Ellen Sledge: Thanks for taking some time to talk to us, chef. I’d like
to begin by asking you where you trained and how you started your
Rick Moonen: I started at the Culinary Institute of America in 1976, and I graduated
in 1978. I actually stayed on there at a fellowship in the Escoffier
Room, which was at the time the only restaurant open to the public
that CIA operated. When I finished the fellowship, I went to work
at a small inn in New York under Jean Morel. It was a very focused
position. I worked split shifts every day. It really allowed me
to concentrate on my skills. In 1979 I joined La Cote Basque as
a morning saucier, and worked alongside Charles Palmer. We were
both really starting out at the time.
After a while I decided to get out of New York,
and I went to Key West to see what it was like to work in a resort
area. Now, this was before Key West and Florida was glamorous, before
chefs like NormVan Aken were down there. I took a job in a resort
as a sous chef, and then the chef I was working under left, making
me chef by default. It was chaotic, and I wasn’t nearly ready
to be a chef, so I left after 9 months.
The experience in Key West made me appreciate
NYC more. Manhattan is where it’s at! The best kitchens in
the world are here. I went straight back to New York, taking a saucier
position at Le Cirque, under Alain Sailhac. After 2 years I went
to Le Relais, which was a French bistro. It was really rough being
the American in an all-French kitchen. Helacious! I left for too
many reasons to count, some of which just aren’t printable.
I then worked for Bar Louie and Century Café. They were owned
by the same people, and I was the head chef at Century Café.
I didn’t cook for Bar Louie, but I helped open it, which was
great because it gave me a chance to see more of the business side.
After that, Charlie Palmer and I took positions with Chelsea Central.
First I was a consultant, but their chef didn’t work out and
they offered a position to me. I loved it. At Chelsea Central I
got my first review as a chef. I worked there from 1988 to 1994.
From there I took the chef position at The Water
Club. Sounds like I can’t keep a job, huh?
ES: No, not at all. Isn’t job switching more typical of this industry
RM: That has
some truth to it. Well I stayed as the chef of The Water Club for
6 years, so that was a good amount of time. Then the owners of Oceana
romanced me, where I was executive chef and a partner for 8 years.
Last year I opened rm, and Branzini. I like being busy.
ES: You certainly do! Did that
inspire you to become a chef? When did you make the decision to
I grew up in Flushing, Queens. I had attention deficit disorder.
Or I think I do. Back then it wasn’t called ADD, it was called
pain-in-the-ass hyperactive kid. All I wanted to do was work. I
couldn’t wait to get my working papers when I was 12 years
old to start my newspaper route. I also really liked math and science,
and I actually thought someday I would be a dietitian. When I was
16 I got a job in the kitchen of a nursing home. It really wasn’t
cooking – I was mopping floors – but my uncle thought
I might like cooking so he had the CIA send me a brochure. I applied,
got in, and the moment I started there I knew I would love cooking.
I love being that busy, working long shifts, and I love doing something
that makes people happy. I loved the chaos of working the line -
cutting your finger and wrapping it up and never stopping for anything.
I still remember the smells of that kitchen. Burning spilled flour
on the stove. I remember all my injuries. Speaking of, hold on.
(Distant voices in the room with the Chef.)
ES: Did someone get hurt?
RM: Yup. A
sacrifice to the mandoline god. (He laughs.) Poor kid’s hand
is all balled up in paper towels. You should know I’m also
the resident doctor here. Everyone gets hurt. Especially by the
mandolin. I’m sure you’ve seen the same in kitchens?
ES: Seen it? I have plenty of
scars from kitchen tools. Which brings me to my next question –
do you have a favorite tool? Something you can’t live without?
I’m not big on fancy tools. I used to have expensive knives
but as anyone knows those disappear real quick on you, even if you
engraved your name in it. I just keep cheap Victorinox knives in
the kitchen so when they disappear I’m only out 8 bucks. But
there is one product I love to use – a varied speed blender.
Most blenders in kitchens just have an on and off switch, and the
speed is always like a super-puree. I like having the ability to
control the speed, to puree slowly and avoid incorporating air.
I think it’s important to have in a kitchen. I always have
one at work and one at home.
ES: Do you cook a lot at home?
Do you have a favorite meal you make?
RM: I look
forward to cooking on my days off. Every Sunday I get up early and
put something in the oven. Last week I had a craving for pea soup,
so the first thing I did was put a massive ham in the oven. I always
cook way too much, so I share them with my friends and family.
ES: I’m sure they appreciate
RM: So far