Interview with Rick Moonen
August 2008

JJ Proville: How did you get into sustainable seafood?
Rick Moonen: It began with genetically engineered foods. While I was working at the Water Club, one day I was invited with other chefs to meet and take a picture with the mayor. I was standing around with the other chefs in our whites, we were talking to each other and this fellow came up to us with a tape recorder and asked me if I would be able to give my opinion for a radio story about genetically modified foods. So I gave him my name and said that I thought Mother Nature’s been doing a terrific job and what I think we should be doing is focusing more on organic foods.

The radio station, WINS, ended up re-airing the quote and next thing you know, I’m getting phone calls from people asking me more about genetically modified foods. So, the next thing I do is find a New York Times article about GMOs and I contact two people mentioned in the article: Rebecca Goldberg from the Environmental Defense Fund and [economist/environmental speaker] Jeremy Rifkin. I called both of them and they ended up being catalysts that helped me become an environmentalist.

Up until that moment in my life I was just a chef. I shared the information I learned with other chefs and they felt the same way I did. Once I told Jeremy Rifkin about this, he wanted to have a press event about outraged chefs against genetically modified foods. So I appeared with some other chefs at this conference with Jeremy Rifkin answering the technical questions and us chefs vocalizing our grassroots concerns about customers’ safety and health and the integrity of foods.

The media that sprung from that press conference changed my life and I started appearing on panels and talking about it to different parts of the industry. I was just speaking my mind and trying to make a difference.

JJP: So what happened after you left the Water Club?
RM: After I left the Water Club and went to Oceana and I got a phone call from Nora Pouillon in Washington DC, who had started the Give Swordfish a Break Campaign. They asked me to do the campaign launch in New York City with Eric Ripert, Lidia Bastianich, and Nora Pouillon. We all got up to the podium in front of a packed room and spoke. It turned out that because I was the only American in the crowd, I had the clearest sound byte of all the chefs. So the media focused on what I had to say and that’s how I became the poster child for the campaign.

JJP: When did it really become a main focus for you?
RM: I had been noticing the problems with swordfish at the Fulton fish market. You could see the change before your eyes and I knew the families that fished them. So, I start learning about commercial fishing techniques, and bycatch, and it all started to affect me. Since then it’s been a lifelong mission of mine to have an impact on the environment and get people to understand [the need for sustainability].

I recently came out with a book, Fish Without a Doubt, Houghton Mifflin, 2008, that would simplify everything for people cooking at home and get them to step into a new comfort zone. Every recipe in the book can be done in an apartment with regular pots and pans. Then Gourmet magazine came along and made it the first choice of their cookbook club.

JJP: What would you say is the best way for a chef to educate him or herself about sustainable seafood?
RM: I can’t say what would be the most educational, because I did everything. I went scuba diving in Kona to check out the Kona Kampachi aquaculture, because they said they were doing things differently. I went to Blue Ridge Aquaculture in Virginia where they have closed containment systems farming cobia and tilapia. I’m always visiting places and asking what the chefs can do.

JJP: Are there any notable organizations that are particularly effective at educating food professionals?
RM: Monterey Bay Aquarium is [the ultimate shrine] to education on these issues. Their Seafood Watch program has has the best up-to-date breakdown of information. I like seeing that organizations, like Monterey, and others are working together because it’s so confusing to begin with. The cards they publish help a lot.

JJP: In what other ways do you try to educate your consumers?
RM: I tell people to eat lower on the food chain. If you’re eating aquaculture, try to eat the ones in close containment systems or the ones with vegetarian feed. For example, abalone is a farmed fish that eats kelp. I tell [my customers] to eat bivalves, because they are the ones who clean up the ocean. The more bivalves we eat, the more we farm, and the more bivalves we farm the cleaner the ocean gets.

JJP: What’s the most important concept for a chef or consumer to understand?
RM: It’s about diversity. Stop eating just tuna, salmon, and shrimp. You like salmon? Try farmed arctic char. If you want to eat salmon, eat salmon from a responsibly managed fishery.

