Merrill Shindler - March 2011
Ebullient, garrulous, and irrepressible, Rick Moonen is also dead serious when he talks about sustainable fisheries.
According to both the Mayan Long Count Calendar—and Hollywood—the world will end on December 21, 2012. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the Sea Around Us Project, we'll run out of seafood sometime in 2048. The good news is that, if the Mayans—and Hollywood—are right, you can go out for a nice seafood meal on December 20, 2012. The bad news is, if the Mayans are wrong, we can look forward to a steady diminuition of our aquatic protein supplies in the years that follow.
However, as the chef/restaurateur of Rick Moonen's RM Seafood in Las Vegas points out, we've been in trouble for years. Swordfish, Chilean sea bass, bluefin tuna, Atlantic salmon—they're all disappearing. And since seafood is his life, he wants to do something about that. He wants us to join with him to heal the seas. "There's a good chance if we don't change our ways, our children won't be able to enjoy the seafood we enjoy today. Maybe they'll be eating plankton. But they won't be eating salmon or tuna. The clock is ticking. We have to take this very seriously."
Moonen's road to eco-activism has been as bumpy as a canoe trip across the Atlantic. Indeed, for the first half of his career, he hadn't the foggiest about species sustainability. He grew up in the Flushing neighborhood in Queens, in New York City, the middle child in a family of seven—a fact that he says helped make him the impassioned advocate he is today. "There's an insecurity being the middle kid that drives you to go do things that you become passionate about. I didn't grow up eating seafood, except on Fridays. I grew up in a Catholic family," says Moonen, who sounds amazingly like the late comedian George Carlin when he gets wound up.
"My mom broiled everything. My mom was a one-pot person. Which is probably why I love Le Creuset pots so much; big cast-iron pots turn me on. And though I didn't eat a lot of seafood back then, everyone around me did. Flushing was very ethnic. Our neighbors were Italians, Greeks, Irish, Jews—people for whom seafood was a way of life. So, I got used to the smells of halibut and flounder and fish being cooked a long time—and smelling like fish."
The scents of ethnic cooking ignited Moonen's interest in a kitchen life. He attended The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, where he graduated in 1978, first in his class. His first job was at L'Hostellerie Bressane in Hillsdale, New York, where he apprenticed under Jean Morel. He worked as a saucier at La Côte Basque under Jean-Jacques Rachou, and under Alain Sailhac at Le Cirque. Eventually, he wound up as executive chef/partner at the original yacht-sized Oceana. And he did it all without a clue that the oceans were dying.
"I was a cuisinier my whole career," says Moonen. "It was never, ever something I thought about. At the French restaurants, nobody cared where the ingredients came from, as long as we had them and they were first rate. Raspberries had to be available at La Côte Basque 12 months a year. They'd pay $50 a pot for raspberries out of season, because they had to be available, flown around the world so we could serve them. None of this made sense. We were taught: you do what the guest wants. It wasn't our job to educate.