In Las Vegas, there is not a shortage of celebrity chef’s and their restaurants. You’ve got Gordon, Giada, Bobby, and many other notable stars with billboards lining up and down the Strip. Rick Moonen and his two restaurants RM Seafood, and RX Boiler Room at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino have a celebrity chef attached to them, and not only is he a distinguished and highly awarded chef the guy lives here. Loves to live here with his beautiful wife Roni, and truly gives back to our city as much as he possibly can. Yes, Oprah called him out on her show, and yes he’s been on big foodie shows like “Top Chef,” but at his core, Rick Moonen and his wife Roni are committed to seafood sustainability, community outreach, and creating amazing flavors for diners around the world to enjoy at their establishments. We were lucky enough to sit down with this amazing couple. Ask a few questions, and hear about their amazing love story.
RONI: What’s is this for?
VS: This is for our magazine STRIPLV. It’s an adult art and lifestyle magazine and there is a little nudity in it.
RICK: A little what?
RICK: We don’t care about nudity. I’m a big fan.
VS: I also call myself the Vegas Food Nerd because that’s my favorite thing about living here is the food.
RICK: Well you don’t want to know what my wife’s nickname is, though. (Roni laughs) We like to cook a lot in the kitchen. There are two different styles of cooking in a kitchen. I approach it as a professional because that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life, whereas Roni has got a great palate, and is enthusiastic about cooking, she’s cooked for years from her previous marriage, and she’s a whirlwind, a tornado. I am completely different, sitting there thinking about how I am going to do this organized and everything. She is already over there, done the chopping, (he motions wildly with his hands) and leaving knives and stuff all over. Ah, I’m losing my mind, and she gets it done very quickly, and does it very well, but the place is a disaster. I had to train myself to be capable of realizing that the end result was what was important. If someone was working like that in my professional kitchen, then maybe I’d have something to say about it. (laughter) I would kick their ass they wouldn’t last too long in that part of my world. But this is the joining of two people in a partnership for life.
RONI: And we are both artists. I’m an artist
RICK: But anyway we are getting to the point of your nickname sweetie pie.
RONI: And it’s not sweetie pie.
RICK: KW. We figured it would be a lot of fun if I were the kitchen Nazi as she calls me, and I call her my dirty kitchen whore.
VS: That’s so sweet
RICK: Isn’t that nice.
RONI: And he uses a German accent.
RICK: I go, where is my dirty kitchen whore. Where’s my whore? (Both laughing together)
RONI: I just do it to irritate you now.
RICK: It works. It works like a charm. We’ve come a long way in six years you and me.
RONI: Yes we have.
VS: Will you tell us the story of how you met?
RICK: It’s a very good story, and it is very romantic. Neither of us was looking for a relationship when we met. We were shooting a pilot for a television show. It was being put together by Mara Papatheodorou who used to be the international correspondent for Bon Appetite Magazine. She had developed a lot of relationships with different Chefs over the years and wanted to create a different kind of TV Show. She had seen all the different cooking competition shows etcetera wherein the end someone always ends up looking like a fool. They cut their finger or what not and go running off. She wanted to do something that would illuminate the chef she wanted to take a chef that was known for a particular type of cuisine and bring them somewhere in the world that was completely unrelated. So, she chose me to be the chef for the pilot. They would take that chef to a remote part of the world. Introduce them to the culture, the palate of flavors, and the marketplace. Then the chef would go shopping then go onto a luxury ship and go into the galleys and cook a four course, five-star meal for the captain of the ship and 11 of his guests. So, I went to Oaxaca, Mexico. I didn’t even know I was going there until a day or two before we went. So, I didn’t have a chance to do any research on it or anything. Roni was on the crew.
RONI: Ok, I will tell you the romance of the story instead of the bones of the show, because the show didn’t work. I lived in Florida at the time, and I’d lived there for 24 years. I’d been married for 22 years, and had been a freelance
makeup artist, photo stylist, producer, everything so I got hired for this crew for the pilot. I was excited, thought maybe I was going to get a TV show, and this would be really cool. They told me there was going to be this Chef Rick Moonen. I didn’t watch any reality TV, cooking shows, nothing. I cooked I’ve always cooked I was just never into that stuff, Julia Child maybe. It was funny, we had a stop in Mexico City, and I swore I walked by him at the airport, but he was sitting at the wrong gate. I went on to my gate and went on to Oaxaca, and of course, my luggage was lost. So this adds a different element to the story because I’m going to be there for ten days and we are going to be five days on this luxury cruise ship where you can’t wear jeans on it. So, I had specific things packed plus I had makeup, props, and accessories for the host of the show which is Mara. So I land with no luggage, and luckily I had a backpack with a change of clothes and essential needed things. And they tell me Rick is not here he missed his flight.
