Coming to terms with Korean-American identity and the quest for paternal approval.
By Simon Kim as told to Katie Lockhart
Simon Kim is the owner of the Michelin-starred Korean steakhouse Cote in New York, and soon Miami. Kim also received a Michelin star at his first restaurant Piora in the West Village. Originally from Seoul, Kim now calls New York home.
My father had polio at a young age, so he wasn’t really mobile. Naturally, he became a real gastronome. Instead of taking me to play catch or hiking, my dad took me to fine-dining restaurants. We always grew up talking about food. He wasn’t necessarily negative by any means, but he was very critical.
My mother, she’s one of those superwomen. I mean, she had a baby clothing company and a textile company. She has a true entrepreneurial spirit. She was a very famous stage actress when she married my father—just one of those ladies with so many talents who gets things done.
Along with my siblings, we went to restaurants, we talked about food, so she knew that was the medium that brought the family together—profoundly, not just in a physical sense, but even in interest and conversation. So my mother became a very, very amazing cook. It’s kind of like my father was the Michelin inspector, and my mother was the Michelin-starred chef who wanted to please the critic.
My older brother and sister were both artists, though initially from Korea. My parents wanted them to get access to better education, so they sent them to boarding school. I was in Seoul. And then we realized separating the family didn’t really work out. So my mother decided to come to New York to give us a better education.
In 1995 I moved to Long Island, New York, a town called Manhasset. I didn’t speak English. I think I knew how to say hello. It was very, very difficult. There was some bullying involved. I actually didn’t know what they were saying, but I knew it wasn’t nice.
I remember going to my earth science class, and in the middle of class, this kid just came up to me and knocked my hat off. And then he said something that I didn’t understand. I was always a pretty feisty kid growing up, and I didn’t tolerate any bullying of older kids or smaller kids. I punched him in the face. I think that changed the dynamic altogether, and at that age, I learned that the best medicine for bullying is offense, not defense. From then on, no one really bullied me again.
Once people stopped bullying me, they were curious. Who is this person? We were still fairly young and liked to play. I started rollerblading with a bunch of friends, and I learned English very, very quickly. About four years after I came to America, I went back to Korea for the first time and had a hard time speaking Korean.
When my brother and sister went to college while I was in high school, my mother opened a restaurant called Kori on Church Street in Tribeca. It was 1998 and I was 16 years old. I was a busboy. That was my first real job. We called it a neo-classic Korean restaurant. My mother sold the restaurant in 2006 as she was moving back to Seoul.
My mother went to French culinary school for a semester in New York and learned knife techniques, garnishing skills, and presentation skills. She made Korean food like I would eat at home, but slightly elevated in technique and plating. My dad never really gave a seal of approval on the restaurant. He went there, and certain dishes he liked, and certain dishes he didn’t like. But again, this man was not an easy person to please.
I came from Korea to study, so naturally, I had to major in something a little more elaborate than running a restaurant. So I majored in finance, and I went to Baruch College in New York. But I was not really passionate. Three years into it, I was kind of lost. I wasn’t studying hard. That’s when I decided—you know what, I want to do the service industry for real. So I did a transfer application to Cornell and the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and I got an acceptance from UNLV. So, I took a one-way flight to Las Vegas to study hospitality.
It was probably one of the most valuable experiences in my life to just go away from family for the first time. I got into so much trouble it’s not even funny. There’s no guidance. There are no parents. There’s literally no one to intervene. So in the morning, I went to school. In the afternoon to evening, I worked full time, and then after work, I partied full time until the next morning. I don’t know when I slept.
I started working at the MGM Grand as a front-desk agent while going to school, and because I was at the front desk, I would say hello to literally everyone walking into the door. So I knew all the casino hosts, I knew all the executives, and one day the vice president of fine dining at MGM Grand just came over to me and said, “Do you want to run the Japanese fine dining restaurant at MGM Grand?” I said, “Hell yeah!”
We were selling very sexy sushi. We had a hibachi grill and were selling Japanese wagyu, elaborate sashimi platters. We had 270 sake bottles, and we were selling Grand Cru Bordeaux. Four people would come into a restaurant and spend $20,000 on dinner.
