Few figures are as instrumental to the rise in popularity of sustainable seafood as chef Rick Moonen. His restaurant RM Seafood in The Shoppes at Mandalay Place at Mandalay Bay Resort has long stood as the vanguard for modern dining practices in seafood. He himself is part of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, Blue Ribbon Task Force, a high honor bestowed to influencers advocating for healthy oceans and responsible eating. His work with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s collection of nongovernment organizations and conservationists has put him as somewhat of the figurehead of sustainable seafood.
“It all started when a bunch of us New York chefs were asked to go down to city hall, this is when I was at The Water Club, and a reporter asked me about genetically modified food,” Moonen explained. “I didn’t know I was going to be on the radio that day; reporters calling me up asking to explain genetically modified food! This was before the term ‘GMO’ (genetically modified organism) was even around.
“We found out we could be serving a tomato that had the genes of a flounder spliced into it. We want to know what we’re serving to our customers, what they’re putting into their bodies — that’s our top priority.”
GMOs, especially those modified to survive after absorbing powerful pesticides, are something Moonen avoids in his menus.
As a tireless advocate, the chef keeps up to date with serving only the best seafood in his restaurants, RM Seafood and RX Boiler Room, which also is in The Shoppes at Mandalay Place, only allowing the most environmentally responsible to be on his menu. Even for fish that are currently on the Seafood Watch “Avoid” list, Moonen and his team are able to find sustainable versions.
“Most of the places doing farmed salmon are just terrible for the environment. Aquaculture isn’t always a great thing — not if you don’t do it right. True North Seafood, for example: I’ve worked with them for some time, (and) they are one of the few farming salmon the right way. And it’s so much tastier, too.”
So what does the world need to eat from the sea? Moonen summed it up with a simple rule.
“We need to be eating lower on the food chain. Small fish like sardines, anchovies and herring don’t accumulate the types of pollutants that get into the ocean, and they breed much faster,” he said. “Bigger predator fish — swordfish, bluefin tuna — those types eat tons of the smaller fish, and build up tons of the pollutants and heavy metals in their body.”
Moonen’s advice isn’t difficult to follow for chefs who rely on unsustainable staples.
“It’s our job as chefs to take what we have and make it taste good. Any line cook can throw a sea bass in the pan; it’s almost impossible to mess up,” he said. “American seafood farms have the highest standards by far — farmed shrimp, arctic char, scallops, all of them are great for sustainability.”
“Even tinned fish, like sardines, can be done well so that they are so amazingly delicious. Sardines, lightly fried and packed in oil, can be such an umami bomb and, honestly, can be served much like caviar, with garnishes. People don’t realize how good these can be!”
The harsh truths about our seafood system are something the chef is passionate about bringing to light.
“When I was first starting out, I found the term ‘by-catch.’ For every pound of fish the boats were out looking for, nearly 10 pounds of other sea creatures are inadvertently brought onboard. By the time the catch is sifted through, all the by-catch is tossed back in the ocean, either dead or nearly dead.” In regard to the overfishing of staple fish, decreasing these stocks to near-endangered levels are one of the biggest negative impacts on the world from our food system.
“When I first started going to the fish market, you’d regularly see swordfish that were three- or four-hundred pounds, easy,” Moonen added. “Now a ‘big’ swordfish is about 100 pounds. We’re depleting the stocks so bad that all that’s left are the really young ones.”
Overfishing isn’t the only ecological threat, though.
“There’s this invasive species called lionfish, a big, nasty, spiky predator. They’re native to Southeast Asia, but they got in the Atlantic, and they are wrecking the local populations. They’ve got no natural predators, they’re extremely hard to catch — you have to go down and spear them by hand — so they’re really expensive,” Moonen explained.
He went on to say that he’s working with the Monterey Bay Aquarium in helping solve this problem.
“I’m going to go down next week and see this robotic trap; something that can identify when they’ve got a lionfish, and (it) snaps closed on them. If that works, who knows? It might make these fish easier to use in restaurants.”
Moonen doesn’t just preach responsible eating practices, he lives them. He founded Desert Bloom Eco Farm with Stephen and Claudia Andracki. Desert Bloom now supplies his and other restaurants with local, organic produce.
“My friend Stephen brings us whatever’s ready to harvest,” said Moonen. “Sometimes it’s a ton, and you have to figure out how to preserve it. Other times, it’s things you use fresh, like herbs and greens. That’s the way we were meant to eat. You hear about these French chefs that go out to the market, and whatever’s there is what they serve.”
In a world where the way we eat will have ripple effects throughout the entire ecosystem, knowledge is power. With more advocates and experts like Moonen, the right steps to take not only are clear, they are delicious as well.