The rm seafood Toque Sounds Off About Disloyal Chefs, the Limits of Fine Dining, and Why He’d Like a Trojan Horse
Rick Moonen worked for a number of the best restaurants in New York City, including a star-making stint as executive chef of Oceana, before taking his rm seafood concept to the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, where he’s been thriving for seven years. Toqueland caught up with Moonen in Yosemite National Park, as he cooked a memorable guest dinner, tried to win over every guest in sight to his longtime cause of sustainability, and made a few minutes to share what was on his mind:
TOQUELAND: First of all, just catch me up, what are you excited about these days?
MOONEN: I think I’m at a crossroads in my career. I moved out to Last Vegas seven years ago, became part of the drive to make Las Vegas dining more legitimate, which I’m proud to have been a part of. Doing things in a manner in which I believe, holding true to my core values, my mission statement of being sustainable still stands strong. That continuously evolves as to what it really means, because the conditions of different species of fish always changes. So it’s kind of fun.
That being said: the economy, turning 55, getting a divorce, just kind of thinking: “What do I want to do?” Getting people to understand sustainability. We’re hitting a tipping point where that seems to be happening, which is great. I’m surprised. There was no guarantee I’d ever get to see anything happening and here it is, shifting before my eyes. It’s great. Pretty cool . ..
That being said, how do I get to the masses in [this] economy? I’m going to start pushing toward opening up restaurants that serve more really good, delicious, well-balanced, flavorful food. But not fine dining. Not the fancy-schmancy fanfare to the few who can afford it. I want to start hitting deeper and affecting more people.
TOQUELAND: Would this still be seafood focused?
MOONEN: Yeah. But I’m going to say “upscale casual,” if there’s such a thing. Because fine dining kind of took a dip. It had to be redefined . ..
TOQUELAND: What are you going to do? Where are you on it?
MOONEN: Simple stuff . .. I’m thinking of opening up in Waikiki, Hawaii. There’s a good chance I’m going to open there. [Toqueland Note: Moonen floated a concept for Waikiki last year.] I’ve got an LOI [letter of intent] out. There’s no dealbreakers that I can see in the further discussion to get to a contract. I’ve got the money, the funds, and the location. So, looks pretty good. This has been going on for eight months, this discussion with Hawaii. People who are in the know in my organization are tired of hearing about Hawaii. But it had to be the right deal, you know, and now it is. My risk is to a point where I’m comfortable to move. So, that’s it. Build a brand. Open up in other markets and diversify. I’ve got one space and it’s in Las Vegas in a casino. That’s too risky.
TOQUELAND: It’s a huge space in Vegas, though. How many seats?
MOONEN: Downstairs is close to 300 seats, lunch and dinner, seven days a week, 365 days a year. You’re obligated to be open for the casino. Upstairs, my fine-dining floor, is open five nights a week only, no lunch. Closed Sunday and Monday. It’s run like a French restaurant.
You know what? I can cook. I can hit everybody. I can talk to any crowd and get them to understand what I’m talking about . .. Someday when I’ve got five upscale casual restaurants cranking out food, making people happy, they get it, it’s all local ingredients, it’s delicious, well-seasoned, then maybe I can open up my own little place and I’ll be cooking behind the stove. Or not. I don’t know. We’ll see.
TOQUELAND: You’ve been in Vegas for a while now. What do you most miss about New York at this point? Do you even think about it that much?
MOONEN: I don’t think about it as much as I thought I would. What I miss is the camaraderie; knowing how to do business. There’s a certain connection with the northeast, New York mentality of doing business. There’s a deeper respect, you know? What I call integrity. But that’s my definition of integrity.
TOQUELAND: Which you define how?
MOONEN: Well, it depends in which arena you’re discussing it. When it comes to building a team and holding and retaining a team in Las Vegas, well, you know, there’s a mercenary mentality that goes on out there [in Vegas] and it’s not as loyal. You’ll have a manager from another restaurant sitting at your bar, who you know, who you are friends with. “Eric, how you doing?” “Moonen! Good to see you!” Sitting at your bar, interviewing your bartender, ’cause he needs a bartender, and he waits til you walk away to continue with his interview . ..
In New York, if somebody came to me from another kitchen, say Daniel Boulud’s right-hand person, came to me, and I’m really needing to bring on somebody, I’d call Daniel – and this didn’t happen, this is, you know, just making it up – and say, “Buddy, you know Johnny came over and said he’s interested in working with me, and I need somebody, and I need your blessing.” He’ d be like. [French accent:] “Oh, yeah. I knew that was going to happen. I kind of knew it. You know, I’m going on vacation next week for two weeks. Perhaps can you give me three weeks so I can keep running?” [shifts back to Moonen voice:] “Sure no problem, man!” That’s how you do business. That doesn’t happen in Vegas.
TOQUELAND: Chefs have told me, “Somebody comes to work for me, I expect them to stay at least a year.”
MOONEN: Yeah, of course.
TOQUELAND: Is that what you expect yourself? Do people stay even less than that out there?
MOONEN: They can, they can. You know, it’s frustrating. But it’s going to be an ongoing theme for me. I’m going to go to Hawaii . ..
TOQUELAND: You ever call people out on that or is this something that you just privately simmer away about?
MOONEN: No, I’ll call people out on that. I’ve gone to people that have left me, and it’s obvous that they’re stealing other people to help them and enrich themselves. Guys they worked with on the line, they go take a job somewhere, they need some people to work with and–guess what?–everybody’s giving notice and going to the same restaurant. So I’ll go to the bar [at the other guy’s restaurant] and have a drink and I’ll tell the guy, “You should stop that. Stop taking my people.” You know? I don’t care. That’s me.
TOQUELAND: We had a quick talk at the US Open two Opens ago and I asked you how the Top Chef Masters thing affected your business . ..
MOONEN: It really enhanced it dramatically.
TOQUELAND: You could trace that directly to the show?
MOONEN: Sure. Not immediately. You have to last a little while for people to really get to know you more and better and become more of a fan. And that happened because I made it to the end and being so close to California, and Las Vegas is California’s playground, so there’s quite an influx of fans coming in as a result. And people started to come to Mandalay specifically to eat in my restaurant. It was great, tremendous for business.
TOQUELAND: Based on that, are you thinking about doing a series, or hosting something?
MOONEN: I would like to do something that involves . .. if I can get a sustainability message hidden in there, Trojan-horsed in there. The Trojan Chef! You know, get it in there. Don’t make a big deal out of it.