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Rick Moonen, Top Chef Masters Exit Interview: On Las Vegas, Sustainability, and Jay Rayner

Rick Moonen at work.
Rick Moonen at work.
Photo: Kelsey McNeal/Bravo

Rick Moonen is a chef, cookbook author and seafood sustainability advocate, whose flagship restaurant is Rick Moonen's rm seafood at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Competing for the charity Three Square, he made it all the way to this week's finale of Top Chef Masters Season 2, only to come in a joint second (with Susur Lee) to Marcus Samuelsson. He was kind enough to speak with Eater yesterday even though he was in the middle of traveling back to the United States.

I saw on Las Vegas Weekly that you're overseas and watched the finale over Skype.

They kept turning the computer around so I could look at the television monitor cause we couldn't get it online overseas. It was kind of weird. I was saying hi to everybody. It was a big party at my restaurant—it was a LOT of fun. Robin Leach was there! "Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous!"

Have you had parties for all the episodes?

Well, I have not been at them; I try to keep myself apart. We do have parties but I don't attend them myself. I'm not allowed to.

How come?

'Cause I don't want to give away anything! To keep the tension going, everybody wondering. For the last two weeks, I wasn't looking anybody in the eye!

What made you decide to go on Top Chef Masters?

Well, I was very familiar with the Top Chef show. A lot of it was—well, here's the story; it's pretty funny, actually! You know, over the last three years, people from Bravo would eat at my restaurant. And three different times, someone that worked in my kitchen would be approached to be a possible contestant on the regular Top Chef show.

So I knew the process; it's about a five step process. You audition, bio, then they come ask permission from me 'cause they're gonna take a lot of time off—do you support them? Of course I will, it would be great for the restaurant. You're exposing our seafood, Las Vegas? Make me proud, right? And not one of them made it.

I get a phone call from Andrea's office saying, "Rick, Top Chef. We're doing a new show, Top Chef Masters. We want to do know if you're going to do it." "Yeah, sure." Like, pfffft. Like I'll make it, you know. So I hang up the phone. The next day they call and say, "So what's your schedule?" "Whoooaaaaa, wait a minute. What are you talking about? Let's think about this." "Can't back out now!"

You want to know the truth? It was one of the greatest experiences. It's tremendous for business. You make this great connection with an awesome group of talented chefs—and they really are. It's like three generations! Jonathan Waxman, holy smokes! You know, when I was a kid, working in restaurants, making zero money, scraping up enough to pay for a dinner so I could, you know, expand my horizons, I was eating at Bud's and Jams. Those were Jonathan Waxman's restaurants. Then there's my generation, which is old. Then there's the younger generation. So it was just pretty cool.

How do you feel about how you were portrayed on the show?

That was the most exciting thing. There's a lot of footage. A LOT of footage. There's a lot of film on you—whatever you call it, tv documentation. And they can pretty much spin it any way they want. So it was exciting for me because, yeah, I was there; yes, I knew the results—that's about it. I wasn't sure how it was all gonna come out.

To be honest with you, now I've become known for screaming "I'm talkin' here!" I don't remember doing that; I don't remember that moment! I really do not remember that moment. And as I look at it, you know? I do remember being really upset with Ludo Lefebvre. He's a great guy, we're friends, there's no animosity—it was just a little over the top in the competition world. I was trying to explain to him: "Dude, you've got a beef bourgignon. You're from France. I learned how to make stews in French kitchens." And I'm trying to explain to him that Irish stew is nothing more than a lamb bourgignon. And I'm trying to talk to him and he's just, kajdlkajsldjalksdjlakjdl, and I'm like, "Hey! HEY!" And then obviously, the next line. And it made the previews. "I'm talkin' here!"

You should have buttons or a a shirt made, with that and your face on it.

You know what I'm gonna do? Wanna hear the idea that I came up with?


You know those little GPS systems? With the little lady's voice on them saying "Take a left." It's going to be my voice: "Get the hell over there! What's wrong with you? Do it! Do it NOW!" My New York voice.

Interesting you mention the New York voice. There's a piece in the New York Times from a few days ago, on how Bravo—the initial episodes of a particular show, they edit to how they think it'll be entertaining, and then they see the responses of people to certain characters and then they work them into certain storylines.

I'm sure they work on feedback, I'm imagining.

Yeah, so the start of the season, you were like the stereotype people who've never been to New York have of New Yorkers: brash, opinionated, maybe not always that nice. I thought they were going to turn you into a villain over the course of the series but you got nicer and fuzzier! And turned out a fan favorite—they did a vote during the finale and near 40% of the people watching voted for you.

It's 'cause I'm a nice frigging guy! You know, that's amazing. That's very very very cool. And that goes directly into business, the opportunities are just crazy.

Have you been meeting people who are fans of yours from the show?

Oh my goodness. Yes. Everywhere. On Friday and Saturday night at my restaurant, I probably get minimum of thirty "Can I get a picture with you?" requests. Selling more cookbooks than ever. And my menu's becoming whatever I made on Top Chef. Everybody asks for it, so alright! So when it's time to change my next menu, I have to get that on it. The mother of invention.

So how does a New York boy end up in Vegas?

