Kerry Simon, a star chef whose cooking in South Beach in the mid-’90s helped propel his national fame and success, died Friday in Las Vegas. He was 60.
The rail-thin, photogenic, flowing-hair chef set up shop at Blue Star in the Raleigh Hotel in 1992, being lured to Miami Beach from a stint at New York’s Plaza Hotel, where Ivana Trump had hand-picked him to run the hotel’s Edwardian Room.
Simon moved on from the Raleigh to open Starfish restaurant the next year at 1427 West Ave., current home to Barton G. He earned a following for his comforting foods like hamburgers with jalapeño mayo (Simon later won a burger-battle episode of Iron Chef America, in 2005) and a meatloaf that Miami Herald critic Geoffrey Tomb called “absolutely the best in town.”
Simon partnered with South Florida restaurateurs Dennis Max and Burt Rapoport to open Max’s South Beach in 1994 at 764 Washington Ave. Max and Rapoport knew of Simon from his days in New York, but it was a local magazine cover that prompted them to work with him.
“He was on the cover with a big lobster claw in his mouth,” Rapoport remembered Friday. “And we said, ‘We have to get this guy. We have to talk with him.’”
The partnership worked: Esquire magazine named Max’s South Beach one of its best new restaurants in 1995 (along with Nemo, located a few blocks away). Critic John Mariani raved about Simon’s grilled asparagus with parmesan broth, his juicy pork loin with sweet-potato hash, and his smoky tandoori salmon with mango chutney and black beans.
“He was simply an amazing chef,” Rapoport said. “And he cooked food that was exactly like he was: soulful, straightforward, unpretentious and extremely likable.”
With Simon in the kitchen, celebrities filled the tables. Cindy Crawford favored a back booth behind a pillar. Rapoport said he seated Sylvester Stallone and Madonna during the restaurant’s opening week. Simon wooed his former boss Ivana, in town on vacation, with a two-hour meal of butter-roasted whole lobster and garlic-marinated lamb chops with grappa.
Still, “Simon’s food is what to like and what to return for, not who else is eating it,” Tomb wrote in a 1995 review of Max’s.
Max’s South Beach changed over to Mercury in 1996, and Simon gave his comfort food an upscale tweak. He may have been the first in South Beach to plate a salad of arugula with goat cheese, now nearly ubiquitous on restaurant menus.
Simon, who Rolling Stone once called The Rock ’n’ Roll Chef, left Miami Beach to open restaurants the world over for the chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. He eventually landed in Las Vegas, opening and running restaurants at The Palms, Harrah’s, Hard Rock and other venues.
He returned to South Florida occasionally, including a few cooking appearances during the early years of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival.
“Miami’s first rock-star chef,” recalled Lee Brian Schrager, the festival’s founder and director. “Good looks, good food, good guy.”
Simon was diagnosed in 2013 with Multiple System Atrophy, a degenerative neurological disorder marked by rapid advancement of Parkinson’s-like symptoms with no known cure. On Wednesday, soon after Simon had been moved to hospice care, his friends and former cooks hosted a benefit dinner in Las Vegas, with proceeds going to MSA research. Longtime friend Robin Leach first reported Simon’s death on Friday in the Las Vegas Sun.
He may have been a celebrity chef before the term was commonplace, but throughout his career Simon seemed to remain focused on food, not stardom.
“His professional goal isn’t to perform for us or preach to us,” Tomb wrote of Simon in 1995, a few months before the chef’s 40th birthday. “It’s to please people ... give them what they want. He does.”