Most people are so blinded by the neon lights of the Strip that they forget all aspects of Vegas that don't involve boas, stripper heels, or some sort of magical illusion. But on Wednesday's episode of Top Chef Masters Rick Moonen of RM Seafood in Mandalay Bay showed America what they were missing out on.
Moonen was one of six chefs competing on the third episode of Masters second season trying to advance to the Champions Round. The competition was stiff as Moonen had to compete with Wylie Dufresne, Graham Elliot Bowles, Mark Peel, Jonathan Waxman, and Ludo Lefebvre for two spots in the finals. Luckily for Moonen, he proved that--when it comes to food at least--what happens in Vegas shouldn't stay in Vegas.
First up was the Quickfire Challenge. All six men were participants on the first season of Masters so they were a little more prepared for the speedy trial than some of the previous contestants we've seen this season. Not to imply that it was easy by any means--the keyword here is still definitely "Challenge."
Taken from a favorite Challenge from season 3 of Top Chef, the chefs had to prepare a meal that complimented one of the girlie cocktails created by mixologist Charlotte Voisey with names as absurd as their sugary flavors (Ginger Figgle, Coriander Mule, Nutmeg Applik Mojito, etc.). The absurdity didn't stop there. The judges for this round were Gael Greene and three of The Real Housewives of Orange Country: Alexis, Tamra, and Lynne.
I've watched the Housewives since the very beginning, and trust me--these women know about as much as food as they know about the dangers of fake tanning. The chefs got a little, shall we say frustrated, with the Housewives as they watched them critique their food. The women couldn't even recognize ginger and the attempt to pronounce edamame was just sad.
Moonen's creamy biscuit berry shortcake was a hit, receiving four stars and paired with the Forest Fruit cocktail (which was served to all of RM Seafood's guests after the segment aired). Unfortunately, Moonen lost to Waxman's pork tenderloin and poblana-stuffed shrimp, the first dish to receive a five-star rating this season.
Next up was the Elimination Challenge. Each chef picked one of the following Irish pub foods to upscale: bangers and mash, steak and kidney pie, shepherd's pie, Irish stew, fish and chips, and toad in the hole.
And this is where things got really interesting.
Moonen and Lefebvre, who coincidentally used to be a Strip chef himself at Lavo, immediately begin arguing over whether or not Moonen could do fish & chips. Lefebvre's fit stemmed from his belief that if he can't do French food, Moonen shouldn't be able to do a fish dish. Eventually Lefebvre backed down, taking on Irish stew and allowing Moonen to proceed as planned.
It didn't take long for karma to come back for Lefebvre after his unsportsmanlike tantrum. His stew began the service at Tom Bergin's Tavern and is completely rejected as an Irish stew by the judges, who now also include Gail Simmons and Jay Rayner.
Moonen was up next and served his chicken fried sable, lemon confit tartar sauce, twice fried potatoes and fennel sauce to happy diners. The only real complaint came from Gail who believed the chips were cut a bit thick.
The drama wasn't over between Lefebvre and Moonen though. At judges table, the newborn rivalry came to a head when the pair's fight escalated into a yelling match. Moonen had the last laugh though, when he received second place (after Waxman's shepherd's pie) and moved on to the Champions Round.
"It was a lot of hard work, but a lot of fun," said Moonen. "Very exhausting because we'd finish shopping, prepping, cooking and taping at 2 am and be back up by 7 am to start the process all over again. I was so pleased to have been in the company of five other super chefs over three generations, and the other winner of the night, Jonathan Waxman, was my mentor in New York years ago."
The win for Moonen was a great moment for the celebrity chef who, after running out of time last season, was unable to plate his dish in the Quickfire Challenge.
"I had to return to redeem myself. I came back to show I could cook and prove the point in a room where there were a lot of egos. It paid off this time."
In the fifth episode of this season, Moonen will join fellow Mandalay Bay chef Susan Feniger of Border Grill to compete for the $100,000 which Moonen has promised to Three Square food bank if he wins.
"It was a fantastic and amazing experience. I was honored to be able to return. I am honored to now move on to the Champions. I'm sworn to secrecy about what will happen in the next few weeks, but for now I'm very happy I redeemed myself from the first season's problem."