Chef Rick Moonen: Mastering Sustainable Seafood

Chef Rick Moonen is probably no stranger to any seafood lover with a discerning palate. His restaurant Rick Moonen’s rm seafood, at the prestigious Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas, has received national attention and acclaim. He has been featured in Esquire magazine and has made numerous TV appearances, including on The Oprah Winfrey Show, as a contestant in Bravo’s hit series Top Chef Masters and as a judge in Top Chef Las Vegas, where his restaurant served as the setting for one episode.

But, as he is quick to point out, his role as a renowned culinary artist might almost be considered his second career and provides a handy platform for his primary vocation. Since the mid-1990s—long before it became an issue for many—Moonen has been a very vocal advocate for sustainable seafood. When he’s not in the kitchen, he is traveling the country, educating anyone and everyone on the vital issues of ocean conservation and the dangers of overfishing. Championing environmental and sustainability policy issues, he has testified in both Washington, DC, and New York. He is a founding member of Seafood Choices Alliance, which named him Seafood Champion in 2006. He is an active member of SeaWeb and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, and in 2011 Monterey Bay Aquarium honored him as Chef of the Year.

I’m not sure what I expected after learning all of the above, but the man I finally spoke with (after pursuing him for two years) was disarmingly and brutally honest, and refreshingly direct. He sounds an awful lot like Al Pacino. That’s no surprise when you learn that Moonen grew up in Brooklyn (Pacino grew up right next door in the Bronx). I was expecting a master culinary artist and certainly got one—but one that expresses himself very much like the man on the street and would never have it any other way.

The Unwitting Champion

There is a lot that could be written about Rick Moonen and his career, and much has been. But the most engaging story he has to tell is that of becoming a sustainable seafood activist—a journey which almost chose him more than he chose it.

“I got pushed into becoming an environmentalist,” Moonen told Calmful Living. “[pullquote]All I really wanted to do was run a restaurant and get food, and be able to let my customers know that I’m sourcing things that are going to be healthy and delicious for them. That’s it—simple; leave me alone. But that didn’t happen in my world[/pullquote].”

The GMO Revelation

It all began with a chance encounter with a reporter on the steps of New York City Hall in the early 1990s, where for the first time Moonen heard about something he knew nothing of: genetically modified foods. “About midway through my six years as executive chef at The Water Club in Manhattan, I get invited to the steps of City Hall,” Moonen related. “I and several others are to come down and get a certificate of recognition and appreciation from the mayor of New York, because tourism is up and ‘We owe a debt of gratitude to the high-quality restaurants and the chefs that are behind them.’

“So all the chefs are standing in front of City Hall—it’s a beautiful day—waiting for this moment to happen. A guy is walking around with a tape-recording device strapped to his hip and a hand-held microphone, and he comes to our little circle of chefs and says, ‘Hey, do you mind if I interview you guys?’ And I, the cocky one, turn and say, ‘Well, what’s it about?’ He answers, ‘I want to ask you how you’re feeling about genetically engineered food.’ And I come back, ‘What the hell is that?’

“He’s like, ‘Well, in the New York Times today there’s an article that says genetically engineered foods have already been released and approved into the marketplace. They’re taking vegetables and fruits and they’re introducing genes of animals and bacteria into them—all kinds of stuff—to “improve” them.’ I say, ‘Oh boy, that sucks! Turn that thing on.’ So I go, ‘I’m Rick Moonen, executive chef at The Water Club here in New York City. I think Mother Nature does a fantastic job, and if anything should be done, we need a better method of distributing organic food that’s being produced and the recognition thereof. Thank you.’ Click! And he goes away.”

Moonen barely had time to get back to work before a wave of unexpected publicity—the first of many to come—occurred. “It turns out that the radio station the reporter was from is called 1010 WINS—‘All news, all the time,’” Moonen continued. “My sound bite ended up on the radio. Suddenly I’m getting phone calls. ‘Can I speak to Rick Moonen? We’re asking about genetically engineered foods.’ And I didn’t even know what that was three hours ago!”

Moonen got hold of the New York Times article in question—and hit the roof. He immediately contacted the two people who had been quoted in the article, Rebecca Goldburg of the Environmental Defense Fund and Jeremy Rifkin of the Pure Food Campaign in Washington, DC, and they faxed him over a plethora of information.

