Chef Rick Moonen: Saving Seafood for Future Generations to Enjoy

Rick Moonen never set out to be a savior of seafood, but somehow that’s what has happened during his 30-year career as a chef and restaurant owner.

When the chef is not overseeing the action at his signature Las Vegas restaurant, Rick Moonen’s rm seafood, he’s off speaking to groups about sustainable fishing and the importance of caring for the oceans, so that future generations will be able to enjoy seafood just as the present one does.

“We’re not entitled to have seafood. It’s a privilege to eat it,” said Moonen in a recent phone interview. “We have to treat the environment with respect.”

Moonen, considered the country’s top culinary advocate for sustainable seafood, has educated himself thoroughly on the topic for the past 20 years, becoming an expert before most of us were aware there was a problem. Now he’s traveling the country to raise awareness of the subject, and has testified frequently before Congress on the subject.

He has also been instrumental in aiding the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which helps consumers make ocean-friendly seafood choices, and his cookbook and guide to sustainable seafood, “Fish Without a Doubt: The Cook’s Essential Companion” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), has been critically acclaimed.

Moonen was honored in May 2011 as Chef of the Year at “Cooking for Solutions,” the aquarium’s weekend-long salute to sustainable seafood practices and gourmet cuisine, May 20-22.

An advocate for sustainable fishing and seafood, Moonen’s passion for conservation has led to national acclaim. But he says that it was just serendipity that guided his way.

The native New Yorker tells the story that he learned to cook from his mother, but not for the typical reasons.

“I was hyperactive, and she kept me in the kitchen with her,” said Moonen, and so he absorbed those basic culinary lessons early. “I love the memories, loved the smells.”

As a kid, he wanted to be a doctor and “take care of people,” but Moonen said cooking is just another way of making folks feel good. That led him to the Culinary Institute of America in New York, where he graduated first in his class in 1978, and then on to a series of high-profile posts at acclaimed restaurants in and around New York City.

Stints as executive chef at some of New York’s most iconic restaurants, including Le Relais, Century Cafe, Chelsea Central and The Water Club enhanced his reputation and experience. It was during this time Moonen began to hear about environmental issues like genetically modified foods and overfishing. The result: He started an activist group for chefs, and started investigating the subject intently.

One of the problems, Moonen said, is that Americans are pretty picky about their seafood: “We’re very narrow-minded about what we’re willing to eat.” Restaurant-goers will choose salmon, tuna and halibut, but are reluctant to try anything that seems strange or exotic, like tilapia and branzino.

Opening consumers up to different choices does make a difference, because demand for only a few kinds of fish and shellfish leads to those species being overfished and decimating populations to the point where they can’t recover.

Moonen points to Monterey’s history with the sardines, which gave birth to Cannery Row. But the sardine population was fished out within several decades, leading to the collapse of the canning industry in the mid-1950s.

“Greed is what happened there,” he said. “That’s what we can learn from.”

One way people can make a difference is by making better choices in what they eat, and Seafood Watch is a valuable device for helping people sort out the very complicated issues involved in choosing fish and shellfish. For instance, American-farmed tilapia is a great sustainable choice, but tilapia from places like China and Taiwan, not so much ‘” farming practices in these countries are environmentally questionable.

“It can help decode a very difficult topic,” said Moonen of Seafood Watch, available as an app for Android and iPhone, as pocket guides that can be found at local restaurants, and as a downloadable list at www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/seafoodwatch.aspx.

You would think Moonen would have little time to explore environmental issues while running his restaurant, but he somehow has found a way to do it.

“There’s a lot of rewards and a lot of pressure” in his business, “but it’s given me a more powerful voice and has allowed me to get the word out.”

He opened rm seafood in the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas in 2005, a multi-level, 17,000-square-foot restaurant that boasts “State of the Art Sustainable Seafood” and a world-class sushi and raw bar. He’s now working on another restaurant project in Las Vegas, and the former “Top Chef” judge is also in talks to develop a television show.

A lthough Moonen had an action-packed weekend ahead of him at “Cooking for Solutions,” he did plan to do a little sightseeing around Monterey, that is, the bayside kind.

“I always end up at the (Monterey Bay National Marine) sanctuary in a kayak,” he said. “I love coming to Monterey.”

For seafood cooking tips, recipes and more information on Moonen, see his website at www.rickmoonen.com ; his restaurant website is www.rmseafood.com .