Watch Of The Week: Restaurateur Simon Kim’s Rolex Datejust Ref. 116233
The Cote proprietor owns a JLC and an AP, but he always returns to Rolex.
In Watch of the Week, we invite HODINKEE staffers and friends to explain why they love a certain piece. This week’s columnist is restaurateur Simon Kim.
I came to America from Korea at age 13, not knowing a word of English. When I was 16, my mother opened a restaurant in Tribeca and I became a bus boy. As a kid, I liked to wear Swatches, which introduced an element of fun that resonated with a young me. But my first real watch was an Omega Seamaster gifted to me by my father when I graduated from high school.
My father cared about watches, and still does. When I was growing up, he wore an all-gold Rolex. He inherited it from my grandfather. It seemed so opulent. It popped off his arm. Rolex became a brand I aspired to.
After college in Las Vegas, where I studied hospitality, I returned to New York and worked for some of the great chefs in the world, including Jean Georges and Thomas Keller. In 2013, I opened Piora, a fine-dining Italian restaurant. When we earned a Michelin star in our second year, it was a dream come true. But I always wanted to open a Korean restaurant. In 2017, I finally did it. The restaurant, Cote, truly represented who I am as a person. I’m from Korea, but I’m definitely American.
In Cote, I married Korean barbecue to the great tradition of the American steakhouse. Then came the opportunity to open a second location, in Miami. Doing this in the midst of the pandemic was so risky. The original Cote was facing collapse, and now we were opening a new place?
I had the option to withdraw from the deal because of the pandemic, a force majure clause in legal parlance. But I believed that, just as the Roaring Twenties followed the Spanish Flu, there would be an influx of demand for restaurants as everyone started to get vaccinated. My investors also believed this, and we pushed forward on Miami.
It was a frightening time, but I knew that I had a capable team – and that I needed to continue their dignified living, as opposed to furloughing them and closing. The desire was simple: To keep as many employees on-board as possible, at full salary.
I pivoted the New York location to delivery and partnered with Goldbelly. When we were allowed to open for outdoor dining, we unboarded our windows and used the material to fashion tables. We started to stay afloat and I was able to keep every one of my managers and chefs on at full salary through the entire time. And when we opened Miami in February of this year, I couldn’t have dreamed of a more successful restaurant opening.
My father’s a very stoic person who doesn’t often give out compliments. But this time he said “congratulations” and gave me a watch, an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Chronograph, to mark this accomplishment. It’s a great watch. An amazing watch. I have a great Jaeger-LeCoulture Master Ultra Thin Date, as well. These watches are fascinating. But I always return to Rolex.
When I was growing up in the restaurant business, trying to advance in my career as an ambitious person, a more expensive watch seemed to equal a better watch. I thought of a watch as a symbol of status, a symbol of wealth. But as I matured – I’m 38 now and have two kids – my view on this has changed. I think a watch should represent who you are. Just as a suit shouldn’t wear a man, a watch shouldn’t wear him, either. The most special watch to me is the one that best represents the person I am. For me, it’s a Rolex Datejust.
The exchange of watches as gifts is a tradition of Korean weddings. My wife and I exchanged Datejusts, which to me exude elegance and grace. I wanted this exact model because of its white dial with simple indexes, which I think goes well with a white shirt. Wearing a white shirt is important to restaurant folks. It shows you’re professional and clean, and that you’ve readied yourself every day to host your customers. Chefs wear white, too.
That said, if a toilet breaks, I’m also the first person who needs to just get down and fix it. So the more delicate timepieces are not the ones for me.
My watch also represents punctuality. It takes a village to run a restaurant. I need to have an advertising team, marketing, production, a publicist. There are so many moving pieces that must coordinate and cooperate with precision. Without a respect for time, all of those moving pieces can’t come together.
Today, my dream is to build a culinary brand that represents the same things Rolex stands for. Rolex, to me, is similar to Mercedes in that it’s obviously very high end, but it’s also something one can work toward. An attainable goal. And it’s the highest quality, which I think is most important. I want people to come to Cote without thinking they’ll have to spend a month’s rent on dinner. But if they want to come and spend a month of rent, they can. I have a cellar with $10,000 bottles of wine.
Rolex, in a way, is like that. If you want to go big, you can go big. But if you want a super-functional, super-durable, super-well-made watch, Rolex of course has that, too.
My Datejust has been with me as I’ve made some of the biggest business decisions of my life. You might laugh, but if I’d been a soldier in the making, clasping the Datejust onto my wrist for the first time was akin to putting on my suit of armor. I vividly remember the feeling of how the Jubilee bracelet wrapped around my wrist. I felt empowered, ready to go out there and compete.
All photos, Tiffany Wade.