“A ream of paper later, from the one fax machine we have in the banquet office, and I’m like, ‘What the ——!’” he exclaimed. “That was my epiphany. Holy shit! There’s no premarket safety testing; there is no mandatory labeling. I’m probably already buying it; I’m serving it to customers. My customers come to me as chef and they trust me. People put what I produce in their mouths. It becomes them after I put it together.”

Moonen contacted all the chefs that were on the City Hall steps with him that day, and they were equally outraged. He then got in touch with Jeremy Rifkin again, who convinced Moonen and his colleagues to set up a joint press conference, at which Rifkin would answer any technical questions. The press turned out in numbers.

“That press conference resulted in my becoming a poster child,” Moonen said. “My life changed forever; I was on TV, on panel discussions and being interviewed in magazines. So I wrote a letter through Jeremy Rifkin’s office, signed it and had it sent out. I got five thousand chefs nationally to join and start up the Chef’s Coalition for the Pure Food Campaign.”

The Swordfish

On the heels of Moonen becoming a public figure around GMOs, he began to gain an understanding of the perilous state of seafood. His friend and colleague Nora Pouillon contacted him with some alarming news she had just received—that swordfish were being drastically overfished, and if it continued they would go extinct.

“I went back in my mind a little bit and realized she was right,” Moonen commented. “When I was at The Water Club, I purchased a lot of seafood; we did $12 million in business in 1988; that’s huge. Swordfish was very popular in the world of banquets, and we did 6 out of the 12 million a year in banquets.

“In those days I used to buy what were called double markers—200-pound and up swordfish—so that I could cut them down, make steaks and serve them in my banquets. Then all of a sudden double markers were not so available anymore; there were more markers, which are 100 pounds and up. And guess what? Then they became scarce. We were buying what they call pups—swordfish that are 100 pounds and below and are called pups because they haven’t reached sexual maturity yet. I could see that if we were consuming pups, we were eating the fish that should become breeders; if we don’t have enough breeders, extinction is inevitable. I realized Nora was totally right and said, ‘Count me in.’

“So we launched a campaign called Give Swordfish a Break. It was four of us: Lidia Bastianich of Felidia restaurant; Eric Ripert, the French chef at Le Bernardin; of course Nora Pouillon, who called me about it in the first place; and me.”

It was, of all things, a language barrier that caused Moonen to be thrust into the spotlight yet again. “We had a packed house at the launch,” Moonen remembered. “Lidia gets up there with her heavy thick Italian accent; and then Eric Ripert, with his heavy French accent, gets up and tells his story. They are followed by Nora Pouillon, who has an Austrian accent. Then Rick Moonen—yo, yo, Brooklyn!—gets up and says, ‘Look, I’ve been going to the Fulton Fish Market and the fish have been getting smaller. Now the fish that are hitting the market are actually older, since the boats have to go out deeper and it takes longer for them to get enough fish to make it worth their while to fill their hulls to make a profit. If we don’t do something about it, we’re going to have an extinction of the species. That’s just stupid, because the ecosystem relies on every one of them; they’re part of the engine that keeps us healthy—long before man, ya know?’

“So I got squished into the corner by the media, as I was the one sound bite that could be recorded; everybody else had heavy accents that weren’t going to translate into any kind of media. And I became the poster child for Give Swordfish a Break. Did I want to? No way! But I did, and that started my career around sustainability of the ocean.”

Down the Rabbit Hole

It certainly didn’t stop at swordfish. Moonen began learning more and found himself going deeper and deeper into a seafood sustainability rabbit hole. He recounted his discoveries as a dialogue he was having over time with people in the know about sustainability.

“I thought just overfishing was the problem,” he went on. “I found out, ‘Oh no, Mr. Moonen, we have other problems.’”

“What’s that? I want to get back to the kitchen and cook.”

“Well, there’s habitat destruction.”

“Oh. What do you mean?”

“They’re using these devices that ruin the environment. Sea life doesn’t have a place to breed, live, grow and reproduce. It’s the same as if you’re overfishing.”

“Yeah, that makes sense (I have a logical mind). I’ve got it. Okay, can I go back to work now?”

“No, there’s something called bycatch.”

“What the hell is bycatch?”

“Well, as fishing boats are going out, they’re just looking at masses of swimming black dots on sonar radar. They’re dragging a heavy-duty thing, destroying the environment and bringing up the good shrimp. But ten to fifteen pounds of live, edible biomass comes up with it. They only have a license for shrimp, so they pull the shrimp out and they shove all the dead stuff (by that time) over the side. Really, really inefficient. ”

“Yeah, that sucks. Come on, man; I’ll take that and I’ll cook it!”