RICK: Not romantic at all.
RONI: So this is the crew get together before the shoot. We are drinking and eating great food together it’s great. So finally Rick lands at 11 pm. Since I’ve worked with a lot of talent I’m like we need to order him some food; we need to pick through his clothes. Now, I’m drunk, and he is well aware, and he’s annoyed. So we pick out his clothes. And I’m like ok, he’s fine. So the next morning we meet and I say do you need breakfast, do you need coffee, what do you need? Because no one was taking care of him and that’s what I do. And I think you were excited about that?
RICK: Listen there was one female on the entire crew, and that was Roni, a very pretty girl, she was basically meat on a stick. All of these dudes were away from their houses, their girlfriends whatever, and they all saw this and figured it was going to be the best. Now I saw this, and in my mind, I’m like I have to stay focused, I’m the one being challenged, I’m the one on camera. Meanwhile, I land, everyone is drunk on Mescal, and I’m like, I’ll have a Mescal, and then I get whisked up to my room by you (Roni). To go through my luggage to pick out my outfit for a shoot I have to do a few hours later. To be introduced to the Aztec culture, which is beautiful, and you were assigned to me.
RONI: I wasn’t assigned to you yet. I was assigned to Mara. You were just kind of a side thing.
RICK: They didn’t realize how much babysitting I was going to need, so they assigned her to me, which I was quite happy about. I was like ok.
RONI: We were in Mexico doing the shoot. I don’t think there was any connection at the get-go, but it was ok. So, our first alone meal or interaction was he was making chocolate in this place, and I needed to take a break, and I smoke no one else does, and he was getting ready to take a break and say hey you’re a chef I know you smoke. Do you want to grab a smoke with me? And he was like what? And I said seriously you work in a kitchen; I know you smoke. And he was like oh yeah.
RICK: I took my wrinkled-up pack of Marlboro Lights. (laughing)
RONI: So, I take him across the street to this little stoop and its cobblestones, and donkeys, or burros and all this stuff going by. And I know that at some point they are going to bring him surprises for this show. I knew we were going to be eating grasshoppers at some point, and he did not know this. At one point the producer comes up to us and says hey do you guys want a snack? And I’m like ok yeah, and he says ok yeah. So, they bring us grasshopper tacos.
RICK: This is a beautiful community, it’s a series of families that live together they all work, they loom, they make rugs it is Teotitlán del Valle, Mexico it is very remote a beautiful little town. So, we are sitting on the stoop, and there is a burro with sticks attached to it, carrying things, almost like there is a guy on the corner saying cue the burro. It was so perfect it was out of control. So, the producer comes over asks us if we are hungry, and I say sure we are hungry. She comes out with these tiny little bread and butter plates with a tortilla on them with some red sauce, cubes of queso fresco, and all these little critters on it. I’m sitting there with this in hand talking to it saying you’ve got me confused with Andrew Zimmerman or something. I say I’m not putting this stuff in my mouth. Meanwhile, Roni is sitting right to my left she had already rolled it up and taken a nice healthy bite of it, and she’s crunching in her mouth in my ear through her crunching I hear (pauses) may I quote?
RONI: Yes please quote.
RICK: You’re a chef, stop being a pussy, and eat it. (laughter) I fell instantaneously in love with her. I thought that was the coolest thing ever, and I, of course, rolled it up and ate it, and that was our first real meal together. We became best friends after that. Mescal buddies and that’s pretty much…
RONI: Yeah, he called me after a dinner one of the other nights and said hey do you want to have some mescal? And that was pretty much it.
VS: So the original thought of stay away didn’t work out so well.
RONI: No it didn’t. And my luggage never came.
VS: Not the entire trip?
