I met Kerry Simon in 1998, when he and chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten were meeting with Steve Wynn and me to discuss a restaurant venture, which ended up being Prime Steakhouse in Bellagio. Kerry and Jean-Georges were two of the coolest guys, and we had a lot of great times together.
Kerry and I, New York transplants, struck up a friendship. He was one of the most genuine people that you could ever meet. A group of us had switched ZIP codes, including Grant MacPherson, Jean-Louis Palladin, Alex Stratta and Julian Serrano, and we all hung out together exploring our new home. But Kerry and I went on vacations together, skied together and attended the World Gourmet Summit in Singapore, after which we traveled throughout Southeast Asia, a region that was like a second home to him.
After the changes in ownership at the Bellagio, I decided it was time to go out on my own and start a consulting business. Like-minded Kerry decided it was time to open his own restaurant. We casually talked about his vision for a restaurant. Over the course of his career he had made extraordinary friendships and business contacts, from rock stars to models to celebrities, and it was time to capitalize on being the executive chef of the “hottest” steakhouse in Las Vegas and venture out on his own.
At that time, Las Vegas was still known for fine dining and expansive buffets. The Simon Kitchen & Bar concept was transformational for the city because it was the first time you saw a really professional, high-level fine dining background—well-executed food and great front-of-the-house service—packaged in a casual atmosphere. The waitstaff wore blue jeans and we could play our own style of music, which fulfilled Kerry’s other passion. It was the first time in Las Vegas that such a high-profile celebrity chef was behind a concept that was approachable and meant for the people to relax and enjoy.
What made Kerry’s food so great was the simplicity and authenticity of his menus. It was comfort food with a twist. People still talk about the meatloaf, the macaroni and cheese and the junk-food platter. The signature mound of hot-pink cotton candy we served drove the play-with-your-food mindset. Customers would take the bright fluffy confection and make fake mustaches, wigs, even put it in their martinis.
Simon Kitchen & Bar was such an extraordinary opportunity. Peter Morton gave us the keys to the castle. We got to select the designer, Yabu Pushelberg, and led the entire process. We were trying to choose the silverware and had narrowed it down to two patterns. Kerry always had a backpack and with two full sets of silverware that he was lugging around to show everyone. Finally, one day, I said, “Kerry, if you don’t make a decision on this silverware, we’re going to be using plastic.” We were at the deadline, getting close to opening, and so every decision was agonized over and was so personal to both of us. It was fun; the restaurant was such an overwhelming success, and it was so unbelievably embraced by the city. John Mariani of Esquire named it one of 2003’s Best New Restaurants.
Simon Kitchen in the Hard Rock Hotel was the seed that led to many other restaurants around the country. When Peter sold the Hard Rock, that was the turning point to venture out with George Maloof. At the time, George was building the Palms, and we decided to take advantage of that business opportunity and move our concept from the Hard Rock to Palms Place.
Kerry’s welcome-to-my-home mindset made an impression. It was a result of his warm, caring and gentle demeanor that so many people would come into the restaurant and dine for the first time and leave feeling that he was their friend. Because of Kerry’s passion for music, he felt comfortable around celebrities, especially rock stars. Whether you were David Lee Roth, Sammy Hagar, Lenny Kravitz, Alice Cooper or Vince Neil, he could talk to you like you were Joe Smith. He was enamored with their music, they were enamored with his culinary abilities, and he blended in with his rock star looks. He didn’t want anything from them—he didn’t want their fame; he didn’t want free tickets; he just wanted their friendship. There was this magnetism to his personality that was very organic, and he was always the favorite guest at any party.
Kerry was an avid photographer, and he had thousands of photographs. We would go on trips or be at culinary events and he would take all these amazing photos, but I would never see them. I don’t know what he would do with the rolls; he either never developed them or he could never find them. I would constantly bug him. Like any true artist, sometimes things were a little disorganized.
It wasn’t until after he got sick and he asked me to spearhead his cookbook project that I started finding his enormous stash of pictures, and revisiting some of the experiences we had together. There was a dinner we did with Jean-Georges that was attended by chefs Roger Vergé, Nobu Matsuhisa, Daniel Boulud, Julian Serrano, restaurateur Drew Nieporent and our friend Shep Gordon. There were pictures from Southeast Asia, from Singapore, from opening the first Simon—all these pictures that really showed the story of Kerry and all that he accomplished.
Being this handsome, outgoing, strong Rock ’n’ Roll Chef, he was adamant about his privacy, because he really worried about how people were going to feel when he announced that he had multiple system atrophy (MSA). What happened was the opposite of what he could have ever imagined—the outpouring of love and support was extraordinary and well deserved.
Within months, the Las Vegas community—as well as the rock ’n’ roll and chef communities—came together to put on a benefit for Kerry to fight MSA. With the help of Larry Ruvo, George Maloof and Robin Leach, we were able to build an amazing event. It made me very proud to be a part of this tight-knit community because from the very moment he was down, everyone rallied around him with their support. He was so very brave in this daunting fight against MSA. He never wanted to give up nor for us to give up. He wanted to make sure that we continued to raise awareness and stamp out this ugly disease. The best way to remember Kerry Simon is by continuing to support the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health and its staff, such as Dr. Ryan Walsh.
Kerry’s attitude was incredibly admirable to me—he was ready to fight to the last breath and never had a woe-is-me attitude. He was always up for going out, socializing and being with friends. Every Sunday he was at brunch at Simon, and he never used his disease as an excuse. He was fighting MSA to the very end. That courage was something that really inspired me. First there was the friendship, which was built on light and fun times shared, and I’ll always treasure it. Then there was the business, which we shared with so many. And then, when the going got tough, it was that courage that I’ll always remember. It is these cherished memories that will brighten my spirits and make me smile when I remember my friend, Kerry Simon. #FMSA