Michael Symon is best known for his television appearances on Food Network favorites like “Iron Chef” and “Food Nation with Bobby Flay,” and more recently, as a co-host on ABC’s daytime talk show, “The Chew.” And while his resume boasts awards and accomplishments that chefs desire, Symon maintains a low-key profile. He greeted us with a casual demeanor and a welcoming smile.
We met Symon at Lipton’s Chef Fest last weekend to chat about Austin’s fast casual dining scene, a genre that includes his new Austin restaurant, Symon’s Burger Joint. But when asked about the booming fast casual trend, he said it wasn’t anything we Austinites hadn’t seen before. In fact, he attributed the nation-wide dining craze to Austin—specifically, its beloved BBQ scene.
“Barbecue [in Austin] is simple: you walk up, you order; they cut it, they hand it to you; you sit down, you eat,” Symon said. “It’s really the same process other fast casual restaurants are built around.”
Take Chipotle, for example, as Symon did during our chat. At its core, patrons follow the same model first introduced by Austin BBQ trucks: customers walk up, order, sit down, and eat.
What began as a simple way to serve quality meals is now the backbone of Austin’s food culture. Food trucks and fast-casual dining spots serve delicious foods in a casual environment that parallels with Austin’s laid-back atmosphere and overall energy.
A few eateries are quintessential to Austin’s food scene; one of them is Chef Symon’s favorite: La Barbecue. He makes time for at least one visit while in town. Located on East Cesar Chavez, the food truck serves up some of the best meats in Austin. The often multiple hour wait is testament to its reputation, with the truck sometimes turning people away. Symon embraces it.
The conversations that develop amongst locals and tourists alike are Symon’s favorite aspect about the food truck culture in Austin. He said the camaraderie that’s built while waiting for a pulled pork platter is nothing short of a community and is often times the best part of waiting in a long line.
According to the James Beard Foundation Award winner, quality food, a loved one, and good conversation are all you need for a memorable experience. So when it came time to open his latest venture, the chef knew he wanted to embrace what he loved most about Austin’s food culture.
He broke away from his other traditionally styled restaurants and opened Symon’s Burger Joint.
Located on Guadalupe in Space 24 Twenty, the burger spot is a counter-service, fast casual burger concept. Offering great food without all the “hoopla,” Symon knew Austin residents would welcome the idea.
With 20 restaurants under his name, Symon’s Burger Joint is the chef’s first fast casual eatery.
Dubbing Austin a “magic town,” the chef has no doubt other restaurateurs will flock to the city with plans to open a space of their own — whether it’s a fast casual spot or a traditional dine-in restaurant. Either way, Symon said there’s room for both.
“[I think] a lot of fine dining chefs will realize [that] they can make quality foods in [a fast casual] style.” Symon continued to say that the city’s young, vibrant residents are eager and willing to try different things, an ideal combination for a new dining venture.
Chef Michael Symon loves Austin. He also loves how food can be the epicenter of a community. That’s why he jumped at the opportunity to host Lipton’s Chef Fest.
More than 200 guests attended the event in Austin, all seated at long communal tables, eager to watch the chef’s cooking demonstration. As Symon prepped meat, he shared stories of his own family’s eating habits and meals made with friends. He told the audience of his experiences both here in Austin and in other parts of the world. He encouraged guests to use mealtime to reconnect with each other.
While they listened, patrons enjoyed a family style dinner.
For more information on the dining series and to view Chef Michael’s recipes, visit Lipton’s website.
Featured image Jack Plunkett/Invision for Lipton/AP Images