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Behind the Lines: Addition by subtraction

Celebrity Chef Rick Moonen takes unsustainable species off the menu

By Lauren Kramer
June 01, 2010

Rick Moonen, the chef-owner of RM Seafood in Las Vegas, has used his restaurants as platforms for his passion for conservation and sustainable fishing. Moonen's enthusiasm for the cause began when he operated some of New York's most iconic restaurants RM Seafood, Oceana and Molyvos. That passion even extends to the Fish Without A Doubt cookbook, which Moonen co-authored with Roy Finamore in 2008.

This is a chef who preaches what he practices, testifying for environmental and sustainable policy issues in Washington, D.C., and New York, and becoming a founding member of the Seafood Choices Alliance, which named him a "Seafood Champion" in 2006.

Moonen's mission is to wean diners off unsustainable seafood species. In Las Vegas he's done it in such a subtle way that his customers barely notice any changes.

Moonen offers diners sustainable substitutions that satisfy their cravings. Take Chilean sea bass, a species on the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch "avoid" list.

"People think they want Chilean sea bass, but sablefish or black cod is a 
sustainable species with a high fat 
content that can easily satisfy that craving," he says. "Trouble is, people don't know what sablefish is - so you have to give it a preparation style or an ingredient that's familiar to them, so that they say, 'I get that.'"

Many diners who visit his newest Vegas restaurant, RM Seafood at Mandalay Bay, come into the sushi bar thinking they want unagi or eel, another species that is not sustainable, according to the Seafood Watch list.

"The thing about unagi is that people think it's a cool thing to eat, the same way it's cool to eat snails," Moonen says. "But it's really the sweet sauce they like, and knowing that it's cooked seafood, making it a good introduction to sushi. Basically, unagi is a soft, fatty, warm, delicious piece of fish on a vinegar rice bed."

As a substitution, RM Seafood offers what it calls a capatillar roll, consisting of seared pork belly brushed with 
kabayaki, a Japanese barbecue sauce.

"We take pork belly that's braised, tender, delicious and fatty, put it in the barbecue sauce, heat it up and put it on rice, calling it 'faux nagi,'" 
says Moonen.

Instead of tuna tataki, Moonen offers Cobia tataki, pairing it with crispy ginger, kaffir lime and togarashi. "I try to lay off tuna a bit and turn guests on to a different type of fish," he says.

Moonen describes himself as a chef first, environmentalist second. 
"I don't offer my substitutions to educate diners," he insists. "I do this to sleep better at night.

I try to send a message that sustainability is not that difficult and it tastes great. And I encourage other chefs and gatekeepers in my industry to do the same, and to be creative in their dishes."

Troubled by the fact that Americans are only comfortable eating about six species of seafood - salmon, tuna, swordfish, cod, Chilean sea bass and shrimp - Moonen tries to offer some diversity. When he wants to serve a salmon-like dish, he pairs rainbow trout with brussels sprouts, bacon and horseradish cream. When trout is unavailable, he opts for Arctic char instead.

Walu (escolar) is another species he favors, serving it in a white soy emulsion with shiitake mushrooms and yuzu powder in the upstairs restaurant, and in a shiitake-dashi broth with broccoli and puffed rice. Wild cobia is a 
regular on the menu, featured with pork belly, black trumpet mushrooms and braised white beans, or alternately with crabmeat.

Serving lesser-known species with familiar accompaniments helps mitigate diners' apprehension of trying new kinds of seafood, Moonen says. "Take sardines and anchovies," he suggests. "They have gotten a bad rap because as kids we were given salty little things from a can sitting on top of pizza. They were never given a good chance."

Moonen offers sardines as a special served with olive oil, preserved lemon, shallots, parsley and white soy. Anchovies are served as an appetizer, grilled with sea salt, lemon juice and peperonata.

"Guests are pleasantly surprised by how something that is so salty could be so well balanced," Moonen says. "Adding the accompaniments makes for a delicious, flavorful appetizer."

Whether it's the high caliber of his dishes or Moonen's recognition as a celebrity chef, rm seafood has been tracking growth over the past five months even in the midst of a recession. This year he hopes to expand and grow, and is looking at a variety of cities for a new restaurant - from Los Angeles to Chicago to Vancouver.

His multi-level Las Vegas restaurant opened in 2005 with a lower level 
offering regional coastal favorites and a raw bar and an upper level featuring elegant dining with tasting and à la carte menus.

"I want to open concepts that aren't necessarily focused on the ocean, because the market for seafood is definitely less than it is for other proteins," he says.


Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia


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