Interview with Rick Moonen
September 2004

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 career?
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 than others?
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 cook?
RM: Well, 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. What happened?

(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?
RM: Well, 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 it!
RM: So far no complaints!