Chef Brian Rae
RM Seafood | Las Vegas
Ridgefield, Connecticut, where Brian Rae grew up, was a bit of a culinary scene: just 60 or so miles from Manhattan and with that cozy New England neighborhood feel, it was the ideal spot for weary chefs from the city to settle down with the kids and open their own businesses. For Rae, who took a liking to kitchens when he was working part-time jobs in high school, it was an ideal town to explore his cheffy inclinations.
Rae went from deli to gourmet grocery to catering to restaurants before settling into the idea of pursuing a career in the culinary arts. After high school, he went to The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, graduating in 1997. Rae then worked in restaurants in his Connecticut hometown, at Bernard’s and The Elms Inn. The zealous young chef’s introduction to serious seafood was with Chef Steve Cavagnaro at Nantucket’s long-standing seafood institution Straight Wharf. Cavagnaro’s simple approach to food taught Rae how to best utilize and highlight ingredients.
Seeking more experience in a culinary city, Rae was tempted to Las Vegas. He joined the opening team for Rick Moonen’s first Vegas restaurant, RM Seafood, as sous chef. After a year, Moonen promoted Rae to chef de cuisine of the fine dining arm of the two-in-one restaurant. Under Moonen, Rae has continued his extensive training in seafood, with a focus on sustainability, and further developed his ingredient-driven sensibility.
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Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Brian Rae: I started working odd jobs in food when I was in high school. I just always enjoyed it. From my first job at a gourmet grocery store, food always came easy for me. It was fun; I went from a grocery to a deli to catering to restaurants.
AB: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
BR: RM Seafood – I’ve been here since it opened 3 years ago. I started as a sous chef and I’ve been chef de cuisine for 2 years. I worked at Straight Wharf Restaurant in Nantucket, and The Elms Inn and Bernard’s Inn in Ridgefield, Connecticut. I grew up in Connecticut and there were all these New York chefs who would open up places there to have kids. It was a good spot.
AB:Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background? Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs?
BR: Yes, definitely. I inquire about it when I see it, but I'll hire a cook who hasn't been if they fit the mold I'm looking for.
AB:Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
BR: Steve Cabnero—I worked for him in Nantucket. It was a seafood restaurant, but he had a simple stew that highlighted ingredients. Rick [Moonen] obviously—he also has an ingredient-driven style. From him I’ve learned how to find ingredients and to stay on the front side of what people want to eat. I was just starting to hear about sustainability when I started to work for Rick.
AB:What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen? What sort of answer are you looking for?
BR: I ask people what they cook at home, and what kind of music they like. I'm just looking for an honest and unique answer. If you say you don't cook at home but that you have 5000 different condiments that you do something with, well that's interesting.
AB:What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
BR: Write everything down. Carry a notepad to write down recipes. In your time off read constantly—I read on the internet constantly. Just try to get as much information as possible. Dishes can end up coming from really weird places.
AB:What ingredient do you feel is underappreciated or underutilized?
BR: I really like sake lees. I didn't even know about it and tasted it for the first time at WD-50, and I flipped out. What I really like is that you can use it in anything—I’m using it in place of almonds. It's got nuttiness, but it has more than that, so you can make odd twists to recipes using it.
AB:What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
BR: I really like lemon-olive oil and fennel pollen; grains of paradise and powdered yuzu on cobia; anything spicy and sweet. I’m using a lot of Espelette powder these days. Also carrot and olive.
AB:What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool?
BR: My spoons. We have these blue steeled French cast iron pans that we sauté all of our fish in that are great. The Vita-Prep blender—it’s so powerful. I've worked in restaurants with bar mixers, but you can't do half the stuff.
AB:What are your favorite cookbooks?
BR: Culinary Artistry [by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page]. The pages are falling out, I use it so much.
AB:Where do you like to go for culinary travel?
BR: I'd go back to Torino, Italy. It's just a really great food city and of course it's right in the heart of Piedmont so it's got great wine, truffles, chocolate. It's half Italian, half French style of cooking.
AB:What are your favorite restaurants, off the beaten path, in your city?
BR: Naked Fish’s for sushi. Lotus of Siam. There's this little hotdog store, it's called Al's [Uncle Al’s Hot Dogs & Grille] in southwest. I also like going to Nora’s Wine Bar and Osteria—they have one of those Enomatic machines so you can have wines by the glass, and their sweet and sour meatballs are off the charts.
AB: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
BR: A lot of people are starting to do more molecular gastronomy stuff, including us. Because Rick is here everyone is trying to be more sustainable. I meet cooks at events all the time and we're always talking about what fish is good and bad [to serve at your restaurant].
AB:What is your philosophy on food and dining?
BR: The job of cooks is to take the ingredients they're given and present them in the best way possible. You should capture it in the way that it came to you. As a diner, I would look for the same thing. If I'm paying 40 dollars for a plate of porcini mushrooms I want them to be a plate of porcini mushrooms. Not some concoction. Keep everything honest.
AB:Which person in history would you most like to cook for?
BR: One of the great chefs, like Escoffier. It would be a tremendous honor [to cook for] someone who laid the groundwork for so much of what we do.
AB:Who would you most like to cook for you?
BR: I’d really like to go to El Bulli and see what they're doing there; and to go home to mom and grandma.
AB:Describe how you are involved in your local culinary community? Nationally/Globally? What are some of your favorite food-related charities?
BR: I just joined Slow Food. RM Seafood is always doing charity events and fundraisers. It's always fun to go out to them for a good cause and meet your peers. And lately we've had a stage once every two weeks. While I was in Aspen, a chef from Trotter’s named Hiro came in and made bread in our kitchen. We're starting a bread program—you save money and it's fun—we’re doing New England lobster rolls on potato buns that we make ourselves.
AB:If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
BR: I have no idea. I'm a big sports fan, so I would probably do something in sports. Maybe I'd work on a ski mountain or something.
AB:What’s next for you?
BR: I'd like to take an extended trip to Europe for a stage—hopefully that will happen within 5 years. I would like to open my own restaurant, definitely seafood, maybe in Vegas or maybe on the water somewhere.
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