On February 18, chef Rick Moonen celebrated the 10-year anniversary of his flagship restaurant RM Seafood with a special invitation-only tasting dinner that featured 10 dishes from past menus. After reminiscing about the changes he and his restaurant have undergone, Moonen took time at the end of the night to offer some interesting predictions as he enters his second decade in Las Vegas.
The chef believes more and more cultures will enter the world of fine dining, especially given the collapse of once-dominant French cuisine. “I graduated culinary school in ’78,” he recalls. “Back then, ‘fine dining’ or ‘good food’ meant only one thing: French. End of story. But it has diversified with cross-cultural excitement.”
What turns him on personally are ethnic spices. “I’ve been studying spices, and the heat of peppers,” Moonen says, passionately. “You see those ingredients more and more—savory, spicy, even painful sensations. We love that [painful] feeling. We’re the only animals in the world who are attracted to that. Every other animal—that flavor, that profile—they’ll spit it out of their mouth.”
But he believes heat needs to be balanced with such flavors as turmeric, cumin, cardamom, coriander and cloves. To continue his culinary growth, Moonen’s home pantry includes dozens of fresh spices. He experiments with them constantly, inspired in part by the 2014 film The Hundred-Foot Journey, about an Indian expatriate in France trying to compete with a traditional Michelin-starred restaurant.
Inspired by all of those things, Moonen believes Indian food “is going to increase in popularity” in the U.S. over the next few years. To wit: He’s added more Indian-inspired dishes to his menu, has bought his own tandoor oven for home, and is preparing to stage (intern) in bread-making at Saffron Flavors of India in the northwest part of the Valley. “I’m going to be a white boy making naan!”
All jokes aside, Moonen foresees other trends that he hopes to help develop. One is a shareable style of communal dining that goes beyond the tapas craze. For example, he recently added fondue to the menu at his Rx Boiler Room (upstairs from RM Seafood). And he has plenty of other ideas. “Korean barbecue is genius,” he says. “I love going to Korean barbecue with people who have never been there before. We can start doing that with other low-cost items like pupu platters or shared paella in all different kinds of flavors.” When I mention Ethiopian food as a similar experience, he gets even more excited about the future of communal dining.
Moonen admits his current restaurants may not be set up for all of these concepts—particularly paella, which seems to have captured his interest more than the others. “But I’ve got news for you: I’m looking for other spaces, and I see [paella] as something I want to do.”
“It makes sense food cost-wise, because it’s rice as an ingredient,” he continues. “So you don’t have to charge people a ton. It’s affordable. It’s fast. And it’s delicious.”
During the recession, Moonen was one of many high-end chefs who adopted more accessible price points. With the economy rebounding, however, many are speculating that we may be headed back to the days of money-is-no-object haute cuisine. He’s not buying that. “We can still have fun with good food and flavors, but it’s not going to be the same check averages that we used to command,” he says soberly. “I don’t think we’ll ever be back to where we were 10 years ago.”
Whatever Moonen does, the former New Yorker says he has no plans to leave town anytime soon. “I love Las Vegas. The support that I’ve received since I’ve been here has been just tremendous.”