RONI: They did find it just before we got on the ship. So, I had to go to a Mexican thrift store while they were in the market one day because I had no clothes. All
I had was a pair of boots and a pair of army pants and a t-shirt that was it. You know how they have those Mexican street vendors? I was wearing those clothes. I had no money, and I had to borrow pesos to buy these weird flowery Mexican dresses. I went to a hotel gift shop and spent way too much money.
RICK: She bought stuff at a thrift store and made it look hot. I don’t know how she did it. (laughter) But she did it. She pulled that shit right off it was awesome. The more we drink, the funnier it gets (filling their champagne glasses) so, let’s keep it up.
RONI: So, the first feeling that I knew something was between us is when we had to get on this little airplane. It was a puddle jumper only ten people could fit on it. The Cameraman on the shoot was like totally in love with me and trying to get into my pants the entire time. He had done this to me before. I had even brought stuff to beat him off me. You know like get away from me it’s never going to happen. I want to work with you but just forget it, not happening
RICK: Yeah it was pretty obvious.
RONI: So we get on this plane, and this same photographer on the shoot was like “Roni! Come sit with me.” And I was like ugh no if this plane goes down that is not who I want to be sitting next to, and Rick had a seat open next to him, and he says “Yes.”
RICK: This was all planned because at this point I was interested. After the grasshopper story, I was very interested. We were taking this plane over the mountains to the coast. Which was breathtaking. I had calculated this. I made sure I was walking behind her so I could be like “Oh look at that we are sitting next to each other”
RONI: How ‘bout that?
RICK: Totally calculated don’t kid yourself here.
RONI: And I had no idea. We get ready to take off, and our arms are next to each other.
I know I’m married I have no interest in this man. But oh, my gosh I have this electricity in my arm that I am feeling from him. I’ve never felt this way. I’m just sitting there, and I don’t even know how I feel about this. And I don’t know if he feels the same way. And I’m certainly not going to say anything. But now to this day whenever we take off or land on an airplane we always sit next to each other, and we always hold hands, and we always remember that first time. And we travel a lot.
RICK: It was like an unspoken connection.
RONI: And that is really a ritual that we do every single time. It’s like a crazy magnetic thing like we can feel the heat off of each other, like a hot blow dryer.
RICK: It’s called menopause honey
RONI: Well now it is, but then it wasn’t. But thanks so much for sharing. (laughter)
The chef and his wife and partner then share a plate of oysters. Rick squeezes the lemon over the bi-valves. He explains that while the restaurant does serve them with a mignonette sauce, he and Roni prefer to taste the freshness of the oyster, and the ocean and eats them with no sauce when they enjoy them.
RICK: This is how we live every day. During Valentines for sure. Oysters are a well-known aphrodisiac.
RONI: We might have to get a room after this.
RICK: Who needs a room I’ve got a restaurant.
RONI: That’s true we don’t open until 5.
VS: You’ve said that eating oysters actually improves the ocean quality. Why is that?
RICK: The beautiful thing about oysters is the more oysters that are cultivated in the ocean the cleaner the ocean becomes. They are like mini filters. One of these oysters sucks in and filters 50 pounds of water. That’s just one. Millions of them around revitalizes the health of the ocean. At least in the area where they grow. So, the more oysters you eat, the healthier the ocean, the better for us, eat oysters.
VS: So after Mexico what happened?
RONI: Of course we had to carry out this secret infatuation with each other on the boat because eventually, we end up on a cruise ship. Now we knew kind of what our intentions were, but what were we gonna do with it? I was going to go home in five days. He was going to go home to Las Vegas, and that’s never going to happen so fine I figured this is going to be it. We started wrapping the shoot.
RICK: And you (he motions to Roni) got off in Mexico, and I stayed on to get off in San Diego. There is a reason for that.
RONI: It was the last day, and he was getting pretty quiet. Not saying anything to me, and I’m thinking, what is this high school, you mean you aren’t even going to say goodbye to me? So, I took you aside and took you away from everyone and said. Hey, don’t act this way we’ve got to say goodbye to each other.
RICK: Everyone is gathering to disembark off this ship.
RONI: Then he’s like I’ll go on shore with you and take you to your car. So, we get off the boat, and we go. This is like the first time we got to be alone with each other. We could actually hold each other’s hands. We don’t have to worry about anyone seeing us, judging us, there are no microphones we had many microphone situations where I had to blackmail the soundman. So, we get off the boat, and there is this little bar, it’s 10 in the morning, and I didn’t have to be on my plane until 1 and Rick’s like “do you want to get a shot of tequila before you go?”, and I said “yeah sure.”
