Born in Seoul, American Korean restaurateur Simon Kim grew up visiting fine restaurants. “Instead of going hiking or playing ball, my father, who had polio and was an introvert, took us dining,” he says. This early exposure to the pleasures of gastronomy inspired Kim to pursue a career that has garnered multiple Michelin stars and accolades for his work in hospitality and philanthropy. His acclaimed Korean steak house, Cote—with locations in New York’s Flatiron District and Miami’s Design District—is a consistent draw for business leaders and celebrities who crave the restaurants’ unique mix of Korean barbecue and inventive takes on American side dishes.
In 1995, when Kim was 13, the family moved to Long Island to seek a better education for him and his siblings. He didn’t know how to speak English, and as he navigated school, his mother decided to attend a Manhattan French culinary school before opening a restaurant, Kori, in TriBeCa. As a teenager, Kim worked there, progressing from busboy to waiter to bartender, but he wasn’t sure about the profession and wanted to learn more. A detour into finance at Baruch College convinced him to transfer to the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, where he worked toward a BS in hospitality administration in 2008. A front-desk position at the MGM Grand taught Kim the value of guest hospitality and greeting everyone by name. His dedication drew the attention of the VP of fine dining for MGM, who offered Kim the opportunity to run the Japanese restaurant Shibuya, at the time a magnet for moguls and high rollers. “What was I supposed to say? Hell, yes!” During his three years there, “I felt like fish in water. For me it was a celebration of guests, and I felt I was exceptionally good at it.”
In 2013, at age 31, he set out on his own, opening Piora (“blossom” in Korean) in New York’s West Village with chef partner Chris Cipollone. Featuring New American cuisine with Italian and Korean touches, the restaurant served dishes like candied squash blossoms with shards of dehydrated tomatoes and crumbles of sunchokes tasting like bacon bits, all dusted with a tangy powder made from Thousand Island dressing. At Piora Kim met most of the team he would take to Cote, such as wine director Victoria James, who at 21 became the youngest certified sommelier in America. Within two years the restaurant had earned its first Michelin star, maintaining the ranking for two additional years until Cipollone left for the West Coast, two weeks after Kim opened Cote in 2017.
This was the fulfillment of his lifelong dream to open a game-changing Korean restaurant. The curation of the ingredients was meticulous, with a simple and often humorous creativity as seen in dishes such as “steak and eggs,” which combines hand-cut filet mignon tartare with caviar and milk toast. Under Kim’s leadership, Cote earned numerous accolades, including a Michelin star within six months of opening, the first of four consecutive tributes. Crain’s New York named Kim one of their “40 Under 40” business leaders in 2019, and last year, the National Restaurant Association, which represents one million outlets and a workforce of 15 million employees, elected Kim to serve on their board.
He also founded Taste of Asia, an event celebrating the city’s AAPI communities. Featuring a selection of 40 restaurants serving Asian-inspired bites in Madison Square Park, the night honored the diversity of AAPI culture and cuisine “I bet on Miami. I was inspired by the city’s unique vibe and knew that it was on the cusp of a golden age.” with multicultural chefs and a host committee that included Daniel Humm, Eric Rip-ert, Marcus Samuelsson and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. The event, which was attended by more than 700 people, raised almost $1.2 million for the food-rescue organization City Harvest, Apex for Youth and the Madison Square Park Conservancy.
In 2021, Kim opened Cote in Miami. “Despite all of the obstacles presented by Covid, I bet on Miami,” he says. “I was inspired by the city’s unique vibe and knew that it was on the cusp of a golden age. I saw its culture and development—the booming arts scene, the growing dining landscape—and thought Cote needed to be part of this rise. Our celebration of Korean heritage would allow us to add our own touch to the community.” In June, the restaurant was awarded a Michelin star and the Florida Sommelier Award in the inaugural Florida Michelin Guide. “To be recognized in a city that is now so ripe with great dining options is a remarkable moment for us.” The distinction was secured by the addition of new dishes specifically created for Miami, like the Cote ceviche, a perfectly balanced mix of madai (sea bream), cobia, kampachi and trout roe tossed with paper-thin pickled fennel in a salty and spicy chojang vinaigrette, which cures the raw fish with ingredients used in traditional Korean kitchens.
Also in June, Kim was named one of Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneurs of the Year, “who imagine what’s possible and then achieve it.” When asked his purpose in life, he pauses before answering. “Number one is my family, as a father of two and as a son to my mother and father, all of which contributes to becoming a great member of society. Number two: my mission to bring more people together with food as nourishment and entertainment. Lastly, I owe it to the earth to leave it a better place.”