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Simon Kim’s hungry eyes for food were opened early on. While he was growing up in Korea and New York, his parents took him to fine dining restaurants, yet it wasn’t until he interacted with steakhouse tables with firepits that he understood the electric buzz of the culinary world. After esteemed positions at restaurants in the U.S., he launched his own firm, Gracious Hospitality, and in 2017 he opened his first restaurant, COTE. Soon after, it was recognized with a Michelin star and several awards from the James Beard Foundation.
In 2020, he opened a second location in the Miami Design District. Focused on high-quality beef, seafood, vegetables, and beverages, the restaurant elevates Korean barbecue to an approachable level of luxury meant for visitors of all ages and interests. Whitewall spoke with Kim to hear how he’s marrying fine dining and interactive experiences with COTE, and where other locations may open next.
WHITEWALL: Where did your love for food begin?
SIMON KIM: It happened very early on, my eye opening to hospitality. I was born and raised in Korea, and my father was raised in Korea in the fifties. There was a Korean War, so it was a war-torn country. There weren’t any spoiled children because everyone was hustling to build back the country, but my father was the first generation of spoiled children. Instead of him taking us to play catch or go hiking, he’d take us to fine dining restaurants. And my mom became an amazing chef, dealing with a very critical husband, my father, who always critiqued her and the freshness of the ingredients.
My father never asked me, “How was school?” We talked about the crispiness of the tempura. I always saw him as a kind of a Michelin star inspector. So, at a very early age, I realized the power of food.
WW: What were your early jobs like?
SK: When I was 13, I migrated to New York not knowing any English, and I wanted to study hotels. In the beginning, I wanted to be in hospitality, hotel management. I went to school in UNLV, Las Vegas, and as a hotel major, I started working at MGM Grand Hotel and Casino as a front desk agent. When I became a manager there, the vice president of food and beverage asked me to run a Japanese fine dining restaurant there. That’s where it all clicked.
WW: When you opened COTE, what did you want that space to evoke?
SK: I went back to my early days when my father took us fine dining. It was not that exciting. The food was excellent and the refinement was appreciated, but once in a while he’d take us to Korean barbecue restaurants, which were technically Korean steakhouses. They had the best beef. There was a fire on the table. People were a little more rambunctious. I loved that concept where people can be. I could be a child there—play with the grill, be a little loud. It didn’t have to be a white tablecloth thing.
When I got to New York, I worked for Jean-Georges for three years, and then I worked for Thomas Keller for a year, and I worked for Be Our Guest in Times Square. So I worked for high-end restaurants that are much more about refinement. When I was conceptualizing my concept, I wondered what would make it so unique that only I could do. I thought about making something that’s casual and rambunctious, which was Korean barbecue, very popular in America, but it lacked that sophistication and refinement, which was what I was used to.
The concept came about as who I am as a person. I wanted to marry the two by taking something that’s casual and primal, and add that touch of European fine dining with fabulous wine lists and a cocktail program, hospitality, ambience, decor, you name it. I wanted to put that layer of sophistication and refinement onto something that’s fun and interactive and have a real crack at the best of both worlds. That’s what COTE is.
WW: How does this space reflect your New York City flagship while taking cues from the surrounding scene of Miami?
SK: I only open restaurants where I want to live, because the last thing I want to do is dread going to the restaurant because I hate the city itself. That was the fundamental reason why I chose Miami, because I fell in love with it. We took everything with us to Miami, so you’re not going to have any confusion about whether this is COTE or not. Wooden dowels that are lit, dark green walls, our oval bar. That’s our signature. When I opened the New York flagship, I was underfunded, there was no proof of concept, so the space was already a second-generation restaurant. In Miami, this is a first-generation restaurant. The process took over a year and a half.
WW: Will there ever be a third COTE?
SK: We’re still focused on making Miami the most excellent version of itself. That being said, we want to continuously expand the concept. I’ve outlined a few other cities that I’d personally like to live or spend time in, and that I think would be a great fit for COTE. We’re exploring locations on the West Coast, and maybe across the pond somewhere.