When Kerry Simon, the seemingly ageless force long known as the rock ’n’ roll chef, revealed last month that he’s been battling an especially brutal form of Parkinson’s, Vegas felt a collective kick to the stomach.
From his heady days at the Hard Rock Hotel to his Sunday brunch dominance at Palms Place to his foray into Tony Hsieh’s remade Downtown, Simon has been rewarded for believing fun food is something locals and tourists will flock to. He’s the opposite of a snob, a man who takes joy from pleasing the masses, whether he’s slinging burgers at Harrah’s or designing the menu for Sapphire Pool and Day Club. And he’s the most Vegas chef of all, because …
1. Despite success in New York, LA and Miami, Simon lives here and has experienced the boom, meltdown and rebirth of the city. Simon once told me that his own home had more than doubled in value at its peak before cratering all the way back down. Crazy f*cking city, he laughed, but whatever, let’s eat.
Late one night at Simon at Palms Place, he introduced me to Tera Patrick. Minutes later, the porn star told me that the government really should do something about the subprime-mortgage mess.
There’s nothing like walking into Simon and realizing that Patrick is there or Michael Phelps is there or Cheap Trick is there, and that they’re not there to party but to have a chill meal or catch up over iced tea with the chef they love so much.
2. His menu is full of contradictions. Relax, replenish, indulge, destroy all your good intentions: It’s your call. Many Sunday brunches at Simon start with a Kerry Cocktail: raw beet and celery juice. But the virtuousness never lasts, and after sushi or peel-and-eat shrimp you always end up overloading on cooked-to-order “white trash” selections like biscuits and gravy, fried chicken and pigs in blankets.
One huge allure of Vegas is that it’s luxurious and dangerous and ridiculous and restorative. At Simon it can be all these things, before you get up from your chair.
3. His life is full of contradictions. Until recently, Simon appeared to have a fountain of youth. He’s big on meditation and exercise, even though he was once known as a legendary party beast who could go out with David Lee Roth on Thursday and stay out until Sunday. These days, he’d rather take celebrity pals to izakayas than nightclubs.
4. Simon understands that you don’t need the Strip to have a good time. This is the man who introduced me to Aburiya Raku and Ichiza in 2008. At Raku, we ordered mind-blowing goldeneye snapper collar, and Simon ate the eye goo to impress two cute women sitting next to us. At Ichiza, we ended with the decadent honey toast, a hollowed-out loaf of white bread rubbed with honey, baked and topped with vanilla ice cream. Simon, Jean-Georges’ pastry wizard decades ago, giggled like a happy teenager.
At least three years before I’d heard the words “Downtown Project,” Simon told me about his friend Tony Hsieh and how I should keep an eye on him. Now with the Container Park’s newly opened Pork & Beans and another Downtown restaurant in the works, Simon has become an off-Strip pioneer once again.
5. But he’s still an industry local, beloved by the big players. Simon doesn’t care about DJs or bottle service, but his iconoclastic, no-bullsh*t style and amazing food have made the city’s biggest nightlife players recognize him as a king. One Sunday at Simon I saw Tao Group co-owner Jason Strauss, who said, with no provocation, “This is the best brunch in town!”
And Simon is just as revered Downtown. On the night he called to tell me about his medical situation, I found myself at First Friday a couple of hours later. I stumbled into Walter Taieb’s gallery, full of gigantic portraits of bookshelves and fixated on one full of cookbooks. Wynn chef Paul Bartolotta, who had accompanied me to First Friday, seemed intrigued. “Maybe I should do your bookshelf,” Taieb said. “That bookshelf there is a chef’s, too: Kerry Simon. He’s a good friend of mine.” I doubt there’s anybody with more good friends all over town than Simon.
6. He can’t stop, won’t stop, just like Vegas. Simon understands that his long-term prognosis isn’t good. He’s hoping stem-cell treatment will help quell his multiple systems atrophy, a condition with no known cure. But his mind is still so sharp and he’s not letting the fact that his body is starting to fail slow him down. He’s still working on new deals and showing up at charity events and booking media appearances. That would be impressive for any 58-year-old. It’s superhuman for one getting used to moving around with a wheelchair.