Breaking Down Chef Rick Moonen

Celebrated seafood chef talks about getting his 'ass kicked' at the CIA.

By SHARE

Walk into Rick Moonen's kitchen at his eponymous RM Seafood in Las Vegas's Mandalay Bay with a résumé in hand, and Moonen cares about only three things on it: your name, phone number, and a few decent references. Anything else he needs to know comes later, during the interrogation.

"What did you have for dinner last night? What about lunch? What was the last book you read? What are your favorite movies? Where do you like to eat?" he spits out, rapid fire. "What are you doing? How's your palate? If I put a blindfold on you and have you taste five herbs, can you name them? Do you really f---ing want to do this? Without the mentality, you can go to any school in the world and it won't matter."

He should know. In 1974, the would-be dietitian was paying his way through school when his uncle, a salesman, took a group of clients to the student-staffed Escoffier Room at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

His uncle brought him a brochure from the school. Four years later, Moonen graduated from the CIA at the top of his class.

After stints at La Cote Basque and Le Cirque, among other famed New York eateries, Moonen became executive chef at the Water Club and then partner and executive chef at Oceana, where he earned three stars from the New York Times. In 2002, he opened rm in Manhattan, also earning three stars from the Times. He then closed the New York restaurant to open RM Seafood in Vegas in 2005.

"[At CIA] I was trained under European chefs, real chefs who would kick your ass, and that's the way it was done," Moonen says. "I trained under Eugene 'Boom Boom' Bernard. Everyone in the program was afraid of him."

Now, he finds, some would-be cooks come to him with not only a degree but also what he calls "unrealistic expectations." "I got my ass kicked learning the ability to cook correctly, and that's the way it was done, until little Mary Jane went to school and went crying to her parents that the chefs were yelling at her, and mom and dad went and complained to the dean," he says. "It wasn't 'Welcome—here are your knives.' They broke us down."

Not that Moonen disregards culinary education—with the right attitude, he reiterates, it can be "an excellent instrument."

Some day, in addition to running his restaurants and writing cookbooks, he would like to teach as well, he says.