Even up to the day he died in September 2015, Kerry Simon continued to work on restaurants in his empire that spanned from Palm Spring to Chicago. Dubbed the Rock ‘n’ Roll Chef, Simon brought a legacy of fun restaurants to Las Vegas that made diners feel as if he was bringing them into his own home, however decadent and over-the-top that experience might be.
Simon died after complications related to a severe and rare form of Parkinson’s disease called MSA, multiple system atrophy, that in its late stages, confined him to a wheelchair. His legacy lives on at Carson Kitchen, one of his final projects that opened in Fremont East in 2014.
He left his company in the hands of his business partner and restaurateur Cory Harwell, and his brother Scott Simon returned to Las Vegas in 2017 to helm the kitchen.
“I know that this was his favorite restaurant of all the ones he did, and that says a lot because he did some great restaurants,” Harwell says. “It’s more than just the food. I think he really loved the vibe of this restaurant and I think he would be tremendously proud of where we are now approaching our fifth anniversary. The fact that his brother is at the helm of the kitchen makes me smile because I know that it would make him smile, I’m sure.”
Harwell met Kerry Simon after he left New York-New York to open his own restaurant, Cana Tapas Kitchen & Bar, at Town Square, and Simon became a huge fan of the place, ordering the killer shrimp dish all the time. The two became friends, then business partners when Harwell took over operations at Simon Restaurant & Lounge at Palms Place in 2012. The two became partners in Simon Hospitality Group in 2013, and opened Chuck’s: A Kerry Simon Kitchen at the Hard Rock Hotel in Chicago, Simon Mansion at the Hard Rock Hotel in Punta Cana, and of course, Carson Kitchen.
Scott Simon spent four years in Chicago as the chef at Chuck’s: A Kerry Simon Kitchen at Hard Rock Hotel, outfitted with a James Bond Goldfinger theme. Scott followed in his brother’s footsteps, working at Kerry’s Blue Star, the restaurant at Miami’s Raleigh Hotel, where Kerry Simon was part owner and executive chef. He continued to work for his brother in South Beach and later as a sous chef in Arizona for a fitness facility. They worked together at Simon Kitchen & Bar at the Hard Rock Hotel, Cathouse at the Luxor, and Simon Restaurant & Lounge at Palms Place. He also consulted on other projects with Kerry such as Simon Kitchen + Bar in Palm Springs and Simon Mansion in Punta Cana.
When Kerry and Harwell started collaborating on Carson Kitchen, Simon’s loft-style house served as the inspiration. “Kerry used to love having people over to his house and whether he was cooking or whether other people were cooking. Just the idea of those dinner parties and what that experience was like, being in a celebrity chef’s home in their loft, inspired the restaurant,” Harwell says. “Then the question came question, ‘How do we translate this into a restaurant?’”
Diners at Carson Kitchen can sit at a bar in front of the open kitchen and drop money into a swear jar while they watch their diners being cooked.
“It’s just having that organic feel of everybody just kind of hanging out,” Scott Simon says. “This restaurant — out of all of them that I’ve seen — embraces that better.”
After coming up with a design that included 14-foot doors from Simon’s Hard Rock restaurant that eventually moved into his Palms restaurant and became a communal table at Carson Kitchen, Harwell focused on the food. The approach to the menu has two prongs: reintroducing diners to something they’re already familiar with, such as shepherd’s pie, but instead broke it down into made a gnocchi mashed potatoes dubbed shepherd’s 3.14, and exposing diners to new ingredients they might not be familiar with. Harwell calls those “typically much more fine dining ingredients, such as caviar, foie gras, different proteins, rabbit, and oxtail. …That’s where this type of atmosphere enabled us to introduce you to those ingredients by using familiar vehicles to sell them to you. So how do we get you to try foie gras? We blended it up into a sauce on the meatballs. How do we get you to try caviar? We put it on top of deviled eggs. We tried to trick you into expanding your palate a little bit and to really take ingredients that are so wonderful, but typically very intimidating and very costly for most consumers.”
The menu also includes rock stars from Kerry Simon’s past, such as wok-fired edamame and some form of cauliflower, both dishes that Simon crafted long before they became trendy.
“We always think of Kerry and what he’s done in the past,” Scott Simon says. “A lot of that has been with me because I’ve been with him since the early ’90s, so I always try to do a little bit of a sprinkle of his past cooking.”
Those regulars on the menu include bacon jam, chicken skins, and some riff on mac and cheese.
As Harwell says, Downtown Las Vegas, and particularly Fremont East had some good things happening already when Carson Kitchen came along. Tony Hsieh and his Downtown Project started buying properties and giving businesses a chance to open. Dan Kauffman already had Le Thai on Fremont Street, and Michael Cornthwaite had long been running Downtown Cocktail Room. “I think us coming here finally brought a destination,” Harwell says. “We were the first ones to really make people leave Summerlin, leave Henderson, leave other areas of the valley to specifically come down here and it’s a great feather in our cap.”
A remodel in 2018 moved the bar to one side of the restaurant and opened up more space after taking over space from a former tattoo shop. A rooftop patio brought another seating option with its views of Downtown.
“Our goal has always been to build a brand and really and truly celebrate the legacy of Kerry,” Harwell says. “What better way than to continue this restaurant? Listen, at the end of the day, I think what we do, our approach to food, our style of service, the energy and vibe in the room really works in many other cities. We’ve gone from a 90 percent local restaurant when we first opened to about a 65 percent tourist-driven restaurant.”
Through June 16, Carson Kitchen serves a greatest hits menu that includes peach upside down cake, green eggs and ham flatbread, wild mushroom with carmelized onion, wok-charred edamame, broccoli crunch, watermelon salad, the FGT stack, Alabama white barbecue chicken thighs, a wild boar sloppy Joe, blackened catfish with spring pea slaw, and jala-pesto pork.
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