Guitar Aficionado

Las Vegas Chef Kerry Simon Abandoned His Rock Dreams for a Culinary Career But Still Became a Rock Star

Like many American teenagers, Kerry Simon grew up with rock and roll dreams. During the Seventies in Evanston, Illinois, the young Simon played in pickup bands, took jazz and classical guitar lessons, and went to clubs like Haymakers in northern Chicago to watch then-local-heroes Cheap Trick tear the roof off the joint.
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This is an excerpt from the all-new November/December 2013 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For the rest of this story, plus features on John Stamos, pre-War Martins, the Healdsburg Guitar Festival and a new photo book called 108 Rock Star Guitars, head to the Guitar Aficionado Online Store.

Lucky Strike: Las Vegas chef Kerry Simon abandoned his rock and roll dreams for a culinary career but still became a rock star.

By Richard Bienstock | Photo by Ben Clark

Like many American teenagers, Kerry Simon grew up with rock and roll dreams. During the Seventies in Evanston, Illinois, the young Simon played in pickup bands, took jazz and classical guitar lessons, and went to clubs like Haymakers in northern Chicago to watch then-local-heroes Cheap Trick tear the roof off the joint.

Eventually, in what is likewise a customary teenage rite of passage, he took a job slinging pizzas at a neighborhood Little Caesars in order to buy a new guitar.

Even while loading pies in and out of ovens, he was noticeably single-minded. “Before we opened in the mornings, me and some of the other guys would bring in equipment and play right in the store,” the 58-year-old Simon recalls today. “We’d cram in all our gear, turn up, and jam—everything from Hendrix to Zeppelin, the Stones, the Allman Brothers, Foghat, and even our own originals. It was hard boogie and blues, but mostly a lot of loud noise.”

These days, Simon has come very far from the Evanston Little Caesars where he spent so many teenage afternoons—although his flagship restaurant, Simon Restaurant & Lounge, located within the sprawling Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, is just a few blocks off the Strip from Caesars Palace. While he gave up his rock-star ambitions not too long after nabbing that pizza job, Simon never quit playing. In the years since, he has built an impressive collection of guitars as well as a cadre of musical celebrity friends. He’s also amassed a mini empire of incredibly successful restaurants that, in addition to Vegas, includes outposts in Los Angeles, Atlantic City, and Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.

Along the way, Simon became a rock star in the restaurant world. Although his duties as a chef and restaurateur keep him busy, music is never far off. He’ll pick up one of his many guitars—perhaps his weathered 1956 Martin 0-15, his 2010 Gibson Custom Shop Limited ’54 Single-Pickup Les Paul Gold Top or a cheapo, “customed out” Fender Squier that’s one of his favorites—whenever he has a free moment. He’s also managed to live something of a rock-star lifestyle: he’s gone on the road with bands like Mötley Crüe and INXS, cooked a private pre-show meal at the O2 Arena in London for Led Zeppelin’s 2007 reunion show (“I watched the band’s rehearsals and sound check—I was in awe”), and hobnobbed with the likes of David Bowie, David Crosby, David Lee Roth, and numerous other musicians not named David.

Simon’s path from guitar-obsessed pizza maker to world-class restaurateur is, much like the man himself, an exceedingly colorful and entertaining study. The cooking bug took hold for him while he was working at Dave’s Italian Kitchen, his job after leaving Little Caesars. But instead of converting the spot into his own personal band rehearsal room as he had before, at Dave’s he spent his after-hours time woodshedding behind the stove. “When the restaurant closed, I’d stay until four in the morning and just cook,” he recalls. “I’d take Julia Child recipes and recreate them, teach myself to make a soufflé.”

After failing to land a lead-singer slot in a local band, Simon packed away his rock dreams for good and headed east, earning coveted admission to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Next, he landed in New York City, which was the world’s fine-dining epicenter in the Eighties. After working at the famed Lutèce under legendary Alsatian chef André Soltner, he moved on to the likewise acclaimed La Côte Basque, with Jean-Jacques Rachou. That period, Simon recalls, “was an eye opener. I was a kid from Evanston, and here I was cooking for the president of France, Julia Child, and Andy Warhol. I made Henry Kissinger an omelet.”

It was an auspicious start, though Simon soon began to spike his white-linen pedigree with a dose of rock-and-roll attitude. He eventually left La Côte Basque to take on a private chef position in the U.K. He stayed until he was “kicked out of London,” partly due to tax issues (his paychecks came from the U.S.) but also because of a particularly eventful night out on the town, which ended with Simon and a friend, Killing Joke drummer Paul Ferguson, going for a joyride around the city. Simon wrecked the car they were driving and “just left it in the street and went home,” he says. “Paul was leaving on tour the next day, which was a problem, because he had broken his leg.”

Exiled from London, Simon made his way back to New York, where he soon landed a sous chef position at Lafayette, working under the man who would transform French cuisine in the ensuing decades: Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Over the years, the two worked closely in various capacities, though Vongerichten’s most significant contribution to Simon’s career was perhaps his suggestion, in 1989, that the younger cook throw his hat in the ring for the executive chef position at the Edwardian Room in the Plaza Hotel, which Donald Trump had just purchased. “I applied, and Ivana [Trump] interviewed me,” Simon recalls. “After 10 minutes, she said, ‘You’re the one.’ ”

This is an excerpt from the all-new November/December 2013 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For the rest of this story, plus features on John Stamos, pre-War Martins, the Healdsburg Guitar Festival and a new photo book called 108 Rock Star Guitars, head to the Guitar Aficionado Online Store.

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