Simon Kim struck gold when he opened Cote in New York’s Flatiron District, but his path to the smash-hit Korean steakhouse wasn’t exactly straightforward.
After moving to Long Island from Seoul, South Korea as a child, Kim was never quite comfortable in his new predominantly white community, and quickly learned to shut bullies down when he was picked on for not speaking English. There were schoolyard scuffles, and eventually, as he got older, bar fights. After one particularly bad rumble, Kim ended up in the hospital for several days. It was then that he realized he needed some time away from New York, so he took off for Las Vegas. “Growing up, I always thought that hotels were very alluring, luxury hotelier life. So I literally took a one-way flight to Vegas.”
Kim spent time working the front desk at the MGM Grand, which was less than glamorous. But he quickly learned how to take care of any issue guests raised, from pubic hairs on the bed to poor signage in the parking garage, with a grace and a smile on his face. Upper management noticed.
“One day, the vice president of fine dining approached me, and he’s like, ‘Hey, Simon, do you want to run a Japanese restaurant?’ So I was like, ‘Fuck, yeah,’” Kim said. The restaurant was Shibuya, and it was there that Kim met the most important people in Las Vegas: the whales, or high rollers.
“Asian gamblers, they’ll come in, and they will just go bonkers. Right? I’m talking $7,000 on a dinner. And they were able to do that because it was comp money. They would come in, blow a couple hundred thousand dollars in gambling,” Kim explained. Thanks to his childhood in Seoul, Simon understood the customs of these high rollers and grew adept at catering to their multimillion-dollar needs.
“I basically knew how to take care of the whales in a way that they wanted to be treated, whether that was starting them with some hot tea, or whatever... Especially with the whales, you can’t push what you want to push, right, because they know what they want — so you really need to kind of absorb and study their behaviors and whatnot. And learning the habits was pretty fun,” Kim recalled.
Still, Kim made sure to care for customers on both ends of the spending spectrum. Whether guests were there for a Sapporo and a California roll or magnums of Champagne and wagyu, he made sure each guest felt special. That ethos followed him back to New York, where after working a few different Jean-George spots, he opened his own restaurant, Piora, in 2013, which went on to win him his first Michelin star.
But it wasn’t until he opened his second restaurant, Cote, that Kim could finally bring his story full circle in the way he wanted.
Kim joined host Daniel Geneen in studio to trace his path from seventh grade earth science class to the Michelin guide in the latest episode of Eater’s Digest.
Below, a lightly edited transcript of Daniel’s interview with Simon Kim.
Daniel Geneen: Simon Kim is the owner and operator of Cote Steakhouse in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. It is one of the most successful restaurants in the city. What I find fascinating about Simon is it seems like all of the crazy experiences he’s had in his life led him up to opening this restaurant, but they were not easy to go through. His story is a story that I find fascinating, and we are just going to get right into it. Simon was born in Seoul, Korea, and his older siblings were both artists, and they didn’t exactly fit into the Korean education system, so his parents sent them off to New York.
Simon Kim: I was left behind in Seoul getting very little attention. So I got into a bunch of troubles, lots of fights. Bad scores on tests is a big deal in Korea. And then eventually my parents were like, “You know what? Fuck this. We got to take all of them.”
Daniel: So Simon ended up in a super WASP-y part of Long Island called Manhassett, but he brought the roughhousing of his past with him.
Simon: So I remember, I think I was in seventh grade. This is two weeks into school started, and I spoke no English. And it was earth science class. And there was this kid who basically wanted to bully me. I saw him looking at me. You know, he’s like, “Let’s pick on this kid.” He clearly doesn’t speak English and whatnot and was the one of the only Asian guys. So I was wearing a hat, and he knocked my hat off. In Korea, I was getting into a lot of trouble, so without hesitation I punched him in the face, and he obviously totally didn’t expect what was coming. And then from then on, message was very clear. No one ever messed with me from then on.
