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Remembering Las Vegas' Rock 'N' Roll Chef

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Chef Kerry Simon arrives at the Vegas Uncork'd by Bon Appetit's Grand Tasting event at Caesars Palace May 11, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Kerry Simon was a chef who reached the very heights of culinary fame.

He was arguably one of the first American celebrity chefs, having been dubbed in 1991 the Rock ‘n’ Roll chef by Rolling Stone magazine.

Simon was raised in the north Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois. His culinary career, however, took him around the world.

Earlier in his career, he worked in one of the swankiest restaurants in Manhattan for the likes of Ivana Trump.

And then around 2001, he was lured to Las Vegas.

But even here, even beneath the neon, amid the adulation and the fame, Simon remained Simon – a Midwesterner who shied away from the limelight and held fast to his friends.

His inclination to veer away from the glitz eventually led him to the least likely of places: the urban core of downtown Las Vegas, an area on the verge of a renaissance but still a shelter for the homeless, the hopeless and the forgotten.

Simon died last week. A few years ago, he was stricken with multiple symptom atrophy, or MSA. The disease is compared to Parkinson’s disease. It leaves the mind intact while slowly depriving victims of the ability to move, talk, breath.

In his last few weeks, he came down with pneumonia.

Before his death, he was working on a cookbook with Las Vegas food writer Al Mancini. 

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Mancini shared his memories of Simon with KNPR’s State of Nevada.

One of the first thing anyone noticed about Simon, Mancini said, was his humility.

“Kerry has always been the rock star in the room without the rock star’s ego.” Mancini said. “He comes in quietly but the moment people notice he’s there, which doesn’t take very long, he just commands the room and he doesn’t do it by being arrogant. He doesn’t do it by telling you he’s the important guy in the room. He does it by simply being Kerry Simon. He’s got that long rock star hair and that kind of mischievous little smile… Whenever you were in the room with Kerry you knew you were in the presences of greatness.”

When Simon opened his namesake restaurant at the Hard Rock hotel-casino in 2002, it was at height of the casino’s popularity. And Simon, right across the hall from Nobu, was the place to see and be seen.

“That was when anybody who was anybody cool went to the Hard Rock and they either ate at Nobu or they ate at Simon and they were right across the hallway from each other,” Mancini explained. “If you wanted something a little fancy then you would go to Nobu but even if you went to Nobu, you went for drinks at Simon afterwards. It's where all the beautiful women went. It's where every rock star was. I think Elizabeth Blau told me that within less than a month after they opened the Rolling Stones were playing the joint at the Hard Rock and at 2 in the morning Kerry was making hamburgers for Mick Jagger after the show.”

The Hard Rock was almost the perfect venue for a Kerry Simon restaurant. Writers had called him the Rock ‘n’ Roll Chef not just because he became the go-to guy for the likes of Led Zeppelin but because that was his original love: rock ‘n’ roll.  From early in life, Mancini said, he wanted to be a rock and roller

“His first job was as a cook at a Little Caesars pizza place, with Bill Murray by the way. They both worked there together. Kerry took that job so he could buy a guitar. That’s the reason he got into it,” he said.

As Mancini said, Simon was perfectly capable of working in the finest dining establishments. He also excelled at making simple food very, very well.

“He eventually decided that he was tired of doing fine dining and he wanted to do casual comfort food and do it rock ‘n’ roll style and everybody would be in blue jeans at his restaurant instead of being in tuxedos,” Mancini said. “He experimented with that style originally when he was in Miami and that would be the mid 90s and that’s where his meatloaf came from, from Miami. But then he went back and worked for Jean George. He did fine dining again. And it wasn’t until he really went to the Hard Rock that he said ‘you know what? I’m just going to do comfortable food.' His meatloaf was one of the greatest things. He went on Iron Chef and he beat Cat Cora, making a hamburger. (laughing) He destroyed Cat Cora, who is a wonderful chef in her own right, by making a hamburger. You would go to his place and you could get cotton candy for dessert. Could imagine a fine dining chef before Kerry Simon doing cotton candy for dessert? But he did and he made snowballs, and ding-dongs and ho-hos, those were part of his desert platter. You’re eating meatloaf. Yet he could still take a great piece of halibut and wrap it up in banana leaf and give you the best fish dish you’ve ever had.”

Interest in Las Vegas’ urban core, especially on East Fremont Street, began to grow around 2010. It’s around that time that Simon became friends with Michael Cornthwaite. Cornthwaite is the owner of the Downtown Cocktail Room and The Beat coffee house and Emergency Arts building downtown. Friendship led to a business partnership, with the two eventually opening the short-lived Pork and Beans restaurant in the Container Park.

“I just wanted to work with Kerry," Cornthwaite said. "That was when Kerry was coming downtown a lot and he really liked it and we were hanging out quite a bit. He was awesome. We worked on the menu together and he did a lot of great work.”  

Simon also opened Carson Kitchen, a restaurant in partnership with Downtown Project. Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh, who funded Downtown Project, had gotten to know Simon years earlier.

“2007, 2008 it was originally at his restaurant at Palms Place. I would go there for Sunday brunches and dinners and hanging out and he was just always super nice and also kind of funny in that he would hang out for a while and then he would just get up and leave and disappear for a while and come back and that was Kerry,” Hsieh said.

Hsieh said he shared some personality traits with Simon. Including a tendency toward shyness with dislike for the limelight.

“I always thought it was funny that, I don’t know if it was the official moniker or nickname but he was known as the rock ‘n’ roll chef and he had been on Iron Chef a couple of times and he definitely had this rock star look about him but then he’s super shy and quiet and pretty much the opposite of you would think from that type of title” Hsieh said. “He’s definitely one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met.”

Simon also had a fun, quirky side, that Cornthwaite said came out in his culinary creations.

“His ability to have fun and make sure the food was high quality,” Cornthwaite said. “He understood that the dining experience was just another form of entertainment.”

Symptoms of MSA started to emerge around 2012. At first, Cornthwaite said, Simon thought his illness was related to the food he ate, mainly fish.

"Back then it wasn’t diagnosed. His thoughts were it could have something to do with his consumption of fish over the years.” Cornthwaite explained. “And the hypothesis at the time was it maybe high levels of mercury in the fish that were taking a toll on his system, but obviously that wasn’t the case.”

Fame, riches and status – Simon had it all. Cornthwaite, though, said his fondest memories of Kerry Simon are the times they could enjoy simple conversation over dinner.

Kerry Simon died Friday. He was 60.

Guests

Al Mancini, food writer;  Michael Cornthwaite, owner Downtown Cocktail Room; Tony Hsieh, CEO, Zappos.com

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