Interview: Michelin-Starred Korean Steakhouse Cote’s Restaurateur Simon Kim

As the lauded NYC destination welcomes guests again, its Miami sibling opens for the first time

In NYC‘s Flatiron District, restaurateur Simon Kim’s acclaimed Korean steakhouse concept, COTE, suffuses a convivial atmosphere with fine dining standards. COTE celebrates ingredients of the utmost quality and embraces the joy of sharing a table with loved ones. Through a show-stopping signature meat selection, along with a 1,200+ label wine list and seasonal cocktails from beverage director Victoria James, Kim’s program with executive chef David Shim earned a Michelin star in 2018 and a James Beard Award nomination, too. Though the pandemic shattered the restaurant scene in the city, COTE launched a delivery service, a to-go cocktail and wine shop and a butcher shop. With a $500,000 DOAS air-filtration system, Kim’s opened a second location, as well: COTE Miami.

To appreciate COTE’s acclaim requires understanding the experience the restaurant provides. “It came from a childhood memory,” Kim tells us. “I was born and raised in Korea. I spent the first 13 years of my life in Seoul before coming to New York. During those 13 years, my father would take me to fine-dining restaurants. That was his jam. But growing up I didn’t enjoy them as much as he did. It was stiff. It was pretentious. You had to behave a certain way.”

Once in a while, Kim’s father would take him to Korean BBQ restaurants. “Honestly, those were our best times. My father was an introvert, but Korean BBQ had this fun, fiery interactiveness. I have such fond memories of us together.” When Kim moved to Long Island, he began to learn about the culture of the American steakhouse. “We have a Peter Luger there,” he says. “It’s that old-school steakhouse experience. It’s so exciting.” Life would take him to Las Vegas and then back to NYC where Kim worked for the likes of Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Thomas Keller and learned of the refinement behind fine dining.

“When it was time for me to open my own restaurant, it made sense,” he says. “This is who I am. I am from Korea but I am American. I bring the best of Korean BBQ, which is fun and fire and excitement, and I blend it together with America’s best steakhouses, like Peter Luger, with the best of American hospitality, at the Michelin-star level. That’s what defines COTE; that’s what defines me.”

COTE’s Michelin star gave Kim global recognition. “If you are a disciple of the fine dining culture,” he says, “the Michelin star is a way of life. It’s your legitimacy from your peers, not just from your customers. It’s a true honor, and as far as business is concerned, a star can definitely make or break a restaurant.”

That 2018 award kept COTE atop everyone’s list. “2019 was our most successful year,” he says. “It was our third year open and that’s not always the case. Sometimes you start hot and fizzle out, but we were packed day in and day out.” When March 2020 struck, Kim was employing 120 people. “It was clear what I needed to do: keep as many people on this ship as possible and take the ship to land.” This meant pivoting quickly.

“We didn’t take a break. We came back in and thought about how we would package items and roll them out,” he says. As they were sitting on a well-stocked dry aging room, they began to sell packages of beef. It became so successful that gourmet delivery service Goldbelly contacted them to develop the Butcher’s Feast for four, which currently ships to every state. For walk-ups and online orders, COTE brought their liquor game to the next level too. They developed a questionnaire for custom cocktails and “based on the answer, my principal bartender makes a cocktail and then makes a video of what goes in and why and sends it to you along with the drink.”

Over the summer of 2020, COTE began to develop lush outside dining—now, in the frigid winter temperatures, they offer five cabanas with heaters, dedicated ventilation systems and more. To maintain the Korean BBQ experience, they found portable butane grilles for each outdoor tabletop. As Kim says, “it was important that all the meat that you cook is fresh off the flame.”

As for the second location, which occupies a whopping 5,892 square feet in the Design District, Kim says that “Miami as a food destination is entering its golden age. I fell in love with Miami because the restaurant scene is booming and the diversity within it is really big. Before, people looked to Miami for South Beach but now everyone understands that it’s got a genuine culture. When I saw this, I knew I wanted to be a part of it—this movement, in a city that celebrates culture and diversity.”

It’s not just a copy and paste—though the mission is the same. “My aim for COTE was to be the most fun one-star Michelin restaurant in NYC,” he says. “People have a great time because we provide the highest quality ingredients and no pretentiousness. That’s the reason I thought Miami would be perfect. I don’t want it to be too serious, but I do want there to be a sense of excellence.”

“There are many culinary ingredients local to the region—lots of seafood, produce and tropical fruits,” he continues. “We want to incorporate as much of that into the infrastructure we already have. Also, beef-wise, Latin and South American culture is so important to Miami. We are going to incorporate many elements, including Picanha, which is a rump steak very popular in Brazil.”

In many ways, it will be an even more international iteration of an already international restaurant. “Any time we go to a destination, it is very important that we do not just bring something from New York and hope that it works. We’ve come here to celebrate this locality, but we bring our consistency.”

Kim says that COVID-19 taught everyone in the food industry a lesson. “We as restaurateurs took a moment to see what we can do better,” he says. “In Miami, our tables are equipped with smokeless grills that take all of the smoke, through air exhausts, out to the roof. These are strategically located at the center of the table, between customers. But to double down on precautions, we invested in a half-million-dollar air system, DOAS, that constantly brings in outside air, with high efficiency.” The system treats, filters and cools the outside air that it brings into the restaurant.

Kim says that the Miami destination will further emphasize a driving ethos behind their menu: the culture of beef and leaf. “We serve our meat with fresh vegetables and pickled vegetables and probiotic-rich kimchi,” he says, eschewing traditional steak accoutrements. It’s refreshing, which isn’t a word that’s often used in conjunction with steak. But then again, only the beef at COTE is like a traditional steakhouse—everything else is much more fun.

Images courtesy of Cote