What to Pair with Pork: Roast Chef Michael Symon Dishes on Drinking, Dining and Detroit

An invitation from celebrity chef Michael Symon appeared in my mailbox not too long ago inviting me to the "Return of the Cocktail Hour" at his restaurant Roast in Detroit's Westin Book Cadillac Hotel. I was quite touched that he thought to have me to his event, given that we've never met, but I was hardly surprised. As a social trendcaster with the Detroit Drink Tank, my seal of approval is naturally highly sought after by downtown's more sophisticated venues. Either that or they love my money.

I was looking forward to the event either way, and while there managed to score a few minutes with the Iron Chef and recent James Beard Award winner to ask him exactly what is going on there at Roast?

Joe Posch: So this is the return of the cocktail hour. Where did it go?

Michael Symon: I think it was one of those things that in the '50s and '60s it was very sophisticated to get a cocktail and a nibble. And then it kind of turned a little bit into … I don't want to say a train wreck of a happy hour kind of thing, but you know "eat a 40 buckets of wings and 25 cent beers." Which was fun when I was in college, but I think it just happened that fine dining moved away from it a little bit.

We think that it's still nice to be able to go out, to get a snack, to get a properly made cocktail, and not break the bank. It also lets people who may be interested in trying out the restaurant -- but not dropping money the whole dinner -- dip their toes in the water. So I think it works on both levels.

JP: How does the philosophy of the Roast kitchen extend to the bar?

MS: Same philosophy, same exact philosophy. Same thought process goes into the food in the dining room as at the cocktail hour, but we're doing smaller, more affordable versions. The beast of the day where we roast the whole animal, instead of the whole portion we're doing it in tacos. We're taking the entrée burger and shrinking it down a little bit. The concept of the food doesn't change at all.

I think that's what happens a lot with Happy Hour, places want to get people in and give them a good deal, and they buy all this processed shit and send it out to sedate people. We never want to lower our standards so we still put the same thought, the same kind of love and affection into the stuff that goes out for cocktail hour as we do in the dining room.

JP: And with the drinks too?

MS: That's always our thing. I don't think it's a secret when you try to have a great restaurant -- whether it's a cocktail, it's beer, it's wine, it's food -- you start with something great and it's easy to pass that on to the customer. If you start with shit I don't care how good you are you're probably going to end up with shit.

JP: That's great – I think it's genius, personally.

We'll see (laughs)

JP: I'm writing this for Model D, but I also am with the Detroit Drink Tank blog which documents the trend of the mobile worker setting up shop at bars, restaurants and other non-traditional workplaces. Is this something you welcome at Roast? If someone came in with their laptop and wanted to set up for an hour or two, is that something you look kindly on?

Oh absolutely.

JP: Do you ever drink while working?

MS: Well I'm a chef! (laughs) I think that's the whole reason I got into the business!
Certainly in moderation, but I was raised by European parents, you know what I mean? Drink wasn't a four-letter word in our house. I was taught to be responsible about it but my family didn't look down on someone if he were to have a glass of wine at lunch. It's a lifestyle.

JP: What's your drink?

You know I actually am a beer guy, I love beer. I love the (Michigan made) Jolly Pumpkin beers, that's probably my favorite drink, some of the stuff they're brewing. But my favorite cocktail is probably gin with a splash of Campari and an orange. Maybe if it's early in the day some soda in there, but you know I love gin and Campari and orange.

JP: What would you think of someone getting bleu cheese-stuffed olives in a cosmopolitan?

MS: I'd think that was a bad decision. (laughs)

JP: I saw that the other day and it seemed really ghastly to me, but I'm no epicure so I thought maybe there's something to that I'm missing?

No, that's a bad decision.

You know the thing with food and wine that's so difficult is that as a chef you know what's right, or you've tasted enough things to know what should be right, but at the end of the day everyone's palate is a little different. And our job is to make customers happy.

JP: What has your Detroit experience been like?

It's been great. Between winning restaurant of the year with the Detroit Free Press and all the accolades that the hotel has gotten, it's been a very positive year for us. It's busy, so I don't get out of the restaurant a whole lot. But I've spent plenty of time at Slows, spent some time at Cliff Bell's, played some cards at the casino here and there. But for the most part it's predominantly work.

What I love about Detroit is that at the end of the day Cleveland and Detroit are very similar. The people are very friendly, there's that Midwestern sensibility of kindness or whatever you want to call it. The pace is very similar. So for us we've really enjoyed it.


What I really enjoyed was the return of the cocktail hour.

The menu offers a lot of amazing food values and even better drink values. And they know their cocktails at Roast -- check out the Detroit Drink Tank blog for an interview with Roast general manager Frank Ritz about how they rock the classic cocktail and the tale of my dalliance with absinthe. It ended with a tattoo.

We've got a lot of good cocktail stops in town, but the cocktail hour has languished. If any place can bring it back, I'd say Roast can. Stop in and enjoy a little after-work moment yourself. You'll never look at a $5 Manhattan the same way again.

Roast Cocktail Hour is from 4-7 p.m. weekdays. $3 bites, $4 select beer and wine, $5 select pours. Temporary tattoos by the guys at Eternal Tattoos every Thursday through May. They will make any tattoo you want. Seriously.

Joe Posch is a Detroit business owner blogger. Check him out at the Detroit Drink Tank and Semi Modern. And shop at his store, Mezzanine.
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Chef Michael Symon

The return of the cocktail hour


Absinthe slow pour

Tattoos by Eternal Tattoos

All photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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