Tuesdays with Tastemakers – Rick Moonen
Chef Rick Moonen has devoted his career to being the country’s top culinary advocate for sustainable seafood.
A native New Yorker, Moonen graduated first in his class from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York in 1978. He apprenticed at L’Hostellerie Bressane in Hillsdale, New York where he built both his confidence and experience working side by side with Chef Jean Morel.
In February 2005, Chef Moonen opened his multi-level restaurant, RM Seafood, at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. The lower level of the restaurant offers “State of the Art Sustainable Seafood” and a world-class sushi and raw bar. The upper level offers a more elegant dining experience featuring globally inspired cuisine from Chef Moonen’s fun and whimsical tasting and á la carte menus.
When not behind the stove, Moonen can be found throughout the country educating about ocean conservation and the dangers of over fishing. As an industry leader, he has testified for environmental and sustainability policy issues in Washington, DC and New York. He is a founding member of the Seafood Choices Alliances, which named him “Seafood Champion” in 2006, as well as an active member of Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and Seaweb. In 2011, Monterey Bay Aquarium also honored Moonen as “Chef of the Year.” Second only to his passion for sustainability is his commitment to ending hunger, Moonen puts that commitment into action serving on the chef’s advisory board for the Las Vegas Three Square Food Bank.
Why did you become a chef?
I graduated, first in my class, from the Culinary Institute of America in 1978. My first Chef position was at Le Relaise on Madison Avenue and that was in 1984. That is when I consider myself a chef, a very new chef, but I was in charge.
If you weren’t a chef what would you be and why?
As a child, I always wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to have a significant impact on people’s lives from a very early age. Sort of a rescue fantasy. That was then. I would NOT want to be a doctor in this country for sure, not today. You are bound by way too much politics and pharmacies’ bull to be able to actually do a noble job. I have chosen wisely. Being a chef is the only life for me.
What is your greatest strength as a chef?
My greatest asset is my palate and my ability to interpret cuisines of the world. I am an excellent teacher and love doing just that. I was fortunate to have excellent mentors and am always excited to share my knowledge with others. Food is Life!
What is your biggest weakness as a chef?
The area that needs most improvement within me as a chef would be my overbearing restless nature. My manic passion is often taken as too strong for some. I scare people and that is not my intention. To know me is to love me. I have never hit or bit anyone. I just bark a lot when it comes to integrity of cuisine. I am fierce.
What’s the one mistake you made in the kitchen that you would never repeat?
When I took the job as chef at Le Relaise I was still in the mode of “nobody messes with my stuff” and that earned me the right to have an empty kitchen. Everyone quit on the spot. I since learned that a bit of encouragement and kind guidance is a necessary part of the recipe for success in the kitchen environment. Pretty much every hard lesson I learned in life came from a mistake that I made. At least I learned from them all. Well, most of them, anyway.
What is your proudest achievement?
Raising two beautiful sons in the midst of an insane schedule. I messed up a bunch there too but they will always remain as my most proud accomplishments. In the culinary realm it would have to be my performance on Season 2 of “Top Chef Masters.” I came in second. Not bad.
What was your scariest kitchen experience to date?
While acting as executive chef of The Water Club, during an extremely busy December evening, the electric panel next to the Garde Manger section of my main kitchen exploded and started arcing bolts of electricity across the kitchen. It was so loud and sudden that it made me poop my chef shorts. I cleared out my crew, ran to the back of the barge and threw the main breaker to stop the madness. It all went silent but we had to evacuate over 450 guests out of 5 separate dining areas into a cold rainy night while the NYCFD hacked the hell out of the walls to make sure there was no more hotspots. Holy hell of a night.
What is your favorite word or saying?
“Soigne.” It means everything. A close second is “balance.” It is what I use to create the perfect dish and how I live my life. The perfect balance of extremes that is. I don’t ever do anything half-assed.
What is your most prized possession?
The wallet that my older son gave me for Christmas three years ago. It is a TOD’S leather wallet and I have it with me 99% of the time. I don’t take it to bed.
What’s the oddest thing about you?
I enjoy playing the harmonica to the blues. I am not good but I am not bad either. I love the sound so much. I go spazz over it.
What song best sums you up?
What is your favorite memory?
Overcoming my biggest fear growing up.public speaking. Seriously, I would literally stay up all night sweating if I had to do a presentation in front of my class throughout high school. I went to the CIA and said to myself, “I can do this.” I volunteered to be the group leader from day one. Never looked back.
Which of the five senses is your strongest?
What is your biggest motivation?
To make people smile because of something that I did and to make a boatload of money (recent motivation).
What one food group would choose to be stranded with on a deserted island?
What is the difference between a good and great meal?
Small significant details in service and a well-seasoned plate that has a perfect balance of sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami.
Name three individuals you would like to have dinner with.
Dan Barber, Michael Pollen and Paul Greenberg.
Who is your kitchen hero or mentor?
Eugene a.k.a. “Boom Boom” Bernard. He taught me so much about food and the world that I will always be indebted to him. I loved that man. He was a chef instructor at the CIA who, when he was young worked at La Pyramid for chef Ferdinand Point. A direct connector to classic French cuisine. What an honor! And Jean Louis Palladina. Sheer inspiration and a natural genius in the woods and the kitchen. He brought it all together for me.
What is the one thing you want people to remember about your food?
That it has soul. An indescribable connection to respect, seasoning, flavor and texture.
Best comment made about your food? Was it by a loved one, guest or media?
Pele once told me that he wished that he played soccer as well as I cooked. That was in 1991 at The Water Club. I will never forget that.