“Nah, there’s no market for it.”

“All right, thank you. Can I go back to work now? I’ll go on buying my farm-raised Atlantic salmon. Yay!”

“Uh, by the way, that salmon is not so good.”

“What do you mean? You’re not pulling salmon from me, man; that’s my bread and butter! It’s consistent, it’s delicious and it’s perfect every time!”

“It has a negative impact on the environment.”

“What do you mean? Aquaculture is great; we’ve got to farm it!”

Moonen then described his own personal revelation about aquaculture. “It took me years of stubbornness to realize it,” he said. “I had my epiphany when I was up in the Broughton Archipelago in British Columbia and we pulled up a bunch of wild pink salmon. We stuck them in the fish tank and saw that every one of them was dying from sea lice. The sea lice were healthy at a time of year when they wouldn’t naturally be healthy, because there’s a fish farm keeping them that way. Since there’s a smorgasbord of fish available to these sea lice, there’s no reason for them to have a cycle of dormancy like mosquitoes.

“So I took salmon off my menu. We’re finally getting to a point where the farms are doing a much better job. We’re starting to recognize farms that are actually not in the ‘avoid’ list on the Seafood Watch Card and are really good alternatives.”

Once again Moonen thought he’d learned pretty much all he needed to know—but he was mistaken. “This was much more information than I needed in order to just be a chef,” he reflected. “Now I’ve got to worry about overfishing, bycatch, environmental destruction and aquacultural impact on the natural environment?

“‘No,’ they said, ‘there’s one more thing, but this is really nothing that you’re going to be able to do anything about: As we are at the top of the food chain, we eat the big fish that have a high concentration of chemicals and byproducts from the environment, which we dump in the ocean because we think it’s our toilet. They have dioxins and methyl mercury and PCBs and all sorts of things.’

“So now I’m in all the way! I’m up to my neck in voicing and messaging as a result of my poster-child participation in Give Swordfish a Break and fighting against GMOs.”

It’s Far from Over

Moonen has carried on that way throughout the years—and is still very much engaged. “Fast forward to 2014, and that’s what drives me every day of my life,” he said. “It’s the core value of rm seafood in Las Vegas. I’m here to preach into the desert and talk about seafood that is sustainably chosen for the menu. Why? Because it makes sense to me, and it’s a great place to message.”

While still a heartfelt and outspoken champion of sustainable seafood, Moonen’s latest campaign is to bring down the price so that everyone can afford it. “Why is seafood so expensive?” Moonen posed. “Why can’t we make it profitable? How can we get good food in people’s hands and mouths? We’ve got to make it more affordable; otherwise it won’t work, as then it’s just for the elite—they’re the only ones that are allowed to be healthy.

“Bullshit! We want to make sure everybody can afford it, eat it, get their omega-3s and be healthy. How do we do that? Well, we have to bring down the price. How do we bring down the price? The fishermen aren’t getting rich. The suppliers aren’t really getting rich, unless they’re the gigantic suppliers and they’re peddling unsustainable products, and I’m not supporting that. The chefs aren’t getting rich, because it’s all so expensive you can’t mark it up enough to make any money.

“So, who’s getting rich? The shippers—the shipping companies.”

Along this line Moonen is looking toward a local solution so that the shippers are cut out—something that could work for every city in the US. “What do we do?” he asked. “We bring fish closer to the source. We open up an aquaculture place here in Las Vegas; I can take two dollars a pound off my barramundi now if I do it myself. I don’t have to buy from Turner Falls, Massachusetts, and pay the extra price to freight it out here and watch FedEx and Air Cargo terminals get richer.”

Moonen’s development of aquaculture is in its beginning phases, so he couldn’t say much more about it—but ask him how determined he is. “I have big plans,” he confided. “But you know what? They’re attainable. And anyone who tells me they can’t be done is just feeding into my trying harder.

“That’s my voice and that’s my campaign,” he concluded. “I’m just trying to make some money running a restaurant in the middle of it all.” 


For more information on Chef Rick Moonen, visit www.rickmoonen.com.

Check out Chef Moonen’s rm seafood at www.rmseafood.com and his Rx Boiler Room at www.rxboilerroom.com