© Sabin Orr
F&W Star Chef
Chef: Rick Moonen
Restaurants: Two at Mandalay Place in Las Vegas, NV: Rick Moonen’s RM Seafood, and Rx Boiler Room, a steam punk-inspired artisanal comfort food and cocktail restaurant.
Experience: Le Relais, Century Café, Chelsea Central, The Water Club, Oceana, Molyvos, and Restaurant RM in New York
Education: Culinary Institute of America
Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
I can’t name just one person: Eugene Bernard taught me to have a strong background in classical technique—braising, frying, grilling, seasoning—but also to be flexible with trends. Working for Jean Morel at L’Hostellerie Bressane in Hillsdale, New York was crucial for my career. It was just the two of us, and he had a garden outside with herbs and lettuces that we would pick every day. The meat would come up from New York City once or twice a week. The sensibility I learned from Jean Morel and was enhanced by Jean-Jacques Rachou at La Côte Basque and Alain Sailhac at Le Cirque. They taught me how to balance flavor, how to eat with all of your senses, and that texture is extremely important. When you can hit all the senses, you’re engaging your guest fully, and you’re balancing acid, salt, sweet and bitter. If your mouth is watering, that’s your goal.
What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
Clam chowder because it’s clean, it’s simple, it’s got a lot of layers of flavors, but at the end it celebrates clam. You can add bacon, vegetables and texture, but the theme is singular: You’re taking a clam from the ocean, steaming it open and using the natural juice. That’s indicative of my approach: I celebrate the privilege we have of obtaining these things and then I dance around them. Sometimes the best thing to do is to leave the food alone.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
My siblings and I had cooking competitions. I made a veal roulade when I was 12 and it came out great, but once my brother and I made a cake that came out so bad we buried it in the backyard. We thought we’d get in trouble.
For someone starting out, to learn about balance and flavors and textures, I’d recommend making soups. They help you learn how to season, how to cut, for knife skills, and how to layer and build a dish. And you have a lot of opportunity to make changes as you go.
Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him/her?
Jean Morel. Living in Hillsdale, New York, the backyard was a big garden and we’d go pick the food and serve it that day. He taught me how to handle and respect the ingredients and how to work in a two-person kitchen. He taught me the importance of not wasting anything and of being deeply connected to the food.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
Cucina Fresca, a book on Italian food by Viana La Place from the early 1980s. It’s very simple food, all the dishes are served cold or at room temperature, and all the recipes are five to eight ingredients long. I learned so much by playing with the recipes, and the importance of fresh and high-quality ingredients. I remember a penne pasta with chicken, rosemary, lemon and lemon zest. It blew my mind.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Knowing how to season and to taste continuously throughout a recipe. Too often neophytes follow a recipe to the letter and they pass the opportunities to realize how things change as you cook. You have to poke around, stick your face in, and allow yourself to get intimate with the cooking process. It’s all about tasting and being there.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I’d like to know how to bone out a shad fish correctly. They have a floating vertebra that’s almost impossible.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
It’s all about umami, achieving the savory components. The best bang for the buck is a good-quality fermented fish sauce, anchovies or clam juice. It adds so much depth and savoriness. I make my own and also like the Tiparos brand.
What is your current food obsession?
I live in the desert and have a quarter acre backyard. I plant lettuces, and have fruit trees, pomegranate trees, fig trees, Meyer lemon trees and Persian lime trees. My biggest obsession is cooking at home on my day off and walking outside and sniffing the lemon verbena and basil, and as I’m eating them, there’s this incredible sense of connection with the world.
I compost everything, but a lot of seeds during composting remain dormant. My best tomatoes come from my compost. They’re volunteer plants.
Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
Mike Chiarello is a serious chef and he just opened Coqueta in San Francisco. I’d like to check out what he’s doing there.
Anywhere Nancy Silverton cooks. I’ve eaten at Mozza in Los Angeles, and I tasted love in the food. It’s simple ingredients put together in such a well-balanced way and handled so respectfully that you can taste the love.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip— where would you go and why?
I love Vancouver. There are great restaurants, and it’s an entire area that embraces the mentality of sustainability, everyone understands what by-catch is. They have one of the great Chinatowns and it’s crazy delicious and inexpensive. Portland, Oregon, too. It’s very bohemian in style but you can see the love, care and concern in their food and cocktail programs.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
My wife. I went on a trip to shoot a pilot for a television show in Oaxaca, Mexico, and my wife was working on the show. We fell in love and got married.
What do you consider your other talent(s) besides cooking?
I like woodworking and refinishing antiques. There’s something incredibly satisfying about working with your hands. I also have a chameleon-like ability with accents, and I play the harmonica.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
A mezcal and simple grilled seafood on the beach somewhere. I fell in love with mezcal in Oaxaca. It’s one of my favorite flavors, even though I never loved tequila.
If you were facing an emergency, and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, and what would you make?
I’d take all the seasonings from my cabinet and figure it out from there. What I’d make would depend on where I ended up.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
We’ll be talking about phyto plankton, because that’s what we’re going to be eating. It’s an incredible source of nutrients, but it will take a while before it’s appreciated and utilized.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
Ortiz anchovies. I eat them right out of the jar.
Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
I love shrimp and crab paste. They have a lot of intrigue and are great when you integrate them into something with sweetness like palm sugar or agave syrup. I use them in green papaya salad and I buy them from the International Marketplace in Las Vegas. The brand I buy is Carnivale.
Do you have any food superstitions or pre- or post- shift rituals?
When I was at the banquet department at the Water Club, I started never taking down the banquet order sheet until the party had left. I leave it up until the party is gone, and then I take it down. Something goes awry if I don’t do that.