Robb Report Vices

Tailgating with an Iron Chef

  • Troy Johnson

Let’s be clear about something: Despite Bud Light’s recent advertising campaign, a proper tailgate party is no place for health-conscious fare like quinoa. Sure, it’s allowed; this is the United States. But it’s allowed in the same way that cardigans are permitted at a rock concert—with mutually assured alienation and maybe some good old side-mouthed derision. 

Chef Michael Symon, a lifelong Cleveland Browns fan, has his own theories about where such a tailgating travesty might occur. “Maybe at a 49ers game,” he laughs, “along with beets pulled from the side of a mountain and a goat-cheese salad. In Cleveland, tailgating means beer, brats, burgers, and bourbon.”

We couldn’t agree more.

If done correctly, tailgating should give nutritionists night terrors. It’s barnyard animals crackling over charcoal. It’s discarded bones on car bumpers. It’s the provenance of indulgent eating.

Of course, tailgating means something a little more grandiose when it comes to a chef like Symon, whose restaurant Lola Bistro often is credited with redeeming the soul of Cleveland’s food scene. “When I was younger and crazier, we’d roast whole pigs and whole lambs,” he recalls. “We’d get done with work the night before, go straight down to the parking lot at the old Browns stadium, set up an electric spit, and start cooking. We were 24-hour tailgaters. Those were my greatest tailgating memories. Things were a lot less regulated back then. Now I’m old, married, and I get cold quicker.”

These days, Symon ensures the level of gourmet achievement expected of him by getting an early jump on the process. “The biggest cheat is to start the night before in your own kitchen,” he says. “Do anything that can be reheated on the grill—like braised short ribs, brisket, or chili. Once you get in the middle of a parking lot with charcoal, it gets dicey. I bring a cast-iron pan to throw on the edge of a grill.

“The other thing is common sense, and that’s quality ingredients. Cooking food is pretty easy, but if you give the greatest chef in the world bad ingredients, it’s not going to taste the same. So spend a little extra on the good stuff.” 

Symon’s version of elevated junk food (and great tailgating fare) is his fried-salami-with-hot-peppers sandwich (click here for the recipe). It’s a perfect marriage of crisp-fried salami, sweet basil, jalapeños, red bell peppers, and plenty of provolone on a kaiser roll. “Tailgating starts early in the morning, so this is our breakfast—with a bloody beer,” Symon says.

According to the Farmers’ Almanac, New York should expect a blizzard on Sunday. But even if there’s no snow in the forecast, you can bet that it’s going to be cold. That’s nothing Symon can’t relate to, and he offers a tailgating tip that might just keep you a little warmer as kickoff approaches: “When we tailgated at Browns stadium, you couldn’t feel your body by halftime because it’d be negative 12 degrees,” he says. “And when it’s cold, you want fat.”

That’s right: sweet connective tissue slow-braised into primal bliss. See you at Earth Day, quinoa.

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