Q&A: Rick and Roni Moonen
For the Valentine’s Day issue Las Vegas Magazine chose to share a love story by interviewing Rick and Roni Moonen. The celebrity chef behind RM Seafood and Rx Boiler Room had no idea what hit him when he met the powerhouse who would one day join him in matrimony, but it wasn’t long before they both discovered they had met their match and it’s never too late to find your soul mate. Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen visited the Moonens at home, where they reminisced about how they met.
How long have you been together?
Roni: We only met six years ago in Mexico on a TV pilot.
Rick: I was the talent, the chef being challenged, being a recognized chef from seafood. They took me to Oaxaca, Mexico, which is not connected to my cuisine. Didn’t show me the palate of flavors and then I had to a marketplace shop a bunch of ingredients to interpret into my style of cuisine. Now you're on your own in the kitchen with what you bought, maybe some bits of creamer or staples from the ship. “Make me a four-star dinner for the captain and the captain’s table,” that was the whole challenge. So it was showing a chef’s creativity rather than two people competing against each other and somebody looking like a jerk at the end of the competition. They were trying to break the mold and it was really a lot of fun. Roni was in charge of …
Roni: Hair and makeup, wardrobe styling. It was a pilot so there wasn’t a huge budget. I worked with a film crew out of Florida, that’s where I’m from, and they hired me from Florida. I worked with them on some other stuff, and they took me to Mexico. I kind of knew what was going on. It was a reality show. I knew we were going to throw some curveballs. I didn’t know who he was. I never watch reality TV, never heard of Top Chef Masters, never heard of Rick Moonen before. I had worked with celebrities before in Southwest Florida, so it was kind of like, “OK, I’ll do that, no big deal.” And I get there and he wasn’t the host, he was the guest. I was really in charge of the host, this woman Mara Papatheodorou, who was the international correspondent for Bon Appétit magazine.
Rick: She was the brains behind it.
Roni: She was my focus and her best friend was her college roommate, who is a producer from Hollywood who produced Temptation Island. She had this “in” and her husband’s a luxury travel agent, so he had the cruise line. We went down there, we went to Mexico, and I showed up there and my luggage was lost. I had to scramble, but then I took care of him.
You did his hair and makeup.
Roni: I did his hair and makeup. I patted his sweat down.
Rick: I missed the connecting flight. I got there late. The crew was already snockered on mescal. They lost their minds on mescal.
Before Mexico, where were you at in your lives?
Roni: I was married for 22 years and I lived in Florida. Pretty regular … traveled some. I had a good, established career all over the state of Florida.
You’re from St. Louis originally?
Roni: St. Louis. I moved to Florida when I was 21. I lived on the water and had my garden, had boats. Canoes and manatees in the backyard.
Rick: I was married 30 years, but I had been separated for about 10 years. My wife didn’t live out here. I was living the chef’s life. I didn’t know where I wanted to be in life at this point so when I went away it was easy to pull myself away from everything else that was going on in my personal life. It was almost spiritual. Roni and I … it was very innocent initially. We were getting interested in each other’s auras, almost. I wasn’t looking for it.
Roni: It was pretty interesting I was a pretty independent person, so I was married but I had my own life. I did my own thing and my husband did his own thing. For me to go on a trip like this was no big deal because I did this kind of thing all the time. I’d never really met someone that was my equal as far as my energy and creativity and passion, all these things. Just zest for life. It was like meeting someone I had known forever, and it was kind of crazy.
Would you say it was more complementary than a yin-yang kind of thing?
Roni: Oh, totally complementary. We are pretty similar people.
Rick: When I met her, I showed her my calendar and I said, “Look, if we’re gonna get together you’re going to have to look at my travel schedule, and either you’re in or you’re not. This is a lot going on here. She says, “I’m in.”
Roni: We met on a cruise, both went our separate ways, never thought I was going to see him again, and then we just started texting each other. I left my husband, he left his wife, six weeks later we went on a date. We had not dated. We had no private time on this ship. We couldn’t act like we were having a relationship or even interested in each other. We had to keep it very professional. So I came out to Vegas for Valentine’s weekend, and we had our first date that weekend. And then that’s when he showed me his calendar and I said, “OK, fine.”
Did you feel an exchange of energy when you first met?
Rick: The energy between us was just undeniable. It was crazy. It wasn’t something I was dreaming about. It just happened.
