Frontline medical workers and grocery store cashiers have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis. Restaurateurs have always had a little more heart than head. After all, running a restaurant is a climb in good times, which has to do with low profit margins, high rents, expensive moving parts, lots of employees, and all those other moving parts. If there is one person who holds on to see this through, it is Simon Kim. The 38-year-old is used to frolic in Cote, a modern Korean grill restaurant in New York City. Kim navigates the busy restaurant and bar with standing room only like a rush hour commuter at Grand Central Station. There he is, sneaks up to a table and uses the meat tongs to turn thinly sliced beef on the table grill. He spots an empty wine bottle that needs to be replaced or a martini glass that is ready for another round. Aside from the martini, cote is a healthy way to eat. The meat has paced up and down and interspersed with vegetables and fermented foods like probiotic-rich kimchi, which are a hallmark of Korean cuisine. Compare that to American steakhouses, where a 24-ounce steak plus creamed spinach, baked potato, and an iceberg lettuce salad are the norm.
Kim got creative and Cote survived while helping the community. And after we sat down for a Q&A with Men’s Journal, we learned that the whole thing is built on a solid foundation.
How’s it going for those of us who didn’t grow up with Korean barbecuing?
Korean barbecuing is all about fun and fire. They are much more sociable than gourmet restaurants. There is fire at your table and people become more alive. People drink and get loud. It’s unpretentious and full of celebration – full of life.
Why did you choose to design Cote in this style?
My mantra has always been quality coupled with a sense of excellence. I have been very fortunate to work for some of the most respected chefs in the world. I started studying hotel management at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and from there I managed some of the most famous hotel groups: MGM Grand, BR Guest, Thomas Keller Restaurant Group and Jean-Georges Restaurants. I loved sophistication and excellence, but wanted to marry fire with. I like to have fun. Korean grilling is just that – it’s the best of both worlds. My inheritance is too. I’m Korean, but I’m also American. I had an identity crisis growing up, but later, after working for these great chefs and building my career, I realized that this mix makes me unique. Cote is a direct reflection of that – I married my two identities. It has roots in Korean barbecuing, but I also wanted to incorporate the concept of an American chophouse, something masculine but also modern.
I think we need to address the elephant in the room first: your restaurant, Cote, is located in America’s former COVID-19 epicenter. How are you doing?
Like soldiers given marching orders, we went into survival mode. We have never delivered. People said don’t do this, it’s off-brand. As a Michelin star obsessed with every detail of branding, we had to figure out how to improve the notion of delivery. Practically overnight, we designed packaging and redesigned the menu to be limited but still excellent, nutritious and cheerful. Our suppliers have lowered their prices so that we can lower our prices. We signed with Goldbelly, a nationwide delivery service. Suddenly we were sending steaks to Hawaii. As soon as the city gave the go-ahead, we sold ice cream and cocktails. We figured out how to make (delicious) fried chicken. No stone was left intact. We did everything to keep the ship afloat. Anything to keep the wolves in check.
Increasingly, our workers were taking apocalyptic subways and risking their lives by getting to work. With so much suffering, we have stepped up our community service efforts for our community. No matter what, we’re New Yorkers. When tragedy strikes, we don’t wait for the government, we strengthen ourselves, we protect our own. For us, that meant giving City Harvest 3 percent of sales (of $ 25,000), which in turn feed our most vulnerable neighbors. In connection with Frontline Foods, we have so far spent $ 10,000 and $ 1,000 on meals and given them to healthcare workers in hospitals. As a team, this was a real turning point for us emotionally. It has never been so obvious that we didn’t show up for the dollars and the cents. Caring for the people around us gave us meaning.
Then the protests began. We immediately boarded up our windows. In solidarity with Black Lives Matter, we donated money and food bowls to the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, Vocal-NY and the Equal Justice Initiative. Feet and still fighting, we worked at our 10 outdoor tables like our lives depended on it, preparing for the reopening of Phase 3 we were promised. With an enormous financial burden, we did everything that was asked of us.
We are now positive and really thinking ahead of the chaos. We switched gears to think ahead instead of thinking back to the events that devastated the industry. We’re taking one of the F&B industry’s worst crises – the country and the world – as a great opportunity to refocus and start over.
Without government support, however, we cannot be the great engine behind the rebuilding of the American restaurant industry. The RESTAURANTS law is in the House of Representatives. We need support and we need action now.
How do you deal with the stress of this moment? Are you a person who finds a forest to hike or a quiet corner to meditate?
In addition to running a restaurant during a pandemic and opening another in Miami this winter, I have a beautiful 2.5 year old daughter and a year and a half son. They keep me busy, but seeing them happy is a great stress reliever for me.
It is also important to me to be outside and to connect with nature. I really believe that humans are a positive charge and nature is a negative charge, relatively natural. Nature is a source of energy and its energy invigorates me. I also like to go up to a friend’s house near the Adirondack Mountains and lose myself in the natural forest pool. This is where I really relax.
The silver lining of the pandemic is that Central Park has become a real, local park. With no tourists around, it became a quiet and family-oriented place, perfect for cycling or long walks. When I’m not riding my bike or taking a family walk, I practice breathing and meditation exercises. Just 15 minutes a day just to focus on my breathing is all I need to maintain a sustainably healthy lifestyle.
I guess no one comes into restaurants thinking that it’s going to be relaxing anyway. How did you find your way into it?
When I moved to Long Island, NY in 1995, when I was 13, I didn’t speak a word of English and was picked up and bullied a lot at school. Restaurants were my escape route. As a high school student, I saved up my allowance for months just to bring my friends to Peter Luger [steakhouse in Brooklyn]. That’s how much I loved steak and the American steakhouse concept.
In the meantime my parents have invested in a restaurant. You should be financial investors, but my mother became the cook and ran the restaurant. I worked there as a busboy.
My father is a huge restaurateur and that was his main interest. When I was growing up we talked about food instead of wondering about my day or my school. His passion and criticism also helped my mom become the greatest cook I know. I like to see him as a Michelin inspector and her as a star chef.
They carried their sensitivity to Cote. Can you talk about the ingredients that you are using?
We have a really simple approach. We’re a steakhouse so we want to get the best beef that can be bought. If it’s exciting beef, we’ve got it here. We source USDA Prime Beef from many countries, including the Midwest. USDA Prime is special as it’s only the top 5 percent beef selection. We also have American Wagyu, a cross between Japanese Wagyu and Black Angus that comes from a farm in Omaha, NE called Imperial Wagyu. We also source Japanese A5 from the most specialized areas of Japan such as Kagoshima Prefecture and Miyazaki.
We have an in-house red light dry aging room. There we dry beef for 45 days compared to 28 days (as in most other places). While we’re talking about NYC being its own ecosystem, our dry aging space is actually its own micro-ecosystem. This room is where bacteria can grow and break down enzymes, resulting in this funky, aromatic meat. It is definitely an experience.
There are so many barriers to opening a restaurant in New York – and now you’re facing an even steeper one? How did you manage it?
At Cote we have a great team. I call them the “dragon slayers”. During the pandemic, I realized how important they were. I had always known their size, but the past six months have made it even clearer to me. I rely on everyone: the directors, my assistants, my mentors, and my family. Together they form a fusion of energy within these various support systems. This system is a battery that never runs out. When challenges arise and you have a strong team, the more likely you will be able to successfully overcome obstacles.
Subscribe to YouTube for access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more!