Interview with Executive Chef Scott Simon of Chuck’s: A Kerry Simon Kitchen, Chicago

chucks_execchefscottsimon_-copyright2012-2014

During my recent visit to Chuck’s: A Kerry Simon Kitchen, I had a chance to interview Executive Chef Scott Simon about his personal style, the culinary scene in Chicago, and how he got started in the culinary field; here is what he had to say.

Describe your cooking style in 3 words?
Familiar. Approachable. Fun.

Who are your biggest culinary influences?
Chef Chris Vaughn from the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas and of course my brother Kerry are two big influences in my career. No words can emphasize my gratitude to the both of them.

Is there a particular process you like to follow while creating new recipes?
Kerry has a library in his home full of cookbooks. When we brainstorm new recipes, we head in there, communicate and feed ideas off of one another.

Where did the inspiration for the new spring menu come from?
Sitting in the backyard, seeing vibrant colors, making a strawberry salad with fresh seasonal ingredients at a bbq party, it all intertwines into family.

Both you and Kerry Simon are well-­known Chefs. How did you both get into the culinary field?
Well, I’ll start with him; we have a 15 year gap between us. He’s the oldest and I’m the youngest out of four. He began cooking at Little Caesars in Glenview at the age of 15 alongside comedian Bill Murray. In the late 1970’s, he went on to Dave’s Italian Kitchen in Evanston. To this day, Dave is still in the back of his kitchen making pizzas which is pretty crazy. That’s where Kerry first became interested in cooking. Then his career blossomed while he was working at the Edwardian Room at the Trump Plaza as the youngest, chef they had up to that point. He was there for three years before heading to Miami where he opened up a couple of restaurants.

I headed down to Miami in 1992, just out of high school, when I was only 18 years old to work alongside my brother Kerry, who was part owner and Executive Chef of Blue Star restaurant at the Raleigh Hotel. I started at the bottom as dishwasher and worked my way up. I washed dishes for several months, probably a year before I even saw the line. Kerry told me, you’re going to learn the industry so that when you’re older, and you see a guy working as a dishwasher, you’ll know that he’s more than just that, he’s a part of the team. So, as I got older I developed a respect and appreciation of the industry, from the bottom up. From working as a busser to waiting tables to really running the whole thing, that was Kerry’s doing, and it started out in South Beach. It was a great time for an 18 year old kid to be in this beautiful area, with a brother who everyone knew.

It wasn’t until a year after I’d started working at his restaurant that I started to work on the line. My brother was my mentor and taught me everything I needed to know from knife skills and time management to the high pressures of business. I have a respect and overview of the whole business of running a restaurant because I’ve done it all.

What are the top three dishes at Chuck’s that are not be missed?
Well, definitely the Iron Chef Burger from Kerry’s win on Iron Chef versus Cat Cora. A definite signature dish. Then, I’d say, the Scottish Salmon with mint, and summer vegetable quinoa. It’s a light and colorful dish. Lastly, I like to get down on Waffle Fry Nachos while I’m watching the game. Here, if you come in for a game you can sit and enjoy the waffle fry nachos or you can sit in the dining room and enjoy a good steak or a nice piece of salmon. There’s a little something for everyone.

What are you least and favorite ingredients to work with?
I don’t really like rosemary, it’s way overpowering. I can’t really think of a favorite ingredient but I like to work with foods people know and love, elevating them with a fresh, modern approach.

Briefly describe your typical day?
I’m up early with my two year old daughter Sofie first thing in the morning. I head into work around 10am and sit down with our Chef de Cuisine Scott to see what needs to get done. We will have a team briefing before the day starts and from there, I’ll begin to prep for lunch service where I’ll work as the expeditor at the front of the line. After lunch I move to the office, check emails and occasionally catch meetings in between other tasks. Later that day I will move into large prep projects such as butchering steaks and fish before our dinner service. Around 9pm I will try to figure out a way to slip out of work and head home (he says laughing), but every day is different.

After working a week of long hours, what do you like to cook at home?
Well, I do love to cook at home, but I bet my girlfriend wishes I would cook more often! With warmer weather we do a lot of grilling. Even if it’s only for one or two small pieces of protein, I’ll still fire up the grill. I always use charcoal, to maintain the purest in flavors when grilling.

Besides Chuck’s where are your favorite places to eat in Chicago?
That’s a good question. I think that I need to get out more. I grew up here but I’ve been in Vegas for the past 12 years. I need to get out more on the scene. I like Chop Shop (owned by my childhood friend Mario Minelli from Glenview) which is a great place I like to go to unwind and have a drink. They have a great charcuterie selection! I also enjoy Sable a lot. Their bacon relish is amazing! Lastly, Pequod’s pizza is a must.

What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry right now?
You have a lot of specific fresh herbs being used in cocktails right now. Bacon continues to plow through, especially here in Chicago; I don’t think you can stop bacon. I don’t see bacon going anywhere anytime soon. Meat prices are so high right now, people are going after lower­cost off­cuts of meats, such as pork sirloin chops and beef shank cross cuts.

Being an Evanston native, what excites you most about the Chicago food scene?
Well, what excites me is that I get to rediscover Chicago. When I left I was only 18 and headed south to Miami before I could discover Chicago for myself. When you’re 18 you really don’t feel the same way about food as you do when you’re in your 40’s. So, at 40 years old, I get to go back out there and see what this city is about, not just in food but in general. They say we’ve just had the worst winter since 79, so I got a “welcome back to Chicago” in winter­style. I’ve been gone for 22 years so it was kinda nice waking up and scraping ice off of my windshield; I found a bit of pleasure in it. It’s great to be back to see people I haven’t seen in a very long time. Finally I got to go back to where I’m from and see the things that I’ve missed.

Do you have a guilty pleasure, a food you like to eat when no one is watching?
Smart white cheddar popcorn; you know, the good one in the black bag.

There are many home cooks out there like myself who are not beginners, but nowhere near professional in ability, so I’m wondering what advice you would give us to take our cooking to the next level?
Experiment, see what works. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

Don’t be scared to approach food, you just gotta go out there and experiment and see what works and what’s not working. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Go get a recipe out of David Chang’s book, or The French Laundry, or Donna Hay’s books, try something complicated and see where it gets you.

It was a true honor to meet Chef Scott Simon, and I very much enjoyed the interview. I would also like to add that this interview was the first time I’ve been interviewed back with my own questions! I was happy to answer all of my questions, but I am not yet ready to publish my answers…yet!

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