By Matt Kelemen
The story preceding the opening of KGB (Kerry’s Gourmet Burgers) was that Kerry Simon’s new burger place at Harrah’s was inspired by the “ultimate hamburger” the chef created during his appearance on Iron Chef America in 2005. “I guess you can place it at that moment, but I think my roots with American food are always there,” says Simon. “I trained in French restaurants, but I was always going back to things that people in the United States are familiar with. The hamburger was just part of the program.”
The “rock ’n’ roll chef” did experience incredible demand for the dish—a slider, actually, fixed with cheese and tomato on a brioche—at his restaurants after besting Cat Cora in the televised culinary contest. He ultimately added it to the menu at KGB, along with the “American Standard,” “The Double Cheeseburger” and the “The Cheddar Cheeseburger,” a patty wrapped in slices of cheese before being cooked. Simon, health-conscious and with an appreciation for raw and organic foods, rounded out the menu with chicken and veggie burger options, too. But it was his predilection for comfort foods and the simple goal of making people happy that caused him to build a menu around the classic hamburger. “It’s like me making pizzas at Little Caesars when I started my career,” he says. “It’s the same thing.”
Simon’s colorful career does date back to tossing pizza dough, but his rise was meteoric. After graduating from New York’s Culinary Institute of America, he studied under masters on both sides of the Atlantic before finding a mentor in Jean-Georges Vongerichten. But before he came to Vegas to open Prime steakhouse with Vongerichten at the Bellagio, Ivana Trump chose him to be the executive chef of the Edwardian Room at the New York’s Plaza Hotel. It was there, where bands such as INXS used to take shelter from fans at Simon’s private table in the kitchen, that Rolling Stone christened him the Rock ’n’ Roll Chef.
“I think there’s a lot of things that relate to it,” says Simon. “First, I thought I was going to be a guitar player. The other thing is a lot of musicians eat at my restaurants. I’m friends with the guys from Cheap Trick, Lenny Kravitz, Mötley Crüe, Sammy Hagar. John Dolmayan from System of a Down is one of my closest friends. The Killers. I’m just mentioning the people I see on a regular basis.”
Simon has been seeing a lot of those friends at Simon at Palms Place since his Sunday brunch, complete with a station dedicated to junk food concoctions and a dress code that encourages sleepwear, became a phenomenon nearly two years ago. But it’s also his willful desire to grow, change and experiment that keeps the bands coming. One of Simon’s favorite pastimes is coming up with fresh, fun twists on familiar foods, the way a good songwriter borrows and blends to create a new sound. At KGB, which is decked out in a Soviet-era propaganda motif, he and executive chef Christophe Doumerque included mac-and-cheese sticks appetizers, cheeseburger soup, a Thanksgiving turkey burger with stuffing and cranberry sauce, malted milkshakes and Kerry’s trademark cotton candy to the menu.
It might be a while before Simon turns his personal preferences into a raw and organic menu, though. “When the situation’s appropriate, I would love to do a raw menu, a raw restaurant,” he says. “I would love to do a fast-food concept based around those philosophies. But you have to know your audience. I want them to be happy. I’m going to cook what they want.”