestler who was later diagnosed with external lupus and rheumatoid arthritis (RA), Symon writes that he "resigned to the fact that pain (and pain pills) would be a regular part of my life."

Unsatisfied with that answer, Symon eventually turned to his diet for answers. After doing "The Reset" for 30 days on national TV, he learned how certain foods, specifically dairy and sugar, were my triggers for his inflammation. After making simple adjustments to his eating habits, he no longer self-medicates. In Fix It With Food, Symon introduces you to a revised "10-Day Fix," which you can do in the comfort of your own home and without feeling cranky. The results could be life-changing.

When Symon recently stopped by Salon Talks to discuss how he healed himself with food, he opened up about his personal struggles inflammation and chronic joint pain. He also discussed his relationship with Bobby Flay and revealed the real reason why he cooks. "The people that come to enjoy it with you should understand you better after they have the meal," he told Salon.


Your new book Fix It with Food has more than 125 recipes, which help people who suffer from autoimmune issues and inflammation. But this wasn't just a topic that you researched for a cookbook. This is something you lived.
Yes, this is my sixth book, so a lot of the books prior to this were food that I cook either at the restaurants or to get food on the table quickly for my family. But I think this was probably the most personal of the books. I found out in my 20s that I had two autoimmune diseases. I had external lupus and RA, both which really  are affected by inflammation and both which really affect my joints very much.

So my 20s, and 30s and 40s — I guess I've got to admit that I'm 50 now — but I just kind of grinded through it a little bit. And I was achy and I was in pain, and I just kept taking more Aleve until I was up to like 10 a day. And I just said, "This is going to be how my life is. I'll just figure it out."

I think in other countries, and even in America, 30, 40, 50 years ago, people would cure the way that they felt by what they ate. So I just started playing around with my diet to see if I changed things — if it would change the way that I feel. So when I did it the first time and when I first started figuring it out, I did a 30 day reset, where I just cut out everything in my diet that had anything to do with inflammation, which was awful. I was so angry. It was like everything that I loved to eat I couldn't eat for 30 days.

And you did it on national TV, too.
I did. I did it on "The Chew," which made me cranky on TV. And my wife Liz — we've been together for 30 years — she's like, "I would rather have you in pain than being so angry, because you can't eat any of these things." But once I got through the 30 days, every week, I added something back to see what triggered my inflammation. And I got to the point where I found out that dairy and sugar were my triggers.

And I think that one of the great lessons I learned from the book is: 1) I could do it in 10 days. And 2) Everyone — friends of mine that had done it, that have suffered from autoimmune inflammation — all of our triggers were different. I think everyone's body's just a little bit different. So mine were dairy and sugar; some people's are flour and red meat; some are alcohol.

But what the book teaches you how to find your trigger, and then it gives you recipes to omit those from your diet which still taste great. I own restaurants. I'm a chef. I've been cooking my whole life. I can't do a book or teach people to cook something that tastes like shit. So my first priority— always — is make delicious food and then go backwards from there.

What you wrote really stuck with me, because you were a wrestler, right? In high school? I was a ballet dancer and —
My wife danced in the ballet.

Oh, really?
Yes, for 20 years.

And it's very physical, as you know.
Brutal. Do you have nasty feet?

Yes, I destroyed . . . I have nasty feet.
It's a ballet thing.

It's true. I destroyed my back, and I remember waking up one morning, and I couldn't touch my toes anymore. And from there, I went on cortisone shots, painkillers, muscle relaxers. And I just thought that was really going to be the rest of my life.

And what really helped me is a program I did at my gym, which had a diet component. It wasn't exactly a 10-day fix, but we removed a lot of processed foods, high sugar, stuff like that. And my body felt so different.
You feel the difference. I mean, when I did the long 30-day one — even though I was incredibly grumpy, my body started to feel different. My joints hurt less. I'm Greek and Sicilian. I'm born with pretty good skin, but my skin was better. I also have eczema, and that kind of started to go away.

I have that, too.
It was weird. It reminded me how kind of the first thing you learn as a young cook and a chef is how important food is. And then you really get into this mode where you just want to make your food is great as can be, from a flavor profile. But when I did the reboot the first time and stripped everything away— before I sort of added things back in — it made me realize: "Man, food really affects everything in your life."