RICK: I didn’t have to even say the whole word tequila I said “Te” and she said “Yes.” (laughing)
RONI: So we are sitting at this bar in Cabo San Lucas, and we proceed to drink for like 2 hours. I asked him to dance with me to this Mexican music in the square, there is no one else there, and he does. It’s just so romantic and so sweet. It’s like there is a movie camera on us. And so finally I get a car, and I have to race to the airport. I’m hammered. We did some damage we were drinking something called Windex, it wasn’t Windex, but it was blue. So, I get to the airport, and I start to get on the plane, and it hits me. I was very sad. I thought I am never going to see him again. I’m just crying and sobbing on the airplane. But I am resolved with it, and ok that I won’t see him again, and ready to get on with my life. And Rick went back on the boat and stayed on the boat for a few more days.
RICK: I did and when we pulled away and continued to go to San Diego. I had my own epiphany. I was alone the entire crew, and everyone I had gotten to know was gone. That night I went to the back of the boat after dinner. I’d had dinner with the captain who I had gotten to know. I went back to have a cigarette, and
I lit up a cigarette, and I looked out and I just started to cry uncontrollably. I had an epiphany of life. I knew what I had to do. There was no question about wow what should I do next. I knew exactly what I had to do.
I was separated from my wife, but still legally married. I knew I didn’t want to die like my father, unhappy. All these things were going on in my mind. So, when I got back, I reached out to Roni.
RONI: We were going to do another shoot. When I went home, I had to tell my husband. I was like look I know this is not good, but I can’t lie to you about it. I met someone. We are grown-ups, it’s been 22 years, we need to move on. We’ve worked on this thing long enough. He, of course, was like you’ve got to call this guy and never work on his film crew. He thought I was having an affair with the damn photographer. I was like no, oh god it was someone else. That guy is a creep.
RICK: It was a different creep. (laughing)
RONI: So I moved out. This was January. We didn’t see each other for six weeks. We texted a little, about maybe doing some other shows. But we didn’t talk.
RICK: No you gave me the ultimatum. She emailed me and said don’t ever talk to me, don’t ever contact me again, I’m married, we can’t ever work together ever again. I could tell someone was over her shoulder making her send these.
RONI: So I left, but then I found out you were married which I didn’t know. So, I was like ok really don’t ever call me again. (laughing) Until you have divorce papers and then I will talk to you.
RICK: Why let the truth get in the way of a good story? (smiling)
RONI: Within ten days he sends me them, and I was like oh ok this guy is serious. I can trust this; I’m fine. So, we made our date for me to come out to Las Vegas. It was for the weekend. He had the Vegas experience planned for me.
RICK: I had the whole staff working on it for me. I had a checklist; it was called the Moonen checklist. Get a limousine, make a reservation.
RONI: We had an itinerary.
RICK: There wasn’t a minute that I didn’t plan out. The first night when Roni landed, of course, I was at the airport. It seemed like forever until she got there. We were texting, and then there she was, and we embraced it was excellent. We came straight to the restaurant for dinner which I, of course, had everything planned. Champagne, oysters, caviar, nothing left out. It was all fine dining, white linen, crystal…
RONI: It was really beautiful.
RICK: It was the entire experience. When it was over, we just were looking at each other, and had the whole dining room to ourselves, staring into each other’s eyes, we were so so in love. The following day I took her in a limo to the MGM Grand which is two blocks away. And I took her to Joel Robuchon’s at The Mansion. It was fantastic. This was the most formal, stuffiest, exclusive dining experiences in Las Vegas. We had champagne in the Champagne Lounge waiting for our table, and then they sat us across from each other, and Roni was like this isn’t gonna work, so she gets up and sits next to me.
RONI: Yeah and everyone in the room just turned and was like what did she just do? (laughing)
RICK: The best part was the captain in the room loved it because he knew. Yeah,
they are going to get away with it because that’s chef Rick Moonen.
RONI: They were so good to us there.
RICK: They treated us like such royalty. And that was Roni’s expectation from then on. (Roni laughs at this)
RICK: We went to the topless beach at Moorea Beach Club.
