Chef Lon Symensma just sent the 5-course menu he'll be executing at the James Beard House on March 12, and he hasn't been back to New York City since he moved to Denver to open ChoLon a year and half ago. New York City was home to Symensma for a long time, where he spent years getting his ass kicked by mentor Jean-Georges Vongerichten and served as the executive chef of Buddakan for four years. As the new kid on the block, Symensma has made some observations about the Mile High City and he's already thinking about his next restaurant. Within the next year he says he’ll hopefully have a space picked out and a design plan underway. He’s eyeing the Union Station development and the Riverfront Park area.
So, Let’s skip the foreplay and get down to business. Do you want to stay downtown?
Riverfront has to start getting developed. It’s bound to happen. The heart of Denver will gradually become Union Station. Linger is one of the most beautiful spaces in the city and when all of this development happens, it’s still going to have the best view. The Highlands are going to be like Brooklyn and Larimer Square is going to be like Times Square.
That’s a good prediction.
Well I’m a fresh set of eyes. I just moved here and I’ve seen places develop.
What have you observed about the Denver dining scene since you’ve been here?
Denver is one of the fastest growing cities in the country right now. A lot of young, educated foodies are coming to the area. People are relocating out here to open restaurants.
Say somebody in another city is interested in coming to Denver and opening a spot, or just packing up and coming to cook in Denver. What’s your advice for them?
It’s funny you mention that because since I’ve moved here, about five or six of my friends are seriously considering relocation here to open restaurants. I have a friend flying from New York this week to talk about opening a space together. Charlie Palmer doesn’t just come into a city and open a restaurant based off of an instinct. He did his research and sees that the city has a lot of growth. Denver is a blossoming culinary scene that’s about ready to explode. I think timing wise, me being here now, is prime.
So you think it’s a good idea?
Well, yea. I mean, it's all about what you want in your life. For me, I grew up in Iowa and I have childhood friends here. New York was amazing, I had a wonderful experience there, but I did it for the food scene. I didn’t really enjoy spending $3,000 on rent and being 30-something years old, not owning anything or having a car for 11 years. Now I can proudly say that I live in Denver, that I’m 34 years old, that I have a condo, I drive a car, I have a motorcycle. I have things I’ve wanted for a long time. I’m a restaurant owner and a part of something young, fresh and growing. I’m not just riding the New York City wave and doing a good job for myself. I’m not completely headfirst buried in the New York City scene where it’s just a machine. You get caught up in it and you don’t have a life. All of your friends are chefs and everything you do is restaurant-driven. Right now is a very special time if you’re opportunistic and looking to do something that has some content and meaning. It's a good time to open peoples’ eyes to food they haven’t seen before. There are cranes on every corner with new developments. We’re watching Denver transform before our eyes. It’s becoming a city of attention. People are saying, “Wow, it’s not just cold and rainy with shitty weather. The weather is amazing." The quality of life is great and the cost of living is relatively inexpensive.
Did you ever think about opening a restaurant in New York?
Yea, I’d like to go back and do it, but I think it’s imperative that I develop a strong reputation for myself here.
What other concepts are you interested in?
I think my next concept would be Mediterranean. I went to Greece last summer and just had an amazing time there. The food was much different than I expected it to be. I lived in France, worked in Spain and spent months traveling in Italy. I’ve never been to Northern Africa, but I’d really love to be more exposed to that. If we were to really follow through with a Mediterranean concept, I’d definitely want to spend some time there and bring some of those spices and flavors into the mix.
Since you’ve traveled a lot, do you notice a difference in work ethic where kitchen are concerned?
Yes, yes I do. New York has a lot of eager people. You’d have a line out the door of people who wanted to work at the restaurant. Here, the talent pool is just starting to come around. I’m very blessed with the amazing staff I have. There aren’t as many people taking cooking as seriously as I saw in New York, but it’s nice because here [ChoLon] everyone is very dedicated and driven. There’s not a restaurant around the corner that they’re going to go to for a 15 cent raise. They’re here and committed. They want to be a part of something unique and special, and I hope that’s what we’re doing here. I’d rather develop somebody and give them the talent and skills that they need, as long as they have a good attitude and want to be here.
I was tossed into the food scene at a young age and I was fortunate enough to placed in the hands of some old school European chefs. I look at my education in this business as something that people coming in didn’t get. I really caught the tail end of that militant European upbringing. These chefs would be in jail right now if they treated people the way I was treated back when I was growing up through the ranks. Getting sauté pans thrown at you? You put you’re head down for hours and the only thing you say is “Yes, chef.” You wouldn’t dare ask someone how their day was going or what they did last night. You’d get fucking killed. Things are different now. You have to treat people with a little more sensitivity. You can’t be as badass as those guys that groomed me. Back then I just kept getting my ass kicked everyday, but I kept coming back for more. It’s like battered wife syndrome. You begin to understand that’s how it is and you want it. Now everyone is sensitive and there are lawsuits. You can’t treat people the same way you did 15 or 20 years ago. In my late teens and early twenties, it was just cooking for these badass chefs that didn’t know what getting sued meant.
So there must be a fine line if you want to create a disciplined kitchen?
Well, I can create that kind of environment but it has to come from a positive place. My take on leadership is to allow people to come close to you and see who you are. At the end of the day, I hope these guys kind of look up to me. Not just on a professional level, but a human level as well. A lot of these guys see that I’m truly happy with my career and my social life, and it’s something they can have. Allowing them to be a part of your life and creating a familial environment is important. At the same time, you are [as a chef] the disciplinarian and when people begin to get too close and feel too comfy around you, you kick their feet from underneath them. It’s building and knocking down, when applicable. If everyone runs around thinking everything they do is awesome, then you’ve lost that edge and people ease off their heels and think they’re doing a good enough job.
I lead by example. I can cook every station in this kitchen better than any cook and I know that. I can go do dishes faster than my dishwasher if I have to. I didn’t take any shortcuts in my career. I’ve worked every single station on the brigade at every restaurant I’ve worked at for atleast a year, so I can lead with confidence. It’s like working for Jean Georges. I spent five years working for the guy and he beat the shit out me, but when he would come up and talk to me, it was just like, “Wow, I’m around such a special person who holds himself so well. I’ll do anything he tells me to. Hopefully I’ll be like him one day.” But at the end of the day, everyone that worked at Jean-Georges got paid $9 and hour, you got paid for 35 hours a week (even though you worked 65) and you loved it, because when Jean-Georges came by for five minutes to talk about a technique or told you a story, you just thought, “This guy’s amazing.”