Daniel: Right. One of the most influential things for Simon was being so close to Manhattan and to Brooklyn, and that is where he discovered one of his first loves.
Simon: Manhassett is located just literally a couple miles away from Peter Luger. Yeah, so I fell in love with that place, and I would save up my allowances and just bring my money to Peter Luger.
Daniel: Aside from fancy steak, Simon didn’t click with a whole lot. He wasn’t a great student. He didn’t play sports. But he was really great at one thing, and that was bar fights.
Simon: Literally Thursday, Friday, Saturday, I would get into bar fights all the time. I was a knucklehead.
Daniel: There was actually one guy in particular who Simon would run into all the time. He was kind of like the Simon or the big fighter of his group in New Jersey.
Simon: I remember one night, it was one of my friend’s birthday, got really drunk, and of course testosterone was flowing. And I went outside to smoke a cigarette, and I see the guy. And I actually don’t remember how it actually started, but I do remember ending up in an emergency room.
Simon: So now imagine, right? So you have no academic real future in front of you. You don’t have athletic future in front of you. You’re not even good at bar fighting.
Daniel: Afterwards, Simon packed up his bags and moved to Las Vegas. He didn’t know what to do with himself in New York.
Simon: Growing up I always thought that hotel was alluring, luxury hotel, hotelier life. So I literally took a one way flight to Vegas.
Daniel: His first job in Vegas was working at the front desk at the MGM Grand, and it was not a glamorous job.
Simon: You know, checking people in, people coming to me and saying, “Excuse me, I found this pubic hair on the bed.” And that’s what I was dealing with. I was like, “I’m really sorry. Allow me to change the room for you.”
Daniel: But one thing he did learn was how to smile to every guest and how to take every complaint and try to turn it around.
Simon: One day the vice president of fine dining approached me, and he’s like, “Hey, Simon, do you want to run a Japanese restaurant?” So I was like, “Fuck, yeah.”
Daniel: The restaurant was called Shibuya, and to Simon this place was heaven. They served Wagyu and uni back in 2007 when people weren’t really eating these things, and Simon was floored.
Simon: When I started at the restaurant, it genuinely felt like I was a fish, and I met this ocean. You know, I felt so comfortable in it. It was just such an euphorically joyous place. Right? There’s nothing not joyous about restaurant, and when that kind of happiness struck, I feel like it really resonated really hard. And all the years of kind of lost uncertainty and all those things just cleared the way for restaurant.
Daniel: Simon quickly realized that there was a huge divide in the restaurant’s clientele. On one hand you had the Vegas partiers, the people there for just the weekend, and they were drinking a Sapporo and having a California roll. And on the other end, there were these what they call in the business whales, high rollers, big spenders, big casino VIPs.
Simon: Asian gamblers, they’ll come in, and they will just go bonkers. Right? I’m talking about four dudes looking pretty silly, comes in, and then just drops $7,000 on a dinner. And they were able to do that because it was comp money. They would come in, blow a couple hundred thousand dollars in gambling. Whether they win or lose, they end up with a certain amount of comp, right?
Daniel: So what comp is the money the casinos give to their high rollers to just let them spend freely in and around the hotel. It’s how people end up with the giant penthouse suites, and the massages, and the free meals, and the caviar, and the truffles, and the champagne, and the tables at nightclubs.
Simon: I basically knew how to take care of the whales in a way that they wanted to be treated, whether that was starting them with some hot tea. And most importantly, they just needed to be really taken care of.
Daniel: Growing up in Seoul, Simon understood the customs of these high rollers. He watched gangster movies. He was familiar with the Japanese culture. He knew that people from different places appreciated different kinds of service, and he was really, really good at making these multimillion dollar customers feel important and feel personally respected.
Simon: Especially with the whales, you can’t push what you want to push, right, because they know what they want, so you really need to kind of absorb and study their behaviors and whatnot. And learning the habits was pretty fun. Basically, a good life on steroid. Yeah.
