Industry Insiders: Kerry Simon, Vegas Victualeur

Kerry Simon, owner of Simon (Palms Place at the Palms Hotel and Casino), Cat House (Luxor), and Simon LA (Sofitel Hotel in LA). He dishes on rock star aspirations, rock star labels, and the food in between.

Point of Origin: I thought I was going to be a guitar player and got a job at a pizza place to earn money to buy equipment. I eventually found out that I really enjoyed cooking. I really didn’t know where to go, so I started learning about culinary institutes and going to cooking school. Even when I was doing that, I didn’t know exactly where it would take me.

When did you first start experimenting with food? I would find recipes in the paper and try cooking them for my family at home. Chicken cacciatore was one of the first I tried. I would experiment with a lot of different stuff for my family. I found Julia Child’s cookbook and would stay after work and experiment. I would also attend seminars whenever I could — especially if Julia Child was coming — and would ask her questions.

You came to New York as a budding chef. How did this city make a difference in your career? It was a very different food scene completely when I went to New York around the 1980s. I mean, now you take a lot of things for granted, but at the time, there was no foie gras … there were all these other kinds of vegetables, and everything was just very different. It was the start of a movement. When I went to school, I went with guys like Charlie Palmer (Charlie Palmer Steak) and Frank Crispo (chef and owner of Crispo in NYC). We all went to New York City around the same time, and all of a sudden, there were these young American chefs infiltrating the business and trying to figure out how to cook. It was a very exciting time. There were mostly a lot of four-star French restaurants, and then little by little, you started to get some cooler restaurants.

You’ve traveled quite a bit, cooking in different countries. Why’s that important to you? When I went to London, I experimented a lot with different kinds of foods. I cooked a lot of Indian food, and I went to a lot of Indian restaurants. I was very influenced by what was happening around me, I was very inspired by what I would see. I would go to the markets to see what was there. Whenever I go to a new city now, I’m always searching out the markets and wondering what they have to offer me, and what can I learn. And I think every city has a really big influence on me, but the big thing is that I like to move around. I’m always looking for new inspirations and new ways to look at things.

Do you plan to open a restaurant abroad anywhere ever? I don’t know. It may happen, it may not. At this point I’m focusing on Vegas and LA, but we’ll see what happens. I keep an open mind about things.

How’d you get the title of rock n’ roll chef by Rolling Stone? I had this table in the kitchen at the Plaza, and people could come in and eat right there in front of all the cooks when they would actually be serving on a busy night. Then I would ask you what you would like to eat, and I’d prepare your meal. It was actually Paige Powell — a friend of mine — who really started getting a lot of personalities, musical people, artists to come in and eat there. Then it just kind of grew once people found out that INXS was eating there and Stephen Sprouse and Francesco Clemente. I was actually quite intimidated by all these celebrities, and I’d just try to make people happy, be really friendly, make them enjoy themselves. I used to give them a sketchbook at the end of every meal, and they could draw whatever they wanted or take photographs for it. I still have a ton of books from those dinners.

How did it feel when they gave you this title? I never know how to take any of those things. You go to work everyday, you work hard, these things come out, and it’s like wow, that’s pretty cool. They wrote about me! I grew up in Evanston, in Bay Bridge Island. I read this magazine every day, and it kind of blows me away that I was even able to reach that.

Favorite Hangs: I go to this Japanese restaurant called Raku, and I like to eat there, late nights. I also really like raw food, and I go to a couple of raw food restaurants here in Vegas. The best bar in town is the Double Down. It’s the happiest place in the world. It’s a real rock-and-roll down-and-dirty bar.

What are you doing tonight? I’m going to be heading to Palms Place in Vegas and then I’ll be heading to Cathouse.

Were there any celebrities that excited you when they came into your restaurants? There are so many people who pop into my head — and I’m really cautious about name-dropping — but one of the many is Richard Branson. He came in and got dinner at one of my restaurants this one time, that was pretty exciting for me. This guy has accomplished so much in his life. He’s an explorer; an adventurer, a humanitarian, and a really unique man. I spoke to him for a few minutes. He was very busy working on one of his new flights that had just started, but it was just fascinating to watch him. He remained so relaxed, and interacted with everyone around him.

Mentors? Jean-George Vongerichten is one of my mentors. I traveled the world for him; I went to London, Hong Kong. He had 2 restaurants when I started working with him, and I helped him open 14, then went my own way when I got an opportunity to open my own place. Another one is Andre Soltner (master chef and dean of classic studies at the French Culinary Institute). He used to have Lutece in New York City. I worked for him before I went to cooking school, when I filled in for someone else for three months. It was the first time I wore a chef’s jacket and chef’s pants. It kind of changed my life. Mario Batali’s also one of my icons, but more because he was a friend of mine. I look up to him because of what he’s accomplished. He’s taken what he does well and he’s taken it to the people. He’s a real person reaching out, and trying to show everyone what real food is.

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