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Moondance Executive Chef Joel LeMay Followed in his Brother’s Footsteps

He learned a lot — about cooking and life — from his late brother.

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If it wasn't for his brother, Joel LeMay might not be executive chef at Moondance Grill.

Growing up in New Orleans, LeMay, 27, ran track and was a defensive lineman on his high school football team. He ate hot dogs and bologna and grilled cheese sandwiches.

His big brother, Ryan Aguiluz, was a professional chef who worked in French Quarter restaurants. "He would make all these amazing things," LeMay says. "And I couldn't fathom it when I was that young."

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Aguiluz didn't keep jobs for long, but LeMay remembers the time he saw him working at a restaurant. "He was doing something in this big pot. And I got to see him at work with his apron and his hat on and everything. It was cool for me because I got to see him in a kitchen."

It always was a special time when his brother cooked at home. "I would actually be able to keep him in one place with me and hang out," LeMay says. "He was always coming and going. He had a lot of things going on in his life. He had a lot of friends. And I always wanted to hang out with him."

LeMay helped his brother cook. "When somebody's in that lifestyle, they're very up and down. Me, being so young, I didn't really understand the up and down. But when he was up, it was fun. He was creative, and it would just be so, so fun for me to watch."

Aguiluz died when LeMay was 13. "He had a pretty severe drug problem," LeMay says. "It's part of the lifestyle sometimes, and, especially down in New Orleans, it's everywhere.

"When he passed away, he had been clean for about two months. It was the longest he had ever been clean. Then he had a heart attack."

LeMay shut down after Aguiluz died. "I didn't go to school for a long time. I just basically went into a cocoon for a while and just sorted things out."

When he was 19, LeMay got his first job in a restaurant, City Diner, as a server, but he soon moved up to prep. "Then they started letting me cook," he says. "And the second I picked up a spatula, I felt so close to my brother. It was like he was looking down on me. He was like, 'Man. He got in the kitchen, too.' I was so inspired at that point in time. And it felt right."

LeMay eventually was promoted to chef. "Once they gave me that chef jacket, I never took it off. You couldn't get me to take it off."

He later went to work for Bonefish Grill, where he moved up the ladder. He worked at the company's restaurants in Metairie and Baton Rouge, and in California and Texas.

Three years ago, LeMay moved to Memphis to work at another Bonefish Grill. Memphis reminded him of New Orleans "because it was so colorful. You know, there are so many different areas, and every region is so different from the other one."

After seven years with Bonefish, LeMay decided last year to make a career move. He interviewed with Moondance owner Tommy Peters and corporate chef Oscar Pena. They asked his opinion on the menu. "I come from a corporate restaurant [environment]where I'm told how things should be," he says.

Over the last few months they've been working on "certain twists and seasonings and flavors" they can add to their dishes. "We're at a place now where the menu that we brought to Moondance is perfected," he says.

LeMay feels his brother would be proud of him. "As a manager, as a chef, I just feel like he's definitely been a part of my momentum," he says. "Me being so fortunate in what my career has been so far, I feel like he has a lot to do with that."

And, LeMay adds, "I know he would be proud, but I know he would wish he could be here for it."

Moondance Grill is located at 1730 South Germantown Road, Suite 117; 755-1471.

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