Alaska is a great model on a state level and I truly believe it’s the best model in the world. The problem is, beyond the two-mile mark out in the Bering Sea, where salmon grow up, there are monsters sucking up pollock. They have a body catch quota, and because they are such a big industry, the quota sounds like a small percentage, but it’s a huge number. 130,000 king salmon were taken as incidental catch last year, and 30,000 statistically would have returned to spawn in the Yukon River. If 30,000 Yukon River Kings would have returned to the river, there would have been a commercial fishery this year, which there was not.

And the Eskimos that have been living there for 10,000 years are deeply affected by it. That doesn’t matter to the pollock industry because it’s so insignificant to them, but that’s the way it is. That’s the way the world works. And we’re wiping out species, like the Yukon River King Salmon, which I think is the best-tasting fish in the world. I’ve been doing seafood for a long time, and it’s the best fish I’ve ever eaten in my life.

JJP: What’s some practical advice for chefs to educate their staff about sustainable seafood?
RM: The Seafood Watch program has a two-disc training DVD set, that, if you request, they will send to you. Show your staff! I used those videos all the time! If you have a brain, it’ll impact you and you’ll start seeking information about it on your own. It’s the only way to go–show it to your staff. I went with Mike Minor of Border Grill to show that DVD to students at Le Cordon Bleu in Las Vegas.

JJP: How else do you keep your staff educated?
RM: They taste everything pre-shift. Many times we’ll have handouts for them and they keep an employee book. When there’s a new menu they get a 3-hole insert that goes into the book and they’re expected to know it. In Las Vegas you have some transience so you have to keep it organized. There are also certain employees that just get it more than others and they discuss it with the newcomers.

JJP: How do you work with your seafood suppliers and how did you set a standard for them?
RM: It’s all about developing relationships with your purveyors and sharing information with other chefs. The chef network is very powerful and it depends on whether you see it as competition or not. Sometimes you’re going to find a small producer of something really beautiful of which there is a limited amount. You rush in there and try to develop the best relationship and keep sourcing quality products. I still do that when I’m not in Las Vegas. I don’t buy much from the East Coast, but I have some guys there who I pay more than I want just to keep the relationship moving along. I don’t want these guys to go away because I’ve seen too many changes in my life.

JJP: Do you have any practical tips in terms of dealing with seafood suppliers?
RM: If they can’t spell out product details for you on the invoice, don’t use that purveyor. They’ll learn quickly because they need the business and you’re dealing with the most perishable inventory in the world. When you’re dealing with fresh fish, they’re all grenades with the pins pulled–that’s how I look at the fish business. I discuss everything with them. You can always have them give you a fact sheet about harvesting technique, type of gear, and seasonal information and the better purveyors will do that for you. Be straightforward with them and tell them what you want. The more we do that, the more sustainable seafood purveyors we’ll create. We have to demand this and it’s up to us. We’re going to be knocking the lights out of fisheries as time goes by if we don’t do anything about it. It’s not an option, a discussion, or a concept. It’s do or die. Hear me now!

JJP: Some chefs have a misconception that being supplied with sustainable fish means paying more money. Is this true?
RM: Here’s the deal: [chefs] need to step outside their comfort zones. You’re not going to buy the same fish that’s sustainable at the same price. You’re not! You’ll have to get a different fish. Cobia’s being farm raised and it’s delicious. I’m using it and it’s unbelievable. It gives swordfish a break too, because it’s like swordfish, but with more fat. Or give barramundi a shot and give red snapper a break.

JJP: What’s the hardest part about being sustainable?
RM: Believe me, it’s not easy for me to give up monkfish or Chilean sea bass. I understand the difficulties in being sustainable–I lived them. I didn’t just jump right in; I didn’t go right up to my neck in it. I wasn’t saying my menu was sustainable until I was in Vegas, because there was always something in the menu that I was walking around feeling a little bit guilty about, and I wasn’t going to start tooting my own horn.

JJP: What are some sustainable fish that you have had success in selling?
RM: I’ve been happy with sales of halibut, cobia, Kona kampachi, and barramundi.