Much of your time recently has been spent organizing events to help two dear friends: chef Kerry Simon, who has an incurable brain disease, and Vegas Seven food critic Max Jacobson, who suffered a serious brain injury after being struck by a car. What have you learned about yourself in the wake of these tragedies?
I’ve learned that I’ve never cried so much in such a short period of time! I have also learned that you have to have utter focus and dedication. For me, trying to organize these events, especially with an active 9-year-old son and a brand-new puppy, you just have to throw yourself in 1,000 percent and not slow down. Just think of the reality of how sad the situation is for both people. But I was in the hospital last week to see Max, and he’s fighting; he’s breathing on his own, he’s moving his hands. He’s there fighting every step of the way, and Kerry is there fighting, too. These two men are inspirations in my life, so there’s not even a question that I’m going to fight right alongside them.
Seeing how many chefs and food-and-beverage insiders have rallied around Max and Kerry suggests that the local restaurant industry is very tight-knit. True?
Without a doubt. These people are selfless. And nobody has cared about promotion. The only thing we’re trying to promote is awareness for Kerry’s [disease], and for Max, it’s awareness and [raising funds] for his family. He’s a journalist. Who could foresee walking to the gym, getting hit by a car and losing your entire livelihood and your health? So this is all just about people gathering together and sending a message, and people from all over the world have reached out for both of them. Honestly, I would be honored to just have a quarter of the friends that Max and Kerry have.
You and Kerry have been partners for more than a decade with your restaurant consulting firm, Blau + Associates. What story about him makes you smile?
When we opened the first Simon [Kitchen & Bar] at the Hard Rock Hotel, it was the first big break for both of us, the first time going out on our own. But two weeks before opening, we still hadn’t decided on the silverware. And I found out that Kerry had two sets of silverware in his backpack, and he was agonizing over that minute detail, going around asking [for opinions]. And I was like, “Kerry, we’re going to open with plastic if you don’t make a decision!” Kerry has so much attention to detail, and he was not going to make the wrong decision on the silverware.
Honey Salt, the restaurant you own with your husband, chef Kim Canteenwalla, has been quite the hit in Summerlin since it opened about 16 months ago. What’s been the secret?
This is so personal for Kim and I, because it’s just an expression of all things that we love. (Points across the restaurant.) There’s a picture of my son; there’s a picture of our dog; there’s Kim’s Canada hockey book over there; that’s my chandelier from my dining room because I couldn’t find one that I liked; the kids menu is called “Cole’s Corner”—that’s our son, and he and his friends wrote the whole menu. … That’s what makes the fact that people like it even more special to us, because it is such a personal expression.
What’s the one area in the kitchen where you’re superior to your husband?
This is an answer he would agree with: It’s baking. Because he doesn’t bake, and I love pastries, so I’m in charge of dessert at home.
So what’s the one dessert you can’t resist?
Pie. I’m obsessed with pie. But I’m also crazy for candy—all candy. Like the bad stuff: Jujyfruits, circus peanuts, M&Ms, Twizzlers. I love good dark chocolate, but give me a box of Jujyfruits at the movies, and I’m a happy camper.
Worst dining experience of all time?
Oh, goodness. I don’t know if I would say worst of all time, but there is an unnamed three-star Michelin chef in Europe, and the food was all of that crazy molecular gastronomy; nothing was recognizable, it was so experimental. There were flavors like pine resin and tuna bone marrow that were just so unpleasant. The restaurant was in the most picturesque setting, and I think I ended up eating 12 rolls and 14 pats of butter.
How often do you walk into a local restaurant and think, “Boy, what I could do with this place …”?
I try not to do that. When I’m off duty, I try to enjoy myself, relax and not be overly critical. So if the service is a little off, well, that’s something you can work with. Or if the ambience isn’t quite right, but you can see that people are trying, that’s great. But if the food’s not good, then there’s no mercy.
Simon Says Fight MSA
Dozens of celebrity chefs and rock stars will join forces Feb. 27 for a benefit to raise awareness for multiple system atrophy (MSA), a rare and fatal disease afflicting chef Kerry Simon. For tickets, visit KeepMemoryAlive.org.