Two years ago, J.R. Starkus thought his career had reached the proverbial next level. He’d landed a coveted bartending job at Aria. It came with corporate benefits. With the prestige of a hip new location. And weekends off. So what if tips didn’t turn out as generous as he expected? No problem, he’d round out his income with a second job at Todd English P.U.B. He liked the people there, both customers and co-workers.
But something was off, and his younger brother Chris knew it. J.R.’s infectious energy was missing when they’d chat on the phone. Then Chris dropped in and watched J.R. behind the bar at the pub: “He was just opening bottles. I knew he was better than that.”
Chris, too, is in the industry. As a chef at Stratta at the Wynn, he’d worked with Paul Fisichella, managing partner of Rick Moonen’s RM Seafood at Mandalay Place. RM’s anemic bar program needed a manager with some creativity. Dude, give Paul a call, already, Chris prodded.
“It was such a revelation,” J.R. says, hands flying to punctuate his rapid-fire words. “I had [Paul’s] blessing to get as geeky as I wanted behind the bar. I had full kitchen support. I wouldn’t have to pour the corporate way anymore. And I have my brother to thank for that.”
It wasn’t the first time one brother had elbowed the other’s career along. Chris moved to Las Vegas in 1998 for culinary school, and soon demanded his brother quit his Mimi’s Café job in Temecula, Calif., to join him here.
They followed each other around from Wolfgang Puck restaurants to the Eiffel Tower restaurant, using their contacts along the way to help each other out, progressing from server to mixologist and from student to executive chef.
Then last October, Cocktail Week brought J.R. to Portland, Ore., where Chris was working as a private chef. Chris watched his brother feed off mixologists from around the country. “I didn’t realize how secluded I’d been,” Chris says. “I missed the industry. I missed collaborating, being with people who were creative and passionate about it.”
Now, the Starkii say, it’s all come together at RM. And Chris is ready to do for the kitchen what J.R. did for the bar.
When he joined RM, J.R. unleashed his pent-up creativity and immediately overhauled the cocktail menu. It was a “Band-Aid.” So he did it again. And then again. But a dozen new cocktails every month challenged the staff in a bad way. He’s since settled into a rolling menu, a few seasonal drink changes at a time. This spring you’ll see him playing with sipping vinegars, shrubs and bitters. “I think I’m most proud of my bitters collection.”
In the kitchen, Chris is focusing on RM’s tagline, “Global Seafood Cuisine.” That doesn’t mean flying in fish from across the world—that wouldn’t fit with the restaurant’s commitment to a sustainable, small carbon footprint philosophy. Instead, he’ll match domestic species with flavor profiles from Thai to French Mediterranean, and together they’ll brainstorm cocktail pairings.
“I think we’ve both realize how important it is that everything fits, that creativity is as important to us as money,” J.R. says. “Now we’re both in the right place.”
J.R. on Chris: “He’s intricate. He’s got a passion, but it’s subtle. If you know him like I do, you see how deep-seated it is. We’re both really laid back, which in this industry is good because so often there’s a high-blood-pressure environment. He keeps the staff calm and makes things happen.”
Chris on J.R.: “He’s high energy and mellow at the same time. And one of the friendliest guys you’ll ever meet. I admire that because I don’t believe I carry that same trait. That guest interaction, it’s why he’s at the front of the house and I’m not.”
They’re both … organized and neat. Before both married, they shared a house. “It was immaculate—mise en place, everything had its place,” Chris says.
Which is the favored son? “Dad jokes that I’m the No. 1 son,” says the older J.R. “Mom would say, ‘Oh I love both my boys equally.’” But Chris counters, with no hint of jealousy, that J.R. is rightfully the favored one. “He’s the talkative one. He’s the one who remembers birthdays and calls home all the time.”
Sibling rivalry? Only comes into play on the golf course. J.R. claims Chris is merely the more experienced Starkus golfer. Chris offers, “Consistently, over the years, I have been the better golfer.” Then generously adds, “That being said, he is a very good and has his days.”