Rick Moonen built a reputation in Manhattan as a tireless advocate for preserving North American seafood for posterity. Mandalay Bay lured the Queens native to Las Vegas, where he opened RM Seafood on Valentine’s Day, 2005, featuring a more casual concept on the ground floor, and a higher end dining experience upstairs. Moonen further bolstered his national profile by competing on Top Chef Masters Season 2, making it to the final episode. We first met in Las Vegas in 2007 and recently reconnected at the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival, where Moonen shared more culinary insights.
Would you rather compete on a show or judge a show?
Compete, no question.
Why? Because it’s more what I’m trained to do. It’s more brainless. You don’t have to think it through. You do it by instinct. When you’re judging, you’ve really got to think things through. You’ve got to be objective. And it just feels like there’s more pressure on you to be a judge than to be a competitor. I enjoy judging, don’t get me wrong, but you’ve really got to choose your words, where you can be yourself when you’re competing.
What do you remember about your very first night working in a professional restaurant kitchen?
Well, that would have to be 1979 at Le Cote Basque. I’d been overwhelmed by this environment that I completely fell in love with. All the moving parts is what gave me a sense of comfort. I have a lot of – I’m ADD – I have this need to have all these moving parts, so to be in that professional kitchen felt like – have you ever had the opportunity to walk into a stadium with the lights on, a full sized stadium? That sense of excitement that fills you, you can’t help it – that’s what it felt like the first time I was in a professional kitchen.
What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work in your kitchen?
Somebody who has an understanding of sustainability, which is my core value mission statement. Someone that wants to learn, feels connected with food, understands balance and simplicity. You know, I’m not looking for ego, I’m looking for someone that really from their heart loves what they do. You know, you ask a lot of questions. Sometimes it’s, “What’s your favorite music? What do you listen to? What book have you read lately? Where do you go on your day off to eat? What’s the best place you’ve ever eaten in town?” You find a lot out about people by asking those questions, because it’s not, “Stand up and make me an omelet.” It’s, “What do you do in your time off?” Because that tells you who you are. If you’re really passionate about what you do, in your time off, you’re still doing it.
What do you do in your time off?
I’m eating. I’m always working. For recreation, I like to cycle. I like hiking. I like getting outdoors. I live in northern Las Vegas. I like to get outside. There’s a great connection with the environment if you embrace it.
What was the last international trip you took, and how did that impact what you’re doing at your restaurant?
My last international trip was three months ago. I went on a cruise that was sponsored by a winery, Tobin James out of Paso Robles. It was a food and wine tour. The entire boat – the entire ship – they don’t like you calling it a boat – a boat is what you take when the ship is sinking. The entire ship, the crew, everybody signed up for it specifically because I was doing the food and they were providing the wine. It was a big party that started off in Rome and ended up in Athens.
You know what? I did get the opportunity to get off in certain ports of call, Greece being one of them. I love Greek food because it’s so simple and so delicious. I got off in Capri, walked to nowheresland and just sat down and ate simple, delicious food that’s made from food that’s ripened properly, so a tomato tastes like a tomato. Why? Because it was allowed to grow properly, which comes full circle. It’s why I’m here in Hawaii, celebrating indigenous cuisine, which can get diluted, which is not sustainable. If you want to sustain a tradition, if you want to sustain a culture, which is very much alive here regardless of the way that society is, it still gets diluted. So they’re taking the stance on regenerating and recultivating the cooking and cuisine and purpose of place. I support that 100%, which is why I’m here. That’s what I buy. It deepens every time I travel, every time I go to a small part of the world that’s gorgeous, you can taste the beauty of the environment in the food, if it’s done right. That’s what’s happening in Hawaii right now. It’s cool.
If you can only cook with one more protein, what would it be and how come?
One more protein? You know, that’s a great question, me being Mr. Sustainability of the ocean. That one protein is the fish you don’t even know about today. That’s the one protein I want you to have because what we need diversity. We eat a very small slice of what’s available in the ocean, because of the narrow acceptance level as a society. That next fish, that next protein, the one that there’s plenty of that will keep you from eating bluefin today – you can have bluefin tuna next year if you keep on finding diversity – there’s plenty out there. I don’t know what the answer is, but it’s the fish you don’t know about right now.
What’s the biggest challenge about owning a restaurant?
The biggest challenge of owning a restaurant is setting a level and maintaining that consistency day after day after day. If you set that level and say, “Guys, here we are. We’re in charge of people’s happiness, and while they’re here, we sell them food and beverage,” and that’s it, if it was that simple, it would be great, but it’s not. A very famous football coach, a professional, would start off his locker room pep talk every single game, he’d hold up a football and say, “Gentlemen, this is a football.” Meaning just stick to the basics, stop overthinking it. That’s the biggest challenge in a restaurant, to stop that kind of overthinking and really take care of people’s happiness and turn them on to great stuff while they’re there.
Who’s one person you’ve never cooked with before that you’d most like to cook with?
Alive or dead?
Alive, so it’s actually possible.
I would like to stand next to – let’s see – that’s a great question. I have to give it some thought, if I could get in the kitchen and work next to – that could probably be somebody in Spain, a Spanish chef, because I just think they’re doing some pretty exciting and innovative styles of cuisine. I’m not deep into molecular gastronomy, but I’d like to know more about it, so I know why it is I’m not into molecular gastronomy. That’s the truth. I’m intrigued by it. I’m not down on it. I was brought up in an era where we took the things out of the food that you couldn’t pronounce. That’s a good idea. If you can’t pronounce it, it’s probably something you shouldn’t be eating. That’s something molecular gastronomy is putting back into food, so it kind of confuses me a bit.
How would your restaurant be different be different if it was in North Dakota?
How would my restaurant be different in North Dakota? Wow, a seafood restaurant in North Dakota. There is a sustainable shrimp farm up there called Blue Oasis. It would probably be dependent upon that product. It would probably be a lot more narrow in depth, I would think. It would be a little simpler, that’s for sure.
Do you have plans to open an additional restaurant?
I certainly do. Right now I’m certainly interested in opening more than one RM Seafood. Right now I’m considering where we’re standing, Honolulu, to be honest with you. We’ll see what happens. No promises.