Daniel: So you were doing well?
Simon: I was doing very well to a point where I was making meaningful impact in revenue.
Daniel: Simon was independently responsible for the majority of the restaurant’s business. Say on an average slower night, the restaurant may bring in $15,000. Simon could make one phone call, bring in a table of whales, and double the restaurant’s revenue.
Simon: I was having so much fun. I was building my influence, but I was not getting a lot of guidance, like what is allowed and what is not allowed. It was more like, “Hey, Simon, just go do your thing. Go bring more revenue,” sort of a thing.
Daniel: Let you off the leash.
Simon: Yeah. And I was loose, and I was happy, and I was getting shit done.
Daniel: At this time his salary wasn’t great, but the tips were. He was getting palmed thousands of dollars a night. At the time in Vegas, tips weren’t pooled, meaning the servers in a restaurant got to keep whatever tips they were given. So serving a table filled with whales with checks in the thousands and tens of thousands of dollars could mean a huge payday for any given server.
Simon: And I was the one who basically picked which servers are going to serve them, and I only picked the best one, a person who can really understand and who can provide the service and who’s good at what they do. And then so they would take the $3,000 tip, and then they would actually give me a couple of hundred dollars or a few hundred dollars bills. I was like, oh, this is great. Right? Customer is happy, server is happy, and I’m happy. I had no idea that that was illegal.
Daniel: It ended up costing Simon his job, and this is right when the mortgage bubble burst. Finally, he was starting to fit in. He was finally feeling like he’d landed on his feet, and it all went to shit. So he decided to go back home to Long Island.
Simon: And I gave my house keys to my then roommate. I was like, “Good luck with the house. I’ll figure it out, and I’ll call you later.” And then literally just took off in my red Mini Cooper and drove from Las Vegas to New York.
Daniel: Back in New York, Simon hopped around working for different restaurants and got a taste of the city’s brutal fine dining scene.
Simon: I would get my ass handed. I’m talking about out I would go home and cry all night because I was destroyed by customers, destroyed by servers, and destroyed by my upper management. And it really broke me down in a most profound way. And I’d be there the next morning opening the restaurant with a smile, and that level of feeling of destruction and defeat and getting up and trying to redo this again. And you do that again and again and again and again, and I think that resiliency was the biggest walkaway that I learned.
Daniel: Don’t you think it’s a little bit like the help desk at the hotel where no one ever says nice things? They just come and destroy you, and you have to put a smile on again for the next person?
Simon: Yeah, almost precisely. And I also was considered as the weakest link. I was the youngest and —
Daniel: Not white.
Simon: Not white. Yeah, When I tried to sell wine, they were like, “Dude, who are you?” You know?
Daniel: Eventually Simon ended up at Matsugen, a restaurant in Tribeca by Jean-George that was right across the street from where his mom had opened her own restaurant.
Simon: So I remember as a 16-year-old kid from Long Island, my mother pointed out this corner and said, “Oh, that’s Michelin three-star chef Jean-George, opening a restaurant.” And I would go there and take a peek.
Daniel: After some time working for Jean-George, Simon was finally ready to open his own place.
Simon: And so great thing about working for the best is you learn so much, how the best operates. But kind of challenging thing is you are very discouraged. Right? These legends have all these amazing things. They’re so good at what they do, there’s amazing backing them, all these things. But how can I, this immigrant from Seoul, open a restaurant and be successful? There’s that sense of that, and I thought really long and hard about it, and I came to conclusion that what I can offer is genuinely I can be there. And I can have my executive chef be there, and plate every single dish, and drop every dish, and meet the guests, and be able to really connect in a very profound manner. And that’s basically was the concept.
Daniel: In 2013, he opened Piora in Greenwich Village.
