A toy stove was the first Hanukkah gift anyone remembers Russ Simon asking for.
His mother recalled her oldest child, an early talker at age 2, toddling off to his room to “cook” with plastic food while she made kosher dinners for her family at their Hollywood home.
“It was a foreshadowing of what was to come,” Ronni Simon said.
After more than a decade as an executive chef for Wolfgang Puck restaurants, opening new fine-dining spots from Singapore to Istanbul, Russ Simon has turned playtime into a calling. Simon recently gave up the long hours and jet-setting to work even longer hours at his own first restaurant, American English Kitchen and Bar, in the very town where he grew up.
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“The great part is it’s only me. The hard part is it’s only me,” he said as he answered the phone at American English one Thursday afternoon.
What Simon, 38, learned about fine dining he may have learned at the heels of Puck and some of his top lieutenants at the landmark Spago Beverly Hills and CUT steakhouse. But it was while watching his mother keep kosher at home and his father, Arnie, work the grill that he learned the joy of feeding people — starting with his family.
Ronni Simon returned to teaching once her last child started grade school. But that meant she often returned from the Jewish temple after 7 p.m., usually too late to start cooking from scratch. And Arnie Simon admits he didn’t usually go near the stove.
That’s when Russ, only 11 years old, stepped in. He had watched her bake ziti, stir-fry Asian vegetables, put together casseroles and roast chicken for Friday Shabbat. His version wasn’t Mom’s home cooking, but it was hot and made with love, and his family devoured it.
“Looking back, I can’t say it was particularly good,” Russ Simon said, laughing one midweek afternoon at American English while signing for deliveries. “But I was always experimenting, all the time.”
For his mother, it was a respite after a long day at work to find dinner handled.
“I depended on him,” Ronni said. “If it wasn’t for Russ, we wouldn’t have eaten a lot of those nights.”
Simon didn’t exactly grow up in a fine-dining mecca. But he remembers going out for sushi with his parents in Hollywood when few others in South Florida were seeking raw fish. Arnie, a Hialeah native who works in marketing, pairing celebrities with products to endorse, often looked for interesting restaurants for business dinners.
He watched his son’s brain tick as he worked the stove. “Russ felt he was going to be the cook for his brothers and sister,” Arnie Simon said.
Creativity was in his blood. His parents remember him making a cooking-show video with the family recorder for a high school class. Back then, he thought he wanted to be a film director and headed to the University of Central Florida, bent on becoming the next Martin Scorsese.
Still, he found the kitchen. He cooked for his brothers at the frat house and at all the fraternity events.
It wasn’t until the chefs-as-celebrities movement that Russ learned cooking could be not just a vocation but a coveted career. Three years in, he switched to the culinary program at nearby Valencia College and simultaneously landed a job cooking at Wolfgang Puck Express in what is now Disney Springs.
In the time it would have taken to earn an undergraduate degree, Simon was supervising the dinner service at the more upscale Wolfgang Puck Grand Cafe, one of the country’s top-grossing restaurants, when he met the man himself. Puck asked him, “What do you want to do next?”
Spago Beverly Hills would become his graduate school. He would be a line cook there when the restaurant earned two Michelin stars. For the next decade, he opened Wolfgang Puck restaurants in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, London and Singapore.
“You can see the influence in the cuisine he’s doing now at the restaurant,” said his former supervisor at CUT in Las Vegas, executive chef Matt Hurley.
It was while running Puck’s CUT steakhouse in Singapore for nearly two years (a restaurant that would eventually earn a Michelin star itself) that he developed the cuisine that infuses his dishes at American English (the dialect of the Queen’s English he learned he spoke while living in the Far East).
He worked in a high-end restaurant but ate on the street, delving into the cuisines that overlapped at the Singapore markets. One night, he might be making an Indian “gordita,” wrapping chicken tika, black daal lentils and yogurt in naan bread. On another, he might be peeking over to watch traditional Singapore chili hard-shell crab being made street-side. Sweet breads, tongue, pork cheeks: He watched and he experimented at home.
“That was the place where I asked, ‘What’s stopping us from combining all these flavors?’ For me, it was an opportunity to create,” he said.
Those influences influence the menu at American English, at the site of the former Fulvio’s 1900 in Hollywood, just a few miles from where Simon watched his mother feed the family from her own kitchen.
The Singapore chili prawns use the same techniques as the crab (without all the tableside smashing). The charred octopus with Korean glaze is his Eastern twist on a dish that in South Florida usually is made Spanish style. The al pastor-style lamb shank emulates the flavors of traditional Mexican. Even the pasta carbonara uses a technique using shaved, cured egg yolks made in-house that speaks more to the Far East than Italy.
“The cross between cultures needs to make sense,” he said. “Here, I can add elements of fine dining while keeping it approachable.”
That approachable creativity worked in his mother’s kitchen. He hopes it holds true at his first, big venture.
If you go
Place: American English Kitchen and Bar
Address: 1900 Harrison St., Hollywood