Front-line medical workers and grocery store check-out people have borne the greatest brunt of the COVID-19 crisis. Restaurateur have always been a little more heart than head. After all, running a restaurant is an uphill climb in good times, what with slim margins, high rents, expensive moving parts, lots of employees, and all the other moving parts. If there’s one person with the stick-to-itiveness to see this through it, it’s Simon Kim. The 38-year-old is used to bustling around Cote, a modern Korean barbecue restaurant in New York City. Kim navigates the bustling restaurant and standing-room-only bar like a rush hour commuter at Grand Central Station. There he is, sidling up to a table and picking up the meat tongs to flip thinly sliced beef on the tabletop grill, spying an empty wine bottle that needs replacing or a martini glass ready for another round. Minus the martini, Cote is a healthy way to eat. The meats are paced out and interspersed with vegetables and fermented foods, like probiotic-rich kimchi, which are hallmarks of Korean fare. Compare that against American steakhouses, where sitting down to a 24-ounce steak, plus creamed spinach, baked potato, and an iceberg lettuce salad is the norm.
Kim’s gotten creative and Cote is surviving, while also helping the community. And after sitting down for a Q&A with Men’s Journal, we learned it’s because the whole thing is built on a solid foundation.
For those of us who didn’t grow up with Korean barbecue, what is it like?
Korean barbecue is all about fun and fire. They’re much more convivial than fine-dining establishments; there’s fire at your table and people become livelier. People drink and get rowdy. It’s unpretentious and full of celebration—full of life.
Why did you choose to fashion Cote in that style?
My mantra has always been providing quality paired alongside a sense of excellence. I’ve had the great fortune of working for some of the most respected chefs of the world. I started out studying Hotel Management at University of Nevada-Las Vegas and, from there, managed within a few of the most notable hospitality groups: MGM Grand, BR Guest, Thomas Keller Restaurant Group & Jean-Georges Restaurants. I grew to love the sophistication and excellence, but I wanted to marry the fire along with it. I like to have fun. Korean barbecue is just that—it’s the best of both worlds. My heritage is as well. I am Korean, but I am also American. Growing up, I had an identity crisis, but later, after having worked for these great chefs and building up my career, I realized this blend is what makes me unique. Cote is a direct reflection of that—I married my two identities. It has roots in Korean barbecue, but I also wanted to incorporate the concept of an American chophouse, something masculine but also modern.
I think we first have to address the elephant in the room: your restaurant, Cote, is in what once was America’s COVID-19 epicenter. How are you getting by?
Like soldiers given marching orders, we switched into survival mode. We’d never done delivery. People said, don’t do that, it’s off-brand. As a Michelin star who obsesses over every detail of branding, we had to figure out how to elevate the notion of delivery. Practically overnight, we designed packaging and reconstructed the menu to be limited, but still excellent, nourishing and joyful. Our vendors reduced their prices, so we could then reduce our prices. We signed with Goldbelly, a nationwide delivery service. Suddenly we were sending steaks to Hawaii. As soon as the city gave the greenlight, we sold walk-up ice cream and cocktails. We figured out how to make (delicious) fried chicken. No stone went unturned. We did anything to keep the ship afloat. Anything to keep the wolves at bay.
Our workers were taking increasingly apocalyptic subways and risking their lives by coming to work. With so much suffering, we increased our charitable efforts to our community. No matter what, we are New Yorkers. When tragedy strikes, we don’t wait for the government, we step up, we protect our own. For us, that meant giving 3 percent of sales (of $25,000) to City Harvest who, in turn, feed our most vulnerable neighbors. Linking up with Frontline Foods, we gave $10,000 and 1,000 meals so far, dropping them off at hospitals for healthcare workers. As a team, this was a real turning point for us emotionally. Never was it more obvious that we weren’t showing up for the dollars and the cents. Caring for people around us gave us a sense of purpose.
Then the protests started. Right away, we 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 Equal Justice Initiative. Feisty and still in the fight, we worked our 10 outdoor tables like our lives depended on it, and prepared for the Phase 3 reopening we were promised. At a huge financial burden, we did everything asked of us.
We are in a positive standing now and are really thinking ahead of the chaos. We shifted gears to to think ahead as opposed to thinking back on the events that had devastated the industry. We are taking one of the worst crises to happen to the F&B industry—the country and the world—as a great opportunity for us to refocus and restart.
Though, without government support, we can’t be the great booster to rebuilding the American Restaurant industry. The RESTAURANTS Act is sitting on the House of Representative floor. We need support and we need action now.
How do you cope with the stress of this moment? Are you a person who finds a forest to hike through, or a quiet corner to meditate in?
On top of operating a restaurant during a pandemic and opening another in Miami this winter, I have a beautiful 2.5-year-old daughter and year-and-a-half-old son. They keep me busy, but seeing them happy is a great stress reliever for me.
Being outdoors and connecting with nature is also important to me. I really believe humans are a positive charge and nature is a negative charge, relatively speaking of course. Nature is a source of energy and its energy revives me. I also like to go upstate to a friend’s place near the Adirondack Mountains and get lost in nature forest bathing. That’s where I truly unwind.
The silver lining of the pandemic is that Central Park has become a real, local park. There aren’t any tourists, so it became a tranquil and family-oriented place perfect for cycling or taking long walks. When I am not cycling or taking a family walk, I practice breathing and meditation exercises. Just 15 minutes a day to only focus on my breathing is all that I need to ensure I maintain a sustainably healthy lifestyle.
I guess no one gets into restaurants thinking it’ll be relaxing anyway. How did you find your way into them?
When I moved to Long Island, NY, when I was 13 in 1995. I didn’t speak a word of English, and was often picked on and bullied in school. Restaurants were my form of an escape. I used to save up my allowance for months as a high schooler just so I could take my friends to Peter Luger [steakhouse in Brooklyn]. That’s how much I loved steak and the American steakhouse concept.
Meanwhile, my parents invested in a restaurant. They were supposed to be financial investors, but my mother became the chef and ran the restaurant. I worked as a busboy there.
My father is a huge gastronome and that was his main interest. When I was growing up, instead of asking me about my day or school, we spoke about food. His passion and criticism also helped my mom become the greatest chef I know. I like to think of him as a Michelin inspector and her the starred chef.
You carried their sensibilities to Cote. Can you talk about the ingredients you use?
We have a really simple approach. We’re a steakhouse, so we want to procure the best beef money can buy. If it’s exciting beef, we have it here. We source USDA prime beef from many places, including the Midwest. USDA Prime is special because it’s only the top 5 percent selection of beef. But we also have American wagyu, which is a cross between Japanese wagyu and black angus, that comes from a farm based in Omaha, NE, called Imperial Wagyu. We also source Japanese A5 from the most specialized areas in Japan like Kagoshima and Miyazaki prefecture.
We have an in-house red light dry-aging room. There, we dry-age beef for 45 days, compared to 28 days (like most other places). While we talk about NYC being its own ecosystem, our dry-aging room is actually a micro-ecosystem of its own. This room allows for bacteria to grow and break down enzymes, resulting in this funky, flavorful meat. It’s definitely an experience.
Opening a restaurant in New York has so many obstacles—and now you’re facing an even steeper one? How have you gritted it out?
At Cote, we have a great team. I call them the ‘Dragon Slayers.’ Throughout the pandemic, I realized how crucial they were. I had always known their greatness, but the last six months has made it even more clear to me. I lean on all of them: the Directors, my assistant, my mentors and my family. Together, within these different support systems, they are a fusion of energy. This system is a battery that will never run out. When challenges come up, if you have a strong team, you’re more likely to successfully overcome any obstacles.