RONI: We got a couple’s massage. We went hiking in Red Rock. It was like beyond. It was the ultimate. We stayed in a suite. I flew home on Valentine’s day. It was still Valentine’s date, though. And that was the other thing; I came from the coast of Florida. I didn’t want to live in Las Vegas. I mean I hate Disney World. Vegas is the adult Disney World. I could never live there. It took me about two years, but now I love it here.
VS: What do you like about living in Las Vegas?
RICK: The diversity of it all. We live about 25 minutes northwest of the Strip. It’s all horse ranches and gorgeous desert landscape with large properties. I can ride my bike, and we can go hiking.
RONI: Right out our back door.
VS: So you are close to Floyd Lamb Park?
RICK: Yes the park is right in our backyard.
RONI: And we live next to all these properties that own horses. We can go horseback riding pretty much whenever we want.
RICK: And when you want some excitement you can dress up come on down to the strip and have a good time. It’s the entertainment capital of the world here, yet we have tranquility and peacefulness. We can entertain, which we are known to do. Roni has her own way of creating her micro-circle of friends. People meet Roni, and within 20 minutes they are telling her their deepest darkest secrets. I swear to you, and I don’t know why. She’ll meet someone, and they come back to me and say hey you know what, and I’m like, who would tell you that? We love life. You know when you go into a room, and there is someone over there laughing and having a great time? You can’t help but look over and kind of wonder to yourself what’s going on with that energy? We bounce off of each other with that energy. Life has been a rollercoaster for us with interesting challenges and a lot of great friends and fun. Second marriages are tough, and whether you were happy in your first marriage or not, it was your comfort zone. So, we’ve made a big effort to keep having romantic moments in our marriage, because that is the most important thing.
VS: We saw you and The Bon Appétit Magazine Uncork’d event, and what struck us was how calm and happy you seemed at the event. It got somewhat crazy in there at one point. How do handle events like that so well?
RICK: Because it’s what we love to do.
RONI: I think that’s when we are at our best. It’s like entertaining. We both love to entertain and take care of everyone.
RICK: It becomes an adrenaline rush. It’s a non-stop conversation over the span of two hours. Meeting people, handing them cards, and doing stuff. Can I get a picture? I mean whatever they want. You just get this rush of energy.
RONI: And the staff just thinks we are insane. (laughing) They are like ok the crazies are here.
RICK: What sets us apart as a company, is the culture to it. We have 125 employees. They realize that it’s not just food and beverage service, there is a sustainability message behind it. There is a giveback and a community element. Very few restaurants in Las Vegas can make that claim. There is a purpose behind RM Seafood and RX Boiler Room. Upstairs RX Boiler room is about the crafting of the cocktail and its never-ending flavor combinations. RM Seafood is all about sustainability. It’s about maintaining the health of the Ocean for future generations of the seafood species and fisheries that we love so much, and maintaining the diversity without getting too weird, because people are kind of squeamish about fish and trying new things. That’s when things click, but when they don’t.
RONI: When events like this don’t go well, that’s when the wheels fall off the bus.
VS: Has that ever happened to you?
RICK: Yes, it happened here in Las Vegas. It actually was at a Bon Appétit Uncork’d event here at Mandalay Bay. Years ago, outside by the pool, we were totally unprepared. I had made the wrong assumption that my team was ready, and my staff had it together, and they did not. It was very embarrassing; it was a rough night.
RONI: It was bad.
RICK: Yeah it was. People lost jobs. No names but yes I’ve had those experiences. I mean everyone else was serving food, and our station was not even set up. I have a deep relationship with Bon Appétit Magazine in New York City from when I was at Oceana. At the time when I was there 1994-2002, a lot of the publishing industry, advertising industry, everything from books to magazines, Mad Men, those guys would come into my restaurant, and pound, sip or drink a lot, let’s just put it that way.
VS: Any plans for the restaurant in the next year or so?
RICK: Possible expansion. There are some opportunities on the table that it’s way too early to jinx them, but yes possible expansion. I just turned 60, and I’m looking to put about five more years in and then possibly teach and live by the beach part of the year.
VS: Tell us the shrimp cocktail story.
RICK: We were going out to see Frankie Moreno. He’s a friend of ours. He’s a local performer and was performing at Planet Hollywood.
