Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Rick Moonen: My mother and father both cooked. My mother kept me active and gave me tasks in the kitchen stirring. I also loved the Galloping Gourmet on TV. I was going to Queens College, majoring in home economics and then decided to look more seriously at the CIA [Culinary Institute of America]. In 1976, I was a line cook at John Zanky’s Little King in Queens and he encouraged me to go to the CIA. It changed my life. I went up there and broke away from Flushing. It was all old school European training and it was all very real. I was fortunate to have gone there.
AB: Who are your mentors and what have you learned from them?
RM: My instructor at the CIA, Eugene “Boom Boom” Bernard. He worked at Fernand Point as an apprentice and I became his [apprentice]. This guy beat up his students but he taught me about integrity. When I worked at the Water Club, Wine Director Sam Correnti taught me about wine and balance of flavor. Seasoning isn’t taught, it’s learned. For instance, how do you use salt? All the senses are engaged.
AB: Do your recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
RM: Yes, I do. There’s a lot of evolution going on and there are lots of new courses. It gives you an understanding of where cuisine is going. When I graduated in 1978, that meant getting a job in a French restaurant. A lot of the ingredients we were using were dried or out of a can. We didn’t have the ingredients we have today.
AB: Have we come further since then?
RM: In some respects. We still have a lot to learn. We were talking about local farms in Vegas and we are getting some now but it’s new. I want people to be as excited as I am when I discover something.
AB: Why did you move to Las Vegas?
RM: I was offered a tremendous opportunity: an 18,000 square foot restaurant that doesn’t scream Rick Moonen, fine dining, sustainable chef. I broke [the space] up into two concepts: upstairs it’s a 75-seat fine dining concept and then we have our casual dining, 225-seat concept downstairs with comfort food that has the same quality seafood, but is more approachable. The check average upstairs is $125 per person and downstairs it’s $60 per person. We do 400 to 500 covers downstairs and 70 upstairs on a good night.
AB: Where would you want to go for culinary travel?
RM: I’ve never been to an Asian country and am dying to go. They really pay homage to and show respect for ingredients.
AB: Who in history would you most like to cook dinner for? And who would you want have cooked for you?
RM: I cooked for Julia Child. I would have wanted to cook for Salvador Dalí so I could sit down and talk to him. I would have wanted Escoffier or Fernand Point to cook for me.
AB: What’s next for you?
RM: I want to open up a few more “comfort concepts” and I want to teach. I want to spread the word about sustainability.