Kerry Simon learned it early, and he learned it from his dad: A grill can attract attention.
Simon grew up on Bainbridge Island, a ferry ride from Seattle. One summer day, he says, “My dad bought half a salmon at Pike Place Market and put it on the barbecue.” Minutes later, Simon saw fire trucks rounding the rim of the island, sirens blaring. Where’s the fire? he wondered.
Soon the trucks pulled up to his house. No one had realized just how much smoke the grill was producing.
And the salmon? Was it ruined? Simon shakes his head. “The salmon was cooked perfectly,” he says. “Dad knew what he was doing.”
Today, Simon is equally confident at the grill. He’s preparing skewers of gingery, garlicky shrimp at a party given by his friends Kelly Lynch, the actress, and her screenwriter husband, Mitch Glazer, at their house in the Hollywood Hills. The view from their back lawn, where Simon is working the grill and hanging out with Glazer, is striking, with the Griffith Observatory to the east, the Hollywood sign to the west and the Pacific Ocean straight ahead.
Lynch walks onto the lawn. The actress, who gave her breakthrough performance in 1989’s Drugstore Cowboy, tugs Simon by the arm. “Come with me—I want you to be part of the party,” she says. Simon obliges; he and Glazer load the shrimp onto a platter and follow her inside.
Glazer and Lynch live in an architectural landmark: the Harvey House, built in 1950 by famed L.A. architect John Lautner. It’s a gorgeous modernist structure, with satinwood walls, mahogany parquet floors and floor-to-ceiling picture windows. The couple bought the then-dilapidated house in 1998 and restored it with help from Lautner Associates. As Lynch explains, “It always bothered me that the bad guy in the movies had the cool, modern house, and the nice family lived in the chintzy place.”
Guests have arrayed themselves in black Mies van der Rohe chairs around a white shag rug. Anjelica Huston and her husband, the sculptor Robert Graham, chat with actress Susan Traylor. Traylor’s husband, Jesse Dylan, son of singer Bob and director of the Will Ferrell comedy Kicking & Screaming, tries a grilled shrimp, dipping it in a bright tomato chutney spiked with lemongrass and ginger.
Glazer first met Simon in the 1980s, “probably through Billy,” says Glazer. That would be Bill Murray, who, before Saturday Night Live made him a star, worked alongside Simon in the ’70s making pizzas at a Chicago branch of Little Caesars. Back then, Simon wanted to play guitar in a rock band. But after helping another Little Caesars colleague, Dave Glatt, open Dave’s Italian Kitchen in Evanston, Illinois, Simon got a loan to attend culinary school.
After stints at New York City’s Lutèce and La Côte Basque, Simon served as Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s sous-chef at Lafayette. Then, in 1989, Ivana Trump tapped him to be the executive chef at the Edwardian Room of Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel. Rolling Stone dubbed him the rock ’n’ roll chef—who cooked for customers like David Lee Roth and INXS.
Simon eventually left the Edwardian Room and helped Vongerichten launch restaurants in Las Vegas, London, Hong Kong and Chicago. In 2002, he opened Simon Kitchen at the Hard Rock Las Vegas Hotel, serving wry takes on American classics, like french fries cooked in duck fat, “topless” apple pie and house-made cotton candy. In 2006, when he opened Simon L.A. at the Sofitel hotel in Los Angeles, Glazer and Lynch were among the first to welcome him to town.
Simon’s hair is still rock-star length, but today, his menu reflects an emphasis on healthy recipes made with organic ingredients, often locally grown and cooked on the grill. As Glazer and Lynch’s guests move into a living room, they are welcomed with glasses of Simon’s cool gazpacho made with grilled zucchini and peppers and flavored with cumin and cilantro. “I eat a lot of vegetables,” says Simon, “so I’m always looking for ways to make them more interesting.” In the case of this gazpacho, “I was grilling up vegetables and thought, Hmm, what if?” The chef explains how he reinvents dishes simply by cooking them on a grill. To prove his point, he brings out another clever starter: a platter of crunchy-sweet grilled romaine spears brushed with a garlicky Caesar dressing.
Party conversation moves from movies to babies to politics—Lynch is a vocal advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Simon serves his healthy take on a Southern California mainstay, the fish taco: warm tortillas wrapped around succulent grilled fish, citrusy avocado and crispy shredded napa cabbage. The actor Stephen Dorff takes a bite and smiles. “What is in these tacos?” he asks Simon. (It’s red snapper.)
The grill isn’t done for the night. For dessert, Simon grills rounds of pineapple to a caramel brown, chops them up and spoons them into sundae glasses atop frozen yogurt. “I love grilling fruit,” Simon says, as he sprinkles the sundaes with shredded coconut and finely chopped mint. “Apricots or bananas would both be great in this—especially with shiso [the Japanese basil-like herb].”
Some hosts commemorate parties in a guest book, but at the Harvey House, Glazer and Lynch set out leather-bound sketchbooks for guests to doodle in at an event’s close. Graham goes first, drawing a smiling nude. He’s a tough act to follow; no one rushes to be the next to sign.
The sketchbook reminds Simon of the guest logs he used to keep almost 20 years ago at the Edwardian Room. In those ledgers, Simon’s VIP guests would try to one-up each other. He smiles at the memory. “I keep those books in a very safe place,” he says.
The chef exhales. He’s not looking forward to tomorrow’s early flight. Where’s the fire now? Simon Kitchen in Vegas has closed, but he just opened another Vegas restaurant, Simon at Palms Place Hotel, Condo & Spa. He also keeps an eye on CatHouse, his new lounge-restaurant at the Luxor Hotel. After Vegas it’s on to New York, then back to L.A.
Though cooking in L.A. has lately brought Simon’s interest in healthy food to the forefront, his enthusiasm is not new. He first learned to eat well as a kid. “My quinoa salad with chopped tomatoes and basil? I got that from growing up around a bunch of hippies,” he says, fondly. “Dad always made us eat yogurt and granola.”
Michael Oates Palmer has written for The West Wing and Shark. He lives in Venice, California.