BACK when Kerry Simon was training at the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York in 1981, the definition of a "celebrity chef" as he knew it was something different altogether compared with what it means in this age of Rachael Ray and Tyler Florence.
"To me, a celebrity chef was somebody well respected who used quality products and was trying to do something a little more unique," says Simon, 52, whose repertoire ranges from the Vegas-obligatory surf-and-turf and shrimp cocktails to upscale spins on such American classics as meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, and peanut butter and jelly. "A celebrity chef could be anything now. It's a question of what the Food Network puts its stamp on. It's a lot different walking into a restaurant that's going to do 300 dinners than walking on a TV set."
Simon ought to know. Sure, he owes some of his name recognition to his stint as a champ and then a judge on Food Network's "Iron Chef America." But those sorts of gigs are interesting diversions from his life as a chef who, on May 12, opened Simon Restaurant and Lounge at the new hotel-condo attached to the Palms called Palms Place. That's his second new Vegas restaurant in six months, having opened the sexually charged CatHouse at the Luxor in December.
The two offerings represent a high-profile comeback for Sin City's cuisine scene for Simon, who also owns Simon LA inside the Sofitel Los Angeles Hotel, after closing the acclaimed Simon Kitchen + Bar at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino last year amid an ownership change there.
The Palms Place spot is Simon's new flagship, designed by architect David Rockwell with hardwood ceilings, a sleek opaque-glass sushi bar and huge windows that allow eye-candy-gazing at the surrounding L-shaped swimming pool. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it's also responsible for room service and banquet catering for the building. Its most unusual feature is a glass wall filled with six shelves of potted herbs from which Simon and his staff cut fresh seasonings, part of his eat-fresh, sustainable-ingredients philosophy.
The CatHouse at Luxor, meanwhile, is a departure for Simon and Vegas eateries. It is designed to look like an old-fashioned bordello with waitresses in lingerie and a model performing a show inside a glass "catbox," where she slowly changes her clothes and rubs lotion on her legs. Yet it's a serious restaurant, too.
With the Palms long serving as a celebrity magnet and Palms Place in particular poised to be the Vegas residence of such stars as Jessica Simpson, who owns a unit there, Simon expects his new restaurant to continue his history of cooking for the rich and famous. A career that began in the 1970s at a Little Caesars in Chicago -- alongside future movie star Bill Murray, no less -- has led to gigs under revered chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and later as executive chef in the Edwardian Room of New York's Plaza Hotel.
For all his expansions, Simon insists he's not looking to be the next Wolfgang Puck with dozens of restaurants and other ancillary businesses.
"I never look at my life as a business plan," he says. "When an opportunity steps in my direction, I ask myself, 'Does that seem exciting? Challenging? Fun? Different?' That's how I decide what I want to do next."
Steve Friess co-hosts the Vegas-centric celebrity interview podcast "The Strip" at TheStripPodcast.com
SIMON RESTAURANT & LOUNGE WHERE: Palms Place, 4381 W. Flamingo Road, Las Vegas WHEN: 7 a.m.-11 p.m. daily PRICE: Dinner entrees, $22-$52 INFO: (702) 944-3292, palmsplace.com CATHOUSE WHERE: Luxor, 3900 Las Vegas Blvd. S., Las Vegas WHEN: 6-11 p.m. PRICE: Entrees, $19-$70 INFO: (702) 262-4228, cathouselv.com