In many ways, it seems as if chef and restaurateur Rick Moonen has always been part of the Las Vegas dining scene. He’s omnipresent; best of luck trying to find a significant culinary event or charitable cause in which he’s not involved. Moonen’s long career as a champion of sustainability and frequent appearances on TV shows like Top Chef also have made him one of the most famous full-time Las Vegas food figures.
But for Moonen, 58, time flies. He almost can’t believe it’s been 10 years since he left New York to open RM Seafood at Mandalay Bay. “I started doing this 35 years ago. I graduated culinary school in 1978 and have been at it ever since, and I don’t regret a day of it,” he says. “It’s been a fun ride here, and I’m looking forward to the next 10 years.”
To celebrate the restaurant’s anniversary, Moonen is cooking up a special “greatest hits” menu for February featuring 10 dishes that have been favorites, or haven’t been on the menu for a while, or otherwise hold a special meaning for the chef. “It’s kind of a motivational excuse to do something I’ve been dying to do anyway,” he says. “But it’s going to be a lot of fun because we get to get together as a staff and really pontificate on these dishes, and get at the story behind each one of them.”
We stopped by RM Seafood to chat with Moonen about his Vegas past, how things have changed over the decade, and his special menu, which will be available throughout the month of February.
When you first considered opening a restaurant in Las Vegas, you didn’t necessarily think you’d be leaving New York to do it. Why did you make the move? It’s true. I originally thought I’d come out here and keep living in New York and visit once a month. But I saw this 17,000-square-foot space, and I tested out the other restaurants in town with big names on them, and I knew in order to represent myself the way I wanted to I had to be out here, to be involved in the personality of the restaurant and get involved in the community in order to succeed. And that plan has not wavered one iota, and it’s been a blast.
Has life in Las Vegas met your expectations? There are a lot of moving parts to this town, and I love it. There is such an amazing sense of pride knowing I’m not just a chef in a restaurant, that I’m part of a community, and I’ve been privileged to see great changes taking place. Have my expectations been met? Not on every level. But it’s not shake and bake, you know? You don’t just build it and they come. You have to work it. It’s very much a see-and-be-seen kind of town. You have to get out there and support, and that really pays off. People have asked me if it was difficult to move out here from New York, and I never hesitate to say how much I love Las Vegas.
You are absolutely identified as the sustainable seafood chef. It is what defines me.
Has that role—and responsibility—made it more difficult to succeed as a restaurateur? Does it ever take away from just being a chef? Absolutely. But I love a challenge. If it’s easy, I don’t usually take that road, and I don’t know why that is. For whatever reason, I’ve decided to give myself a bigger-picture goal.
But I am lucky that, in that respect, we’ve kind of reached a tipping point in the world at large. The World’s Fair expo will be held in Milan this year and the theme is Feeding the Planet. That’s everything I’m about. It’s a respect and a connection, something I developed very early in my life, maybe from my father taking me camping or learning how not to leave footprints behind, but it’s just a love of the environment and what it did for me and it’s not just food. It’s about that relationship. We have to have a better understanding that if we take care of our environment it will take care of us.
Back to your question, though, I have absolutely no regrets. I remember in the beginning there was a lot of preaching about fish, about taking Chilean sea bass off your menu, about not buying caviar from the Caspian Sea, and unfortunately all those things we were predicting have come true. But now there are so many more people playing together in a more harmonious way. And I’m trying to be more creative with that in the future, to introduce some cool hipness to the idea of sustainability.
You’ve done so many big things in the last decade, competed on Top Chef Masters and participated in Life Is Beautiful and so much more. Is there a single moment or event that stands out? The most amazing thing truly was the Chefs to the Max event at Rx Boiler Room. In two weeks, we pulled together an incredible roster of chefs, did the event and raised $300,000 for one man, [Las Vegas food critic] Max Jacobson and his family. Holy smokes, that was amazing. All the front-of-the-house people, master sommeliers, the best chefs—the main chefs—had to be here. Thomas Keller, Bobby Flay, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, Charlie Palmer ... that kitchen never had more bodies in it during service in all 10 years. The quality of the outcome of that event still makes me tear up.
Let’s talk about the dishes that are coming back to the RM Seafood menu this month. Do you have a favorite? All of these dishes mean something special to me, all for different reasons. Some of them are very recognizable things that have been off the menu for a while, like the catfish Sloppy Joe. But you know, you can’t have Christmas every month, right? Same thing with the Moonen Doggie. But there’s other stuff like the everything-crusted tuna, which tastes like an everything bagel. There’s hot-smoked trout with horseradish cream, which is just ... when you are smoking a fish and you take it out of the smoker, still warm, it’s unbelievable. The halibut and chive mashed potatoes and truffle vinaigrette, that’s one of the dishes that was a mainstay and gave me three stars in New York. I took it off the menu because it sort of went out of style, in my mind at least. The chive potatoes are green from the amount of chives in them, and you could put any fish in the world on top and it’s gonna taste so good. That’s a dish we’re definitely gonna celebrate. It will be a blast.
RM Seafood Mandalay Place, 702-632-9300. Daily, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.