Las Vegas ‘rock ‘n’ roll chef’ Kerry Simon dies at 60
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At one time, chef Kerry Simon told Esquire magazine, “My idea of high pressure was making an omelet for Henry Kissinger.”
That all changed when he was diagnosed with Multiple System Atrophy, a neurological disease similar to Parkinson’s.
The Evanston native — who started his culinary career at a Little Caesars alongside future actor Bill Murray — dominated the Las Vegas strip with restaurants known for new American cuisine and comfort-food flourishes. They featured cotton-candy desserts, Spam croquettes and pajama brunches.
Mr. Simon, whose long hair and why-not attitude — one of his favorite sayings was, “Are there girls there?’’ — became known as the “rock ’n’ roll chef.” Friends and patrons included Alice Cooper, Todd Rundgren, Rick Nielsen, Sammy Hagar, Slash, Vince Neil, and members of Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and INXS.
He died of MSA on Sept. 11 in Las Vegas at age 60.
While attending Evanston Township High School, he began working at Evanston’s Little Caesars to save money for an electric guitar. Murray, meanwhile, said on “The Jimmy Kimmel” show that he used the job to stave off hunger, sometimes eating dough, a habit that caused intestinal distress.
“I worked with a guy who became a very famous chef, who’s really funny. We started together” at Little Caesars, Murray told Kimmel. “Kerry Simon is his name. . . . We were the ‘class’ the stars fell on.”
Last year, Murray attended a Vegas benefit in honor of Mr. Simon and the fight against MSA that raised an estimated $550,000.
In his off-hours from Little Caesars, Kerry Simon experimented with French cuisine. “He would go through Julia Child’s cookbook and start from the beginning and try and make every dish,” said his brother, Scott Simon. As a young man, he also worked for Dave Glatt, founder of Dave’s Italian Kitchen in Evanston, his brother said.
Mr. Simon won a scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America in New York and trained under chefs including Jean-Jacques Rachou of La Cote Basque and Andre Soltner of Lutece. In some kitchens, he saw hot-tempered chefs scream at staffers.
It influenced how he treated others. “He really kind of found, like, a Zen peace within himself, and he thought that wasn’t the way to talk to individuals,” his brother said.
“He was just very Buddhist. He had many Buddhas in his house,” said his business partner, Elizabeth Blau. “He just was kind and considerate.”
Mr. Simon made his mark at New York’s Plaza Hotel, where he clicked with Ivana Trump, wife of the hotel’s then-owner, Donald Trump. She hired him to cook in its Edwardian Room.
Life came full circle when his idol, David Bowie, arrived for dinner. Mr. Simon had once seen saw Bowie perform as Ziggy Stardust, and “It just, it changed my life,” he told KCRW Radio’s Guest DJ project.
“It was ’91 or something and somebody called me and said, ‘Iman wants to come into the kitchen to have dinner.’ And then they called back later and said, ‘and David Bowie’s going to be with them and they might be getting engaged,’ ’’ he said. “David was shocked he was eating in the kitchen. I think he thought he was going to eat in the dining room and they had this whole long winding way into the kitchen. So, later, they got engaged in my kitchen.”
He helmed restaurants in Miami, including Blue Star, Starfish, Max’s and Mercury. Though 18 years older than Scott Simon, he was an attentive big brother, especially after their father died.
“At the age of 17, Kerry had invited me to come out to Miami, and said, ‘Why don’t you just check it out,’ ” Scott Simon recalled. “My entire education was dishwashing, to line, to bussing. He definitely looked after me.”
Today, Scott Simon is executive chef at one of his brother’s restaurants, Chuck’s, at the Hard Rock Hotel Chicago.
Kerry Simon’s first Vegas foray came at the 1998 opening of the Bellagio, where he was executive chef of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Prime Steakhouse. He went on to open Simon Kitchen and Bar in Vegas’ Hard Rock Hotel. There, he said, he perfected the burger that helped him vanquish Cat Cora on the show, “Iron Chef America.”
“He took comfort food and really elevated it to a level and experience that would be similar to fine dining, but with rock ’n’ roll and blue jeans,” said Blau, his partner at Simon Kitchen and Bar.
He started restaurants from Atlantic City to Los Angeles to the Dominican Republic. His ventures still operating today include Chuck’s, Simon Kitchen and Bar at the Hard Rock in Palm Springs, Simon Mansion in the Dominican Republic, and Carson Kitchen in Las Vegas.
Mr. Simon also is survived by two other brothers, Glen and Doug, and two nieces. A Las Vegas memorial is scheduled for Oct. 18.