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Rick Moonen Looks Back at the First Ten Years of RM Seafood

Did you know Moonen had a biscuit bar and a takeout window? Find out about that and other interesting tidbits on the past decade of RM Seafood.

Rick Moonen
Rick Moonen
Amelinda B Lee

Ten years ago, a chef who earned three stars in the New York Times picked up his operation and moved to Las Vegas to bring seafood to the desert. Rick Moonen’s RM Seafood at Mandalay Place opened Feb. 14, 2005, with a 17,000-square-foot restaurant with a fine dining floor and more casual food downstairs. "We officially opened up to the public charging money and everything on Valentine’s Day. Actually, we didn’t charge full price in the beginning. We still had kinks to work out," Moonen says. Here, Moonen looks back on the past 10 years, the hardships along the way and how his advocacy for sustainable seafood has gone from eye rolls to embrace. And if you decide to dine there in February, you have 10 dishes from the past on a special menu.

What made you come to Las Vegas in 2005?
I was approached 12 years ago by Clark Wolf, an industry savant for many years. He ran a lot of trend discussions.

I opened Restaurant RM, and had three stars in the New York Times. I get a knock on my door from Clark. "You know, I’m working with Mandalay Bay, and they have a new retail corridor." They had Chocolate Swan and Georgio’s in there, an Italian restaurant selling pizza and fine dining from Luciano Pelligrini. Back then, the burger concept was supposed to be from Joey Romano, but he went to Global Gaming. It was thrown at Hubert Keller, who was completely against it. Now it’s his biggest moneymaker in his bread basket.

I said, "I want to do a seafood concept. That’s a trend that’s going to grow. Charlie Palmer is killing it at Aureole at Mandalay Bay. Shit yea, count me in."

I fly out here. Mandalay Bay was still part of Circus Circus. I come out and I look at this under-construction corridor. Holy shit, it’s bigger than I could possibly imagine. I would need to move out here. I couldn’t operate in good conscience. So I moved out here in 2004.

Now I can hardly go anywhere with any culinary merit and not know two or three employees who work there.

What was the dining scene like at the time?
Wynn had not opened up. They opened around the same time I did. It made it hard to get good staff. Basically, I felt like the guys in Blazing Saddles. You got five fingers? We got some work to do here.

There were a dozen recognizable chef names at the time. The experience was not anywhere near what you would get in their flagship restaurants. What gave me a breath of fresh air was when I dined at Bradley Ogden. There in the back group was a group of professionals who wanted to make a difference — Adam Sobel and Gerald Chin. They were putting out food on innovative vessels. Ralph Perrazzo was the pastry chef. That’s when Vegas was really growing its culinary scene. We had the highest concentration of master sommeliers. I was psyched. I was stoked.

I’m not saying it’s that way anymore. Those restaurants needed a little kick in the ass. It was all about the ra ra ra. Today I could say that the top 10 restaurants in Vegas could compete with the top 10 restaurants anywhere else in the world.

I came from New York. No one was handing you good reviews there. On your same block there were probably three other places people could spend their money. Now we’re much more respectable

John Mariani blatantly, loudly, with anger wrote about how Vegas was full of shit. He wasn’t necessarily wrong. Vegas needed to be called out for that. I know John. He’s difficult. But I see where he’s coming from. He wouldn’t come into my fine dining restaurant.

Robin Leach was always a huge supporter of everything Las Vegas. He didn’t see eye-to-eye on that.

Al [Mancini] and Max [Jacobson] were the first food critics to came in. Max sat and ate a side of chowder. That’s what he wanted. Luckily he liked it.

Do you have any good war stories from your career?
Where do I begin? You’re going to have to buy me a drink.

I have tons of stories. Hiring characters who didn’t come through as I wanted. It’s all about the learning process. As long as you learn.

I love what I do. I like to entertain people. At the end of the day, your job is to make people happy.

This town will chew you up and spit you out. I’ve had ups and downs. Vegas got smacked in 2009. I closed my fine dining restaurant because I had 20 to 30 covers a night. I had 750 wines and I was winning awards. But I shut it down for a year.

In 2010 I’d been on Top Chef Masters. I said, "Let’s give this a run. The TV exposure is enough to support fine dining." So I opened it again. It did well. But not indefinitely. Chuck Bowling [president and COO at Mandalay Bay] came to me. I was supporting upstairs with the success of downstairs. The Light Group was taking over Rumjungle. Every casino has a steakhouse and seafood. Why not think outside the box?

I noticed bartenders going more into my kitchen and making their own ingredients with bitters or shrubs. My love of chemistry and mixology. Instead of being in the business of storing wine where bottles break, go bad, people steal, people mis-pour. That’s where Rx Boiler Room was born.

What are some of the biggest changes over the years?
I had a biscuit bar concept that I opened at first with all kinds of gravy on top of salmon, crab, lobster. That didn’t catch on. I also had a takeout window, which is just silly in a casino. You order a bowl of clam chowder, where are you supposed to eat it? At the slot machine? Originally, I didn’t open with sushi. The sushi was our raw bar. The takeout area became the raw bar.

What’s the most unexpected thing that happened?
I did not expect the realization of sustainability being embraced the way it is, and not just in Las Vegas, but everywhere. It is now one of the top 10 trends for 2015. Locally sourced, environmentally conscious, they’re all things I have been preaching about for 20 years. No one has been pushing it as hard as I have, with a lot of eye rolling on the side. That makes me proud and happy. I know that my message and voice hasn’t evolved into that, it always has been that. That is probably one of the most surprising and enjoyable changes

What are some of the biggest changes in the restaurant industry in Vegas?
The worst thing is probably that I had to let go of fine dining because food needed to be redefined. Most of the French restaurants are loss leaders. They’re there to be the star of MGM. I am a tenant. I bought out my partners that I brought with me from New York. Now I am tenant of Mandalay Place. I’m no longer partners with the casino. I will probably want to do stuff in Los Angeles. I’m not doing Dubai. I may want to do something on the East Coast because that’s where I started my career.

How is running a restaurant different than in New York?
You need to keep your finger on the pulse. In New York, there is a real predictable pattern.

There is no best day of the week in Vegas.

In New York, it’s slow in July. You know December will be the greatest month of the year. Vegas is almost diametrically opposite. December is the worst month of the year. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it’s desolate. The client base ebbs and flows. You’re going to get foodies around the media things. Steaks and large portions when the cowboys are in town. What an eclectic crazy mix. It's not as predictable as the big cities.

What’s the toughest part about staying at the top in Las Vegas?
Clark Wolf introduced me to everyone. He said, "Ricky, if you’re going to make it, you have to go out you have to show your face. You have to have your finger on the pulse of the food scene. You have to be supportive." I loved it.

Last Sunday, on my night off, I went to Mercadito. That’s how you do it in Las Vegas. You have to try to help perpetuate the growth of cuisine as well as the excitement of it.

RM Seafood

3930 Las Vegas Blvd. S., Las Vegas, NV 89119 702-632-9300 Visit Website