Major: Culinary Arts
Job Title: Executive Chef/Owner
Location: Denver, Colorado
After years as the highly regarded executive chef for the award-winning Buddakan in New York City, Lon Symensma headed west to open ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro, in Denver, CO. ChoLon, which translates to “big market,” is named after the largest Chinese-influenced market in Saigon, Vietnam. “ChoLon showcases my passion for Asian ingredients and French cooking,” says Chef Symensma.
At first glance, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Iowa native might seem an unlikely representative for modern Asian cuisine. Chef Symensma was only 14 when he took a job at a local diner and discovered how much he enjoyed the fast-paced, demanding environment of a professional kitchen. He began competing in the national culinary circuit and, at the age of 19, received an invitation to join Team USA at the 1996 Culinary Olympics in Berlin, Germany, where his team earned a silver medal. In 1997, the American Culinary Federation honored him with its National Junior Chef of the Year Award.
Confident in his decision to pursue a career as a chef, Chef Symensma enrolled at The Culinary Institute of America. After graduating in 1999, he traveled to the south of France, where he spent a year dividing his time between Roger Vergé’s Moulin Mougin and Jacques Chibois’ La Bastide Saint Antoine, both Michelin Guide two-star restaurants. Chef Symensma went on to stage throughout Italy and Spain, including at San Sebastian’s famed Arzak.
In 2001, he joined Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten at his eponymous restaurant in Manhattan. During his time there he worked for six months underneath pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini ’94. Under the guidance of mentors Vongerichten and Gray Kunz, he spent one year traveling extensively throughout both Southeast Asia and China. While there, Chef Symensma participated in the opening of Jean-Georges Shanghai and underwent intensive culinary training at both the Royal Garden Hotel in Hong Kong and the five-star Datai resort in Malaysia.
Back in the U.S., he became an opening sous chef at Spice Market, Chef Vongerichten’s revolutionary Southeast Asian restaurant that earned a three-star review from The New York Times. Chef Symensma went on to open Yumcha, a critically acclaimed Chinese restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village, with friend and fellow alumnus Angelo Sosa ’99. His many professional achievements caught the attention of Philadelphia-based restaurateur Stephen Starr, who offered Chef Symensma a chef de cuisine position at his highly anticipated Buddakan, which opened in 2006. By June 2007, Chef Symensma had been promoted to executive chef of the restaurant, which has earned two stars from The New York Times, received an Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator, and was named one of America’s Top 50 Restaurants by Travel + Leisure. In 2011, Chef Symensma opened ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro with business partner and fellow alumna Alicia Pokoik Deter ’00. The entire opening staff was comprised of CIA alumni.
In March 2015, Chef Symensma expanded with a smaller-scale, wallet friendly outpost called Cho77 in the Byers neighborhood of Denver. The restaurant earned a three star review and was voted as one of the 2015 Best Mile High Meals by The Denver Post.
Plans are underway to develop a new restaurant in the Eastbridge Town Center development in Stapleton in the fall of 2016. The new space will occupy 3,500 square feet and feature about 100 seats. “The size is right in between what I have a ChoLon and what I have at Cho77,” Chef Symensma explains. “I think it is a manageable in-between, with some really cool patio space.” Chef Luke Bergman ’02, currently at ChoLon, will spearhead the new kitchen.
After successfully revamping the food program at Denver’s Union Station Cooper Lounge, the chef is tackling some of the other concepts inside the train station, including the food served at the Terminal Bar and the banquet program for the Crawford Hotel. “We are waiting for permits to redo the space downstairs and add kitchen functions to it,” says Chef Symensma. “My goal is to create a food program for banquets that the Crawford Hotel deserves and to rebrand and improve some of the current concepts.”
For Chef Symensma, inspiration comes from travel. “Visiting other countries and immersing myself in their cultures and cuisines has always been a tremendous source of inspiration for me, not to mention something that I feel is very important for a chef to experience,” he says. “In this industry, creativity and proper technique are both necessary for success, but I think that every chef first needs to focus on the craftsmanship aspect by learning all the fundamentals of cooking before exploring and developing his or her creative side.” Chef Symensma’s education at The Culinary Institute of America, his travels around the world, and his years of experience have put him at the top of his game.