Roni: I was friendly. Not flirtatious, just professional: “Do you need coffee? Do you need this?” I was taking care of him. I was doing my job. He was teaching me things too along the way. It was interesting.
Rick: We became tender. I was working my ass off in the kitchen and these guys were all filming, and the crew is pushing you to your limits. … Roni was the only one who thought, “He’s got to eat something. He hasn’t even had a chance to stop and eat.”
Roni: Like eight … and no food!
Rick: So she shows up with food and forces everybody to take a break. She yelled at them. That was just so perfect. (To Roni) Thank you so much.
You struck up a rapport. I said “energy exchange” but it almost sounds like stranger things were going on.
Roni: We sat down on this plane together, this little eight-seater plane. The producer of the show was kind of after me, and I had told him in a hundred ways, “It is never going to happen.” … I’m the last one on the plane and (the producer) was like, “Come back here and sit with me, Roni!” There was a seat next to Rick, and I was like, “If I’m gonna die on this plane in Mexico, I’m gonna be sitting next to this guy.” I sat down, and our arms touched, and we both kind of … I sat there and went (gasps), “That’s a weird feeling. Like a really, really weird feeling.” Just this (touches her forearm to Rick’s). That’s not intimate. I mean, you sit next to anybody on a plane and your arm can touch them, but to have all your hair stand on end, that is not a feeling I’ve ever had.
I was going to ask what was different about this relationship from previous ones, but I guess you’re getting into that.
Rick: It was like all of a sudden you’re in another room, and you’re alone, and you’re communicating, just through whatever warmth that was going on between the simple touch of an arm. It was weird.
Roni: And that happened a few times.
Rick: The biggest moment for me was … I ended up falling in love with her and didn’t realize it. The crew got off in Mexico. They were in Puerto Vallarta, and I had the option to get off in Puerto Vallarta and fly home or stay on and enjoy another night on this cruise, and get off in San Diego. I opted for San Diego. Everybody got off including Roni. I told her I’d see her off and we ended up dancing in a plaza to music and doing shots of tequila. That’s not the point. That night when I went back I was all alone, no one. I knew the captain of the ship and the chef, and I think I had dinner with them. I was smoking cigarettes at the time, so I went (to the ship’s stern) to have a cigarette. No one back there, it was very windy. And I looked up and I had an epiphany. It was this connection to some weird entity that put some clarity in my mind. I saw my father pass away, and I knew I didn’t want to feel the way he felt when he was in his final hours of his life.
Was your father alone?
Rick: No, my father went before my mother. He had a lot of regrets and he held a lot of things in that he never shared with anyone. He was a lonely man and I didn’t want to feel that way. I knew it right then. Clarity. So I started crying, tears streaming down my face, the wind pushing them off my face. I knew this was it. I knew what I want to do at that point in time.
How long after you clicked did you know this was soul mate territory?
Roni: It’s weird and it’s crazy, and whenever you’re married that long, there’s a sense of security. I went home and I think within five days I told my husband, “I can’t do this anymore. I met somebody. He said, “Oh, that producer?!” (Laughs) “No, it’s somebody else.”
How long from the time you met until the time you got married?
Roni: We met in January 2011. I moved out here by April 2011, and then we got married in October 2012. We had a really low-key wedding because we had both been married before. We both have grown children. We both have really busy schedules. You can have it really small, but if you got bigger than really small it becomes giant. You have to start inviting everybody. I don’t think we wanted to make a spectacle out of it. It was just about him and I.
Rick: We rented a super-stretch limo, got a gigantic bottle of champagne, we packed our friends and family. Nine people showed up.
Roni: We got married at Red Rock on a cliff.
Rick: It was very low-key. It was really great. No stress of the politics and whose feelings are hurt or not hurt, who’s on board or not on board.
So you were both married by the time Boiler Room opened.
Roni: We were married to each other. We sat out there by the pool one day and said, “What kind of restaurant do we want to open?”
You knew you were going to do something with the second level of the space.
Rick: We had to. We were being challenged by Chuck Bowling, the president of Mandalay Bay, to come up with something outside the bubble. All of these casinos have steakhouses, sushi, Mexican. So I came up with this “gastro lab”—beakers and flasks, girls dressed in nurse outfits. That was the original … eventually, Chuck Bowling couldn’t understand the concept of gastro lab. No one could. We ended up going with Boiler Room, which made total sense to him for some reason.