RONI: I was dressed provocatively. Very low-cut, very short, and very high heels. The whole big hair extensions. Like a prostitute.
RICK: A hooker, so we are going to Frankie’s show
RONI: And everyone was dressing that way.
RICK: He’s got you sitting at the front table, and you have to look a certain way and I’m laughing because we are having dinner before the show at The Strip House, and they gave us a beautiful booth right in the corner with a great view and everything. You can’t get a better table. We are sitting there waiting for the waiter to come.
RONI: And I said I wanted to order something light because I have a small dress on and I don’t want to feel like a big fat cow. I said I think I’m going to order something light like a shrimp cocktail. And he goes “You can’t order a shrimp cocktail!” And I am like why?
RICK: That’s what prostitutes order. You take an escort out to dinner, and they want shrimp cocktail, and the surf and turf. And she was like “Nah I don’t believe you.”
RONI: So I asked the waiter when he comes over and I said “Is it true only prostitutes order shrimp cocktail? And he said, “Oh yeah.”
RICK: It was great he didn’t miss a beat in saying oh yeah.
RONI: I was like ok I guess you would know. So, I’m not allowed to order shrimp cocktail when I go out. (laughing)
Rick recently launched his line of knives called Blades by Rick Moonen. We asked him to share a little bit about this new product launch. A friend of his asked him about the knives he carried in his chef roll and asked him what each one was for and how he used them. That sparked the idea to create this line.
RICK: We said what if we could take the expense out of it, and create a line of knives that you could share with foodies and people. So, they can have an entire 12 piece set just like professionals use at a price they can afford. You have a diamond coated sharpener to help keep them sharp. You got a flexible fish spatula; you got a slicer, a full French knife, smaller size French knife, a utility knife that I do the boning with, and an offset serrated knife that everyone is raving about. They are all super sharp and can tear into an acorn squash, spaghetti squash, any of those harder shell vegetables. An artichoke whoosh
sliced in half no problem. I am starting to sound like an infomercial I know, but
VS: Where can people find them?
RICK: They can get them at www.bladesbymoonen.com
VS: If someone was coming into your restaurant with a date that they were trying to seduce. What would you recommend they order?
RICK: Exactly what we have in front of us. Start off with oysters. Impress them with something delicious get some champagne. Get an assortment of oysters, have some caviar.
RONI: Be decadent, right?
RICK: Yes, be decadent, and it doesn’t have to be the kind of meal that you are so full that you don’t feel romantic anymore. Keep it light. Seafood is all good, to give you the energy that you need to be romantic.
VS: Do you have a favorite item on the menu right now either of you?
RICK: For RM Seafood I like the grilled octopus. I think it is super delicious, tender, and charred on the outside. Or the whole fish which maintains a lot of that natural flavor of the fish, and the texture, and integrity with the char of the grill. We change the garnishes and the sauces that go with it, but I always have a side of Moonen mash, which is mashed potatoes with fine diced red onion, cracked black pepper, scallions, and capers. We do a steak tartar on Valentines Day that just blows your mind. With truffles, yeah, that says I love you right there.
RONI: Are you going to do anything with uni butter for Valentine’s Day?
RICK: Uni butter, sea urchin, I do a compound butter. The uni and the butter are whipped together, and I finish the sauce together with some freshly shucked clams with linguini and some caviar on top.
RONI: It is so good. It has to be on the Valentine’s Day menu, that would make me eat pasta. It is just so good. And what did you put the truffle oil in that was so good?
RICK: It was a whipped cauliflower. Truffles are almost like a pheromone. Truffles are a turn on. They just are. That’s why they use animals to seek them out. They are buried beneath the earth and what attracts the animal to them is that it smells like the opposite sex in heat. That is what truffles put off. I’m just telling you what I know. (laughs)
VS: Outside of your restaurant where do you like to eat in Las Vegas?
RICK: James Beard was asked years ago what was his favorite restaurant and he said: “The place that knows me the best.” Being able to walk into a restaurant and to be welcomed, really welcomed, not just phony baloney welcomed, it just feels great. So, we have quite a roster of restaurants we like to visit and support them. It’s hard for us not to have a good dining experience in Las Vegas because this is a very transient town, and I’ve been here a while, so odds are there are people on the staff that used to work for me.