So food really is the best medicine? Are you off as much medication as you were before?
Yes. I mean, I still have high cholesterol, but that's a genetic thing. My mom, who's this big (makes hand gesture) and eats as healthy as any human I've ever met in my life, has high cholesterol. And she was nice enough to give me that. Her dad didn't have hair, so this came from her, too. But, yes, I'm not self-medicating anymore. The diet has really eliminated about 85 percent of the pain in my body.

And the thing, too, that I wanted to stress in the book — and for me it's like, look, I'm a chef. I like to eat. I like to try things. I'm never going to be perfect, and I think that's where people go wrong sometimes — when they think about a manner in which they're going to eat, what they would think of as cheating, they go off the rails. If it's July, and I'm with my family and my granddaughter, and she wants ice cream, I'm going to get ice cream.

But now I know why I'm going to feel bad the next day. I compare it to drinking. I like whiskey and bourbons. If I have two bourbons, I feel fine the next day. If I have six bourbons, I don't feel so good. But I know I'm going to feel bad, right? I had six bourbons — no different than if I eat ice cream, or if I eat a bunch of cheese. And then I just get back on track, and I'm good again. And you don't have to do the reset every time, because now you know what your triggers are. So you just get back on track and you're fine.

So what are some basic anti-inflammatory foods?
Well, that's the great thing. In addition to eliminating the things that are your triggers, adding things that help inflammation are great. Blueberries are great. Blackberries are great. A lot of the nuts — walnuts are especially fantastic. Spices like turmeric and ginger — fabulous. So you could start adding certain spices and things to your diet.

I make myself a smoothie almost every morning for breakfast, and I put blueberries in it. I put spinach in it. I put ginger in it, tumeric in it and some avocado oil. And it's just a healthy way for me to start and not really think about things. And then if I still want to have eggs and things like that, I do that still. But it's like: Alright, I'm going to get these things going first thing in the morning, and then it's like one less thing I kind of have to worry about throughout the rest of the day.

Speaking of the food, after reading your book, I walked away knowing that one food I'm apparently missing in my life is sauerkraut. Why are you obsessed with sauerkraut?
Oh, my God. It's the best. Anything fermented is great for you.

Well, so my mother's Greek and Sicilian. My father is Eastern European. And my grandfather, who I call Pap — he turns 102 on Dec. 12. And he eats very Eastern European. Now I mean, I think a lot of people that like fad diets and stuff like that. They'd look at what he ate, and they'd go: "He's going to die at 30." But he's 102 years old. His mind is sharp as a tack. He's just started using a cane. I mean, he's very healthy and he eats fermented foods. He grew up cooking Eastern European foods, but he also grew up in the Great Depression.

So they would grow food and then preserve food. And a lot of the foods that they preserved were through fermentation, like sauerkraut, and things were pickled. And where natural fermentation happened, those kinds of foods really help your gut health, which kind of helps everything else. I always use him as an example. But, again, every day for breakfast he eats three eggs, bacon and dark toast with goose fat on it. But he's 102.

And his cholesterol is perfect. But, sometimes, I think when you look at your grandparents, or ancestors or things like that, and you look at the way that they used to eat, there were a lot of things that they did naturally — because of how they grew up or how they were raised — that are very good for you that we've replaced with a lot of processed junk that's really bad for us.

And you said in your book that Pap instilled in you your love of food.
Oh, for sure. I mean, food was everything to him and still is. I mean, we gathered around the table with them every weekend, and had big dinners, and hung out, and talked and then the parents and grandparents played cards. And it was his kind of love for food and bringing people together through food — it really helped shape my life.

So we talked about your grandfather, who the book is dedicated to, and you also had an "in memoriam" note on the same page for your late dog, Ozzy.
Yes, my buddy.

I have two mini Schnauzers, so I'm a big dog lover. They're my No. 1 taste testers, too. Whenever I make something at home, they have it. Did you cook for Ozzy, or did you give prepared dog food?
We did both. We made him dog food, and we cooked for him. We cooked for him a lot more in his older years. Liz and I have always had multiple dogs typically, and I would say we cooked for him a couple times a week — but just simple. We would do good organic chicken or lamb and brown rice — things like that. I didn't feed him a lot of table scraps, because he had a propensity to bulk up.

And everyone else fed him stuff, so he had a kind of very lovable face, where he would just sit and look at you. And we entertain a lot. When there's 10, 12, 15 people at your house, you can't really watch everybody. And people were feeding Ozzy a lot of stuff. But so we cooked for him a couple of times a week.