I was invited. You know, I was in New York for thirty years? Twenty five, thirty years. And I was approached to run a seventeen thousand square foot restaurant in Las Vegas, and I'm like, "Wow. I'm not just going to slap my name on a restaurant and serve mediocre food and watch my reputation dilute itself." So I moved out there. I believe restaurants have personalities and that's how I ended up in Mandalay Bay. They built me a seven million dollar restaurant and allowed me to put my name on it, so. It's kind of one of those deals that's pretty hard to say no to.

So your interest in sustainable food—how does that get reconciled with Las Vegas, which is probably the least sustainable city in the world after Dubai?

The message is the same, no matter where you are. Sustainability, carbon footprint; they're different, you know. And I'm an hour out of LA, where there are great restaurants and great seafood product. It takes you two hours to get a piece of tuna from Long Island to New York City, but no one ever questions that, just because there's no water in the desert. Fact number two: Las Vegas is closer to more organic farms than LA. True. It's proximity. It's perception.

And I'm not sure if this is timing or if it's just a different mentality, but there's more chef support—people actually making menu changes and making a movement towards being more sustainable on their menu—in Vegas than when I was in New York for twenty five years. True. The chefs sort of listened, but they weren't motivated to take any action. You know, they'd sit there and listen to me and nod their heads but you look at their menu and: Chilean sea bass, red snapper, grouper, skate. I mean, what the? You don't know why.

So I don't know if that really answers your question, but it doesn't really matter where you are. I personally want to help to break the debauchering reputation of Las Vegas. I don't want the president of the United States telling people not to go to Las Vegas because it's not legitimate. That's just not true. The top ten restaurants in Vegas can compete with the top ten restaurants in any city in the world. And I believe that. There might be a drop off after that, but that's the direction I've seen it going in the last five years I've been out there. I'm not taking credit for it but I've seen it happen. And now there's the Smith Center, which is a performing arts building that's going up. I'm going to spearhead a book festival this year with a bunch of chefs. People need to know that Las Vegas isn't just about casinos and drinking and gambling and strip clubs, etcetera. They're there; they're in New York too. There's some work to be done, Vegas is a new town, and I'm psyched to be there. I love Las Vegas for everything it can be.

Jay Rayner posted something on his Bravo blog and I was wondering if you've had a chance to see it or had heard about it.

No, what did he post?

He got upset partly because you're the fish guy and used venison, but mainly because the venison came from New Zealand. Excerpt: "Bloody hell, but I was furious. For weeks he had worn his green credentials on his sleeve, bigged himself up as the saviour of the planet. Even under cross examination about his dishes in the finale he declared that "we need to respect the environment you live in." I’m certain his restaurant in Vegas is run according to rigorous sustainability criteria. But, when it came to the last stage of a cooking competition, he shrugged it off. I felt like we’d been had, been spun a line by a shameless opportunist." What do you think of that?

We're in a competition, I'm a chef, we're omnivores. [long pause] Get over it! Get. Over. It.

I used to represent Cervena venison. I'm very familiar with it, I know its silky texture. It's something I'm very familiar with. Why would I throw it out? We weren't clubbing seals, you know? I think he's splitting hairs to make himself look better—he's full of it. Show me another chef that's got a menu like I have. Show me someone that's doing it better than me. And then I'll listen to your noise, Jay.

He's just listening to his own voice. That's RIDICULOUS, that's what that is.

Some might say that Jay Rayner probably flies more than anyone and has a massive carbon footprint.

Give Jay Rayner a little ukulele and sing tiptoe through the tulips, you little Tiny Tim lookalike.

Are you serious? About THAT? That's ridiculous.

Yeah, he wrote a whole blog post about it.

There's no one that's been more consistent, with more integrity, doing it longer than I have. And because I chose that on a final competition? You know, a national? a national competition? Come on, dude! I'm not serving you sea bass with clubbed seal sauce! Ay ya yay ya yay.

That's great. I can't wait to respond. I want to respond, man. It's on. It's ON. I love this kind of banter. You know what it does? It's good for everybody. It makes people think and really, at the end of it all, if you can't poke fun at each other, make fun of each other, for the benefit of a message?

There's a gilding of truth to what he has to say, but where do you draw the line? You see, I get sick—I'm on these panels all the time and you get these extremists: "Well, if it's not a hundred percent, then you're not real." Excuse me! We're going in a better direction every single day of our lives; if everyone did it half as much as I'm asking you to do it or as much as I'm doing it myself? It's not like I'm just talking the talk—I'm walking the walk. And if everyone sort of just latched onto that mentality, things would be a hell of a lot better.

Nota bene: Rick Moonen posted the following on his Facebook page earlier today:

New Zealand Venison is sustainably farmed outside on natural pasture without hormones steroids or antibiotics. And, it’s sea freighted not flown in to the US. Transport contributes just 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. One of the main sources of emissions is the fodder and grain grown to feed animals. So pasture fed animals contribute considerably less green house gas to the environment. If you agree with me and the facts please let Jay know! Leave a comment on his blog on my behalf!!

· Eater Live: Liveblogging the Top Chef Masters Season 2 Finale [~EN~]
· All Rick Moonen Coverage on Eater [~EN~]
· The Chefs of Top Chef Masters Season 2: A Field Guide [~EN~]
· All Top Chef Masters Coverage on Eater [~EN~]
· All Top Chef Masters Exit Interviews on Eater [~EN~]