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July 21, 2019

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Kerry Simon was our first, and only, rock ’n’ roll chef

Simon Says Fight MSA Benefit

Denise Truscello / WireImage / DeniseTruscello.net

Kerry Simon and Bill Murray attend the Simon Says Fight MSA benefit at Keep Memory Alive event center Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014, in downtown Las Vegas.

Kerry Simon’s 60th Birthday

Chef Kerry Simon, with Alex Acuna at left, celebrates his 60th birthday at Simon on Wednesday, May 14, 2015, in Palms Place. Launch slideshow »

Simon Says Fight MSA Benefit

Kerry Simon, second from left, and Bill Murray, right attend the Simon Says Fight MSA benefit at Keep Memory Alive event center Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014, in downtown Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

Chef Kerry Simon In Physical Therapy

Physical therapist Jen Nash and Kerry Simon laugh while Simon works on a treadmill during a therapy session at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014. Launch slideshow »

A single moment seems to stand out in my memory of Kerry Simon. It was awhile back, maybe three years ago, and he was walking through the dining room at his restaurant Simon in Palms Place.

I was there with a friend who also knew Simon, and the great chef stopped at our table to say hello. It was loud at Simon’s place that night, and he leaned forward so that he could hear us talk. As Simon bent, he stopped and winced. I asked, “Are you OK?” and he said, “Yeah, just stiff from running.”

That was the first indication that something was not right, physically, with Kerry Simon. The times I saw him after that, he moved less freely, more stilted, and over time it became evident that he was suffering from more than stiffness from his daily 3-mile runs.

In December 2013, Simon announced that he was suffering from MSA — Multiple System Atrophy, a rare degenerative neurological illness whose symptoms are sometimes similar to Parkinson's disease. Despite the outpouring of support among his friends in Las Vegas, and his own extensive rehabilitation regimen at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, Simon’s condition never improved. His death early this morning at age 60 at Nathan Adelson Hospice marked the end of that two-year battle.

Simon will be forever remembered as the rock ’n’ roll chef, a title he didn’t attach to himself but was bestowed upon him by Rolling Stone magazine. He was not the first star chef in Las Vegas when he and partners Elizabeth Blau and Peter Morton opened Simon Kitchen & Bar at the Hard Rock Hotel, and others followed. But he was the first to bring a genuine rock ’n’ roll attitude to cuisine in Las Vegas.

Charismatic and good-looking, Simon would likely have been a Las Vegas celeb no matter what his chosen field. In 2004, he was named the city’s sexiest person by Las Vegas Weekly. He was well liked by many rock stars and a good measure of celebs across the entertainment landscape. He stood with his friends from Cheap Trick during a 2009 news conference at the Las Vegas Hilton’s Shimmer Cabaret as the band announced its “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” tribute at the Las Vegas Hilton. He had suggested that the band perform the show after seeing Cheap Trick at the Hollywood Bowl.

During the gala fundraiser to fight MSA in his honor in February 2014 at the Lou Ruvo Center, his old friend from Chicago, actor Bill Murray, hosted and repeatedly referred to Simon as “Barry” and “Jerry.” Murray lovingly toyed with Simon that night, “Working with you, making pizzas, in Chicago I said, ‘Is your name Simon? I remember working with a Simon, but I just thought your first name was Simon.’”

The night rocked on with Slash, Kip Winger, Alice Cooper, Todd Rundgren, Vince Neil, Matt Sorum and Lisa Loeb. The star chefs who turned out included Blau and her husband, chef Kim Canteenwalla, Daniel Boulud, Charlie Palmer, Rick Moonen, Michael Mina, Megan Romano and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Mayor Carolyn Goodman stopped in that night to proclaim Kerry Simon Day in Las Vegas. George Maloof spoke of his long friendship with the chef on a night that brought home the unmistakable popularity of the rock ’n’ roll chef.

Days earlier, far from the pomp of the gala celebration, Simon worked out with Cleveland Clinic physical therapist Jen Nash. Simon labored through the exercises, fighting to maintain his ability to walk unaided and capacity to speak. He nobly walked on a treadmill while buckled into a harness, keeping his mind working, too, as he recited the states beginning with the letter “A” and walking sideways, forward and backward across the machine.

His was an Olympian effort that day, and afterward Simon, his breathing heavy, said, “I don’t really feel comfortable with talking so much, but what I do feel comfortable with is bringing attention to MSA and finding a cure for MSA. And it’s not just MSA, but all brain diseases in general, because they are all similar.”

There was a last time to see Kerry Simon in public, and it was not in one of his kitchens or dining rooms. It was on a stage, Aug. 22 at the Joint in the Hard Rock Hotel. Cheap Trick was playing that night, with Simon seated almost with the band just to the musicians’ right.

Guitarist Rick Nielsen shouted, “We have the rock and roll chef here!” The band cut loose with “Dream Police” as the crowd roared for Kerry Simon, a rock star to the very end.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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