Kerry Simon lost his long, inspiring fight against multiple system atrophy this morning. I’ve known Simon professionally for more than a decade. But I really got to know who he was, and the many ways in which he touched and changed the world, after I was asked to help write the memoir portions of his upcoming cookbook. Celebrities of the highest order responded almost immediately to my requests that they share their stories about the Rock ’n’ Roll Chef. And I quickly developed an even deeper understanding of Kerry the chef, Kerry the celebrity and Kerry the man.
Of course, Simon’s greatest contribution to the world was, and continues to be, his food. Born June 17, 1955, he attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. His early career in New York City included a stint at La Côte Basque with Jean-Jacques Rachou, time with André Soltner at the legendary Lutèce and a position as personal chef for astrologer John Addey. Next up was a position at the Lafayette Restaurant in the Drake Hotel under Jean-Georges Vongerichten, where he helped the restaurant earn a four-star rating in The New York Times and where he developed his love of pastry.
The chef began really rubbing elbows with celebrities when Donald Trump’s then-wife, Ivana, hired him to run the Edwardian Room at New York’s legendary Plaza Hotel. As Robin Leach, who dined there with Ivana, says, “He was serving a different kind of food than we’d ever had [in hotels]. It wasn’t a slab of roast beef on the plate with mashed potatoes. It wasn’t pub food. But it was elevated pub food. And in those days we didn’t have gastropubs.” And Simon introduced a VIP table in the kitchen that became an immediate hit among the Big Apple’s A-listers.
After leaving the Plaza, Simon traveled a bit before landing in Miami. There, he had gigantic successes with Blue Star and later Starfish in the Raleigh Hotel as well as a spot called Max’s. It was in Miami that, while cultivating even more celebrity friendships, he began his serious embrace of comfort food, and first introduced his famed meatloaf.
After Miami, Simon reunited with Vongerichten, running fine-dining restaurants for him around the world and helming his Bellagio Steakhouse Prime in 1998. While Simon continued to open restaurants internationally, Las Vegas became his home. His comfort-food restaurants at the Hard Rock and Palms Place became the definitive Vegas hangouts for the cool crowd. But he also brought us the brothel-themed CatHouse at Luxor and KGB Burgers at Harrah’s before bringing true culinary credibility to Downtown with Carson Kitchen.
Simon’s influence on the culinary world is undeniable. Walk down the Strip today, and you will see casual-comfort food restaurants by some of the world’s top chefs. That’s a result of Simon having the vision and the courage to address accessible food. He was as comfortable with haute cuisine as he was with comfort food. In the words of Cat Cora, “He was ahead of his time.”
But Simon is also memorable as one of the first true celebrity chefs. In 1991, Rolling Stone declared him the Rock ’n’ Roll Chef—a title that stuck with him for the rest of his life. Simon’s celebrity came before the launch of the Food Network and while he made his fair share of appearances, he never hosted a long-running show. Nonetheless, he was as well known in celebrity circles as any TV star chef.
Celebrities clamored to get close to him. “There was never a picture unless they [the celebrities] wanted to get a picture,” says Q-Juan Taylor, part of the management team at Simon L.A. and Simon Palms Place. “It was like, ‘Chef, let’s get a picture before I leave.’ And I think that’s why people felt comfortable around Kerry.” He was a staple backstage at rock concerts—even catering Led Zeppelin’s 2007 reunion show in London. And his restaurants were always packed with musicians, actors, athletes, business moguls and adult film stars. They were drawn by his food. They appreciated the way he made them feel at home. But, perhaps most importantly, they loved his personality.
Simon was the epitome of rock-star cool, minus the ego. When he entered a room, it was never with fanfare. You would just look up, and there was Simon—usually with some VIPs in tow.
The chef was also one of Las Vegas’ greatest supporters. He was at nearly every local charity event, even after his diagnosis. And he never appeared to let his devastating condition dampen his spirits. Friends who attended the benefit he threw to fight MSA in February 2014 universally describe how happy he was to be surrounded by a lifetime’s worth of friends and supporters. Up until his last days he was consulting with his partners on his still-expanding restaurant empire. And on August 22, just three days before being admitted to the hospital for the final time, he was onstage at the Hard Rock, watching his old friends Cheap Trick perform.
When I visited Simon in California earlier this summer to check on the progress of his book, he seemed tired and was barely able to communicate. But he made it clear he wanted me to stay and relate the stories his friends had told me. As I retold those tales, he repeatedly smiled and laughed. His only admonishment to me was that he didn’t want me to dwell on his illness. He wanted to be remembered and celebrated as the Rock ’n’ Roll Chef. Of course, that’s the only way he ever could. Rest in peace, chef!