My mom was definitely that person with dogs, so I learned from her. But I cook for them too, and otherwise, I give them Rachael Ray Nutrish. I would try a Michael Symon dog food line, too.
Yes, and I would love to do a dog food line. So are your schnauzers . . . What size? Regular? Mini?

Mini — and they're older now. They're 12 and 11.
That's good. Ozzy — he made it to 12, but he was a big guy. He was like 105 pounds.

Wow. Mine were actually first belonged to my mom. When she passed away last year from cancer and I adopted them, so they're a wonderful memory of her.
Yes, absolutely,

But the character of your mom comes up a lot in the book, and I can tell how much you love her. And you've remade her lasagna and her spanakopita, which reflects both sides of your heritage. 
Yes, she's fantastic. Exactly. So I made the lasagna with potatoes. Before she tasted it, she was just making a lot of faces. She wasn't really happy about it. But then she tasted it, and she was like, "Oh, this is fantastic." I'm like, "Well, mom, I wasn't going to put something in the book that was honoring you that tasted crappy." So yes, it's fun doing those kinds of dishes, but I'm really lucky.

My mother is an amazing cook. My father is a very good cook. Grandparents on both sides — grandma and grandpa on both sides — amazing cooks. So we honor them a lot in the cookbooks and on the shows. And, I mean, I opened a restaurant and named after my mother in Atlantic City at the Borgata — Angeline. But whenever you do recipes kind of honoring your parents or grandparents, it's fun and great, but they also have opinions.

That's what I was going to ask you, if you got her seal of approval. It seems as though you did.
I did. I said, "Mom, I'm going to make your lasagna, but with potatoes." She was like, "Why? Why would you do that?"

Vegetable noodles can be really watery at times. Does the potato retain moisture well?
Right. Yes, the potato acts almost just like pasta would. When you put it in there and the potatoes start to cook, as opposed to releasing moisture like zucchini, they absorb sauce and moisture. So it works a lot better as a noodle, in my opinion.

Great. I'm going to have to try it out. Also, in your acknowledgements, you talk about Bobby Flay, and I know you guys are great friends. He was your mentor?
Not my mentor — just a very good friend. But he was my mentor in TV, though. Not as a chef but very much in that he kind of helped me through the TV world. I love him like a brother. But I started on Food Network in 1998, and my co-host was a guy named Wayne Harley Brachman, who was Bobby's pastry chef at the time at Mesa Grill, which is when I first met Bobby. And a lot of the things that I've had to go through and hurdles that I've had to go through in TV — he started TV about three or four years prior to me, so he had already went through them and has been just a tremendous mentor in that aspect and kind of coaching me through some of those things and helping me with some of the more difficult decisions I've had to deal with in that world. And, like I said, I love him. He's good people.

This is one thing that I've gathered as I've been writing about food. With all of the prep, the time and the effort that goes into making a dish, cooking is about more than a meal. It's nourishing something inside of us.

For me, that's often my Mexican American heritage. My grandmother is from Mexico, and she's my hero and my matriarch now that my mom is in heaven. But some of my fondest memories of my childhood are in the kitchen with her, and that really connects me not only to my culture but to my family, too. I know that a lot of times I'm nourishing that side of me — that loss and also that connection. What are you trying to nourish or feed when you cook?
Very similar. I mean, food brings people together more than most things, and it's the one thing where people have — certainly, they have opinions on it like they have on everything else. But it always brings joy to people, and it always, I think, reconnects you with your culture and your family. And maybe makes old friends and new friends understand the way that you grew up and were raised. It tells a story without speaking.

Great food tells you about the person that cooked it — without you having to verbally explain it. And I think that sometimes people just get too caught up in the trying to be perfect and the perfection of food instead of just the joy the soul that goes into it and how many people you can make happy with it. And I think that's the greatest lesson: You don't have to be perfect, but you should pour yourself into it. And the people that come to enjoy it with you should understand you better after they have the meal.

When I cook, if they're coming over, they know they're getting Mexican food. But they love it.
Nice. Yes, it gives them a peek into your culture.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

By Joseph Neese

Joseph Neese is Salon's Deputy Editor in Chief. You can follow him on Twitter: @josephneese.

MORE FROM Joseph Neese