Roni: Literally we just sat outside and I started writing. “‘Boiler Room’ sounds good, OK. What are we going to put on the menu?”
Rick: We explained it to the architects and they said, “It sounds kind of like steampunk.” I said, “What is that?” And they turned around and showed me the iPad, all the gears and stuff. “Yeah that’s really cool.”
Roni: I put a storyboard together of all this stuff we like. We presented it to the designer and they’re like, “That’s steampunk,” and we’re like, “Whaat?”
Did you start eating better, or healthier?
Roni: Just because it’s delicious doesn’t mean it’s good for you. He makes amazing food. I am 30 pounds heavier than I was when I met him. I am not kidding. Thirty.
Rick: No-gluten pizza oven. We have a lot of pizza parties here. When I have a group of people over the most easy-to-organize scenario is a pizza party, because everybody’s rolling their own dough and I’m putting together a crazy smorgasbord of ingredients. You build your pie, I’ll cook it for you, and eat it.
I’m making an awkward segue into how you apply sustainability principles to your relationship. Rick is the “godfather of sustainability,” according to Wikipedia.
Roni: We have a lot of nice moments together. A lot of them. We don’t plan. “What do you want to do tonight?” “We should go on a date tonight.” We don’t have a date night, but we’ll go out and try a new restaurant. There’s a lot of kindness.
Do you have regular places you go to?
Rick: We were going to Saffron pretty regularly for a while there.
Rick: It’s on Craig Road.
Roni: Indian food, good stuff. We went to Lotus of Siam the other day, had a great meal there.
What about on the Strip?
Roni: Carbone, we like to go to. I like Aria and Cosmopolitan.
Rick: MGM grand. We like L’ Atelier. If we are getting dressed up and don’t feel like having the Mansion experience, we go to L’Atelier and enjoy it. It’s very difficult to go anywhere in the Las Vegas area and not find two of my ex-employees working there. I’m usually recognized and they take really good care of us. It’s nice to be us.
Roni: Yeah, you want to go out to eat with him. It’s crazy. The Venetian is good, too. There’s some good spots there. Mandalay Bay is great because he’s friends with Charlie Palmer and we’re friends with the chefs at the steakhouse. There’s always some chef we know that really makes it fun.
Rick: Tony Abou-Ganim at Libertine social.
Roni: He’s so great. He really is.
What in store for the Moonens? What’s around the corner and what do you have planned long term?
Roni: Well … finishing this darn house and having more parties (laughs). Rick just came up with a knife set that he designed.
Blades by Rick Moonen were introduced to the market last year, right?
Roni: October, end of September.
Rick: Good friend of mine, best friend, named Saville Kellner, he’s a local businessman …
Roni: Lake Industries.
Rick: I have a red knife roll that I’ve had forever. I had a bunch of knife rolls made when I was at Oceana. We had three stars in the New York Times, huge deal. It was Christmastime, so I got it embossed with the logo for Oceana on this canvas. Some hippie mother made them in California out of the heavy-duty stuff to keep your knives in. I’ve used this my whole life. This was on Top Chef Masters. I’ve taken this everywhere. My friend, he and I don’t ever want to do business together, we don’t ever want to interrupt each other’s … the chi of just being friends. Anyway, he sells cookware for a living, and he asked, “Why this bag? Do you always take the same knives?” Yeah, this is my toolkit. I can pretty much take on any situation with these knives. “Why?” So I went through them individually. … Each knife had a story. He was like, “Why don’t we take the characteristics, the weight, the reasons you really like those knives that you just described to me, and create your own knife set.” So he makes this in China, but it took us a year of going back and forth on sets of knives, weight, feeling it out. … It proved to be perfectly good for a first generation.
Roni: So, the blades came out, and Rick is a brand ambassador for (sustainable seafood company) True North Seafood, so there’s going to be a lot of promotions this year. We’ll be doing videos and demos, so I’ll be helping as far as styling the set, (to Rick) and directing you.
What do you have planned for Valentine’s Day?
Roni: This is going to sound cliché, but we don’t really celebrate Valentine’s Day. We don’t have one day out of the year that’s a special day. There’s many days out of the year. We try to do Valentine’s Day every day. Be thoughtful, be thankful, be romantic, connect, hold your partner’s hand, sing, dance.
Rick: Open the door … it goes a long way.
Roni: It has to be natural. Rick will probably cook something, right?