Simon: We opened this restaurant Piora, which in Korean pronounced Piora, which translates to blossom. I think the story worked, right? We got our Michelin star in 15 months of opening, and I think that was a such a dream come true and validation. But I realized, as great as Michelin star is, it doesn’t pay for rent.
Daniel: Piora never really hit its stride financially, and in 2016 it fell on hard times.
Simon: Guests were really happy. Guests were satisfied. The restaurant was pretty busy, but our cost was not aligned. We just couldn’t really fix it, and I tried really hard to fix it, but unless there was a very drastic change that would have completely changed the integrity of the restaurant, I wouldn’t be able to make that adjustment. So all things considered, we thought that it’s better to preserve the beautiful blossoming into a place that only can be remembered. So we decided to close.
Daniel: Simon had to close Piora just eight months after they received their Michelin star.
Simon: Can you imagine? So I had to pull the plug on Piora, and that was probably the saddest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. If I had to compare, it was basically kind of like euthanizing your own pet. So that was a traumatizing experience.
Daniel: And then what happened next?
Simon: Cote happened.
Daniel: Just before shuttering Piora, Simon opened Cote, a high end Korean steakhouse.
Simon: Cote in Korean translates to flower, so you understand now there’s a Piora that blossomed, and that led into a Cote, which is flower. And this is something that I really wanted to do for a very, very long time. You know, I told you how much I love growing up in Long Island going to Peter Luger, having that kind of a primal yet exciting steak experience. Growing up in Seoul before I moved, I also very much enjoyed Korean barbecue angle, and basically when the vision was to take the best of both worlds, and then actually create a super restaurant concept where you can actually extract the best of both worlds.
Daniel: But raising capital proved really tough.
Simon: When I pitched to investors I’m going to open up an upscale Korean barbecue restaurant concept, they were like, “What are you talking about? That just doesn’t make any sense. People go to Korean barbecue because it’s casual, and it’s rowdy, and if you extract that, then it wouldn’t work.” And there was actually a restaurant in New York city back then that basically attempted that, exactly that. And it actually didn’t work out. So they were like, “You know what, Simon? Not going to happen.”
Daniel: But it did happen. And it turns out that an upscale Korean steakhouse was exactly what New York wanted.
Simon: It was a giant success. It was a giant, giant success. And I’m so, so, so, so grateful for it. And four months into opening, we got our Michelin star.
Daniel: Cote is where it finally all came together for Simon… from his favorite steaks at Peter Luger to the over-the-top decadence of Las Vegas
Simon: I really do think Cote is very, very much like me. You know I like high quality things, but I like to have a shit ton of fun and in terms of who I am, Las Vegas, it’s made a strong impact in who I am as a person. And of course that kind of speaks out in Cote as well because Cote is a little larger than life kind of thing. You know, that’s what I see Vegas as. But at the same token it’s about a sense of excellence and high quality things and hospitality. So the mix of party, sense of excellence, ingredients and hospitality… It’s got some Vegas flavors.
Daniel: So much of Simon’s career has been spent making the whales of the world happy. But at Cote, the high roller experience is a little more accessible than diners might expect
Simon: How can we, as an operator, provide the best ingredient possible and curate that in a really fun way, but also really work hard at reducing the cost? So ultimately customers can actually feel like, “I beat the system,” right? “I came here, a Michelin starred steakhouse, and then I spent far less than I wanted to spend.” And I think it’s a great thing. But don’t get me wrong. We have wine programs to really luxurious items. Like, we have caviar, so we have a lot of very high-priced ticket items. So if you want to come in and enjoy a very modest yet excellent meal at Cote, you can do that. But if you want to come in and go all out and be a whale, you can do that too.
Daniel: I feel like you have the place set up that it’s almost like roulette, right? On an average night, maybe you’re just scraping by, but then you have all these programs in place. You know, you have an amazing wine program that’s just meant to get those huge, huge hits.
Simon: Yeah. It’s like the casino, huh?