The opportunities are when the whales come in—the high rollers. If you’re in a casino, that’s the jackpot, but you can’t run a consistent business based on jackpots. So you’ve got to focus on making sure you have consistent cash flow, consistent profit. But when the jackpots do happen, you definitely need to be ready. That’s a very important lesson I learned in Las Vegas.
I was flying high. I’m a 26-year-old first-year manager bringing in millions of dollars in revenue and opening $10,000 bottles of wine. But I didn’t know what a union was. I didn’t really have any proper training. So when these whales would come in, I would assign the best server to that table every time. Later, I found out that that was not allowed because you couldn’t favor servers in a union environment. A disgruntled server who wasn’t getting picked took it to the union. So I resigned from MGM Grand.
Then I moved back to New York. I started looking for jobs, and I got a management job at Blue Fin in Times Square. It was insane. We did $18 million that year. We had 350 seats, and from 5 to 6 p.m., we’d fill up the entire restaurant, and everyone had to get out before Broadway will-call ticket pickup time. That trained me like nothing else. It was a truly magnificent experience.
I like the intensity. I like to wear fancy suits. I found a job running Jean-George Vongerichten’s Japanese restaurant Matsugen in TriBeCa. Coincidentally this restaurant was located on the same block as my mother’s old restaurant. So I remember as a teenager, my mother pointing at a restaurant, saying that there’s this really famous and fancy Michelin-star chef named Jean-Georges, and that’s his restaurant. Fast forward ten years, I was managing that restaurant.
I’m 29 years old at this point, and I realized that I wanted to do something other than profit and loss. There was no other way but to open my own restaurant. I opened Piora in 2013, and it was the most beautiful restaurant in the West Village. The magic I wanted to create was definitely there, but that moment was very short—we were busy, but we were not making any money. The labor costs were out of control, and our price point was not really high. We were bleeding money.
I had to borrow more than $120,000 in personal debt just to make sure that my checks didn’t bounce. I had a very successful restaurant on the surface. I had two stars from the New York Times. It was the American dream. Meanwhile, I have a negative bank account balance.
That was the most stressful time in my life. I think I was depressed at that point. I was very close to pulling the plug. At the end of September, the Michelin Guide was announcing their stars. I remember sitting in front of a computer, just refreshing Eater. Finally, I refreshed, and there was a list of restaurants with the stars, and I briefly checked it, and I didn’t see my name. So I was like, “Fuck, this is over.”
My chef, Chris Cipollone, who was doing the same thing, came over and hugged me. We cried because we actually did get our Michelin star. That was an emotional roller coaster, and from there, I paid off every dollar of that $120,000 personal debt. Business went freaking bonkers. It went from shit to gold.
But I always wanted to open up a Korean restaurant. I was born and raised in Korea, even though I’m also a naturalized American. I took a sworn oath to become an American. When I would go back to Korea, people didn’t necessarily see Korea when they saw me because I was too Americanized. And when I came to America, obviously I’m Asian, so they didn’t necessarily see America in me. I think I had an identity crisis until I became a real adult.
Now that we had our Michelin star, we got street cred, I was ready to open up a Korean restaurant. I love Korean barbecue restaurants because my father would take me to fine-dining restaurants, but growing up, I didn’t necessarily enjoy fine dining very much because I wanted to be a loud kid. Whenever my father would occasionally take me to Korean barbecue restaurants—because that’s where the best beef was—I loved it.
I started looking for a location for the new restaurant, which took me about three and a half years. It was very difficult to raise investments because it’s a very expensive build-out, and yet Korean barbecue is supposed to be casual and innately accessible. When I said I’m going to make a refined version and call it a Korean steakhouse, people were like, “Dude, why would you do that? You’re taking away the most important thing in Korean barbecue.” So it was actually very difficult to raise capital. But eventually, we opened our doors in summer 2017, and from day one, I am so grateful that we were doing gangbusters.
I still remember after eating at my restaurant three or four times, my dad said something along the lines of, “Simon, it’s not about pleasing me. Coming to your restaurant and looking at how many people are pleased, that supersedes any approval or disapproval that I can give as an individual. So congratulations, and moving forward, you should trust your instincts.” I think that was equally if not more rewarding than receiving a Michelin star. That was the moment where I really did feel I had accomplished the American dream.