To borrow a line from Red Lobster’s current advertising campaign, Las Vegas chef Rick Moonen wants seafood lovers to “see food different.”
“We have to start changing our diet, our mentality,” said Moonen, owner and executive chef of RM Seafood at Mandalay Bay. “We need to be more cognizant of how the food is piled on our plates.”
A longtime advocate for sustainable fishing, Moonen is concerned that bycatching, overfishing and other factors are threatening seafood populations worldwide.
“How we’re going to feed the planet is really my big campaign,” explained Moonen, who wrote the 2008 cookbook “Fish Without a Doubt: The Cook’s Essential Companion” with Roy Finamore. “The world was designed to feed all of us, but we have to make sure the earth is healthy before we continue to do that.”
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Raised in Flushing, N.Y., Moonen developed a fascination with food as a 12-year-old paper boy.
“As you were dropping these papers off you would smell unbelievable ethnic cuisines poofing out of these apartments. It was so attractive to me,” recalled the chef, who is in his 50s. “I really got to experience a lot of exciting flavors and aromas.”
Moonen fed his culinary fervor further during a two-year stint at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park.
“When I graduated (in 1978), I was in love with food,” said Moonen, who then did a fellowship at the school’s Escoffier Restaurant under chef Eugene Bernard. “I realized, ‘This is exactly what I want to do.’ ”
After stints at some of New York City’s most prestigious restaurants, including La Côte Basque and La Cirque, Moonen became executive chef at The Water Club, then executive and partner at Oceana, where he helped usher in a new era of seafood.
“Up to that point, seafood was broiled, baked, casseroled and beat up. That’s the way America ate,” he said, until chefs such as Gilbert le Coze persuaded diners to give sushi, ceviche and seafood tartare a try. “I was working off the wave.”
At the same time, Moonen put his conservation views into practice, becoming a spokesman for the National Resources Defense Council’s “Give Swordfish a Break” campaign.
“My partners at Oceana were like, ‘What the heck?’ ” recalled Moonen, who continued his commitment to sustainable seafood when he opened his own restaurant, RM. “I said, ‘Guys, there’s so much out in the ocean. We don’t need to hammer these species into extinction.’ ”
Moonen opened RM Seafood in Las Vegas in February 2005.
Although some people might look askance at seafood in the desert, Moonen said, “It completely makes sense to me because it’s a great place to broadcast my message of sustainability.”
Besides, he said, he has the same access on the Strip to fresh California seafood and produce as many Los Angeles restaurateurs.
According to Moonen, RM Seafood specializes in the “creative layering of different cuisines.”
“I’m not (just) Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Thai I’m anything I want to be just as long as it’s fresh, sustainable and delicious,” he explained. “I get to run all over the world in my mind and my palate.”
While the upstairs portion of RM Seafood focuses on fine dining, Moonen offers more down-home fare downstairs — including clam chowder, crab cakes and the catfish sloppy joe sandwich that has earned him accolades from Oprah Winfrey and Esquire magazine.
Moonen said chefs have an obligation to keep sustainable food in the forefront.
“We are the gatekeepers,” said the chef, who has brought his message to television audiences as a contestant on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters” and a judge on “Top Chef Las Vegas.” “We do have a strong influence on what gets served and consumed.”
Recipe for Thai Green Papaya Salad with Toasted Peanuts and Sea Scallops
Courtesy of Rick Moonen’s RM Seafood | Yield: 4 servings
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped
- 2 Thai chilies, thinly sliced, seeds included
- 5 ounces fish sauce
- 2 tbsp. Thai shrimp paste with soybean oil
- 6 ounces lime juice, freshly squeezed
- 2 tbsp. lime zest
- 1 tbsp. honey
- 4 ounces olive oil
Place the chopped garlic and Thai chilies in a mortar bowl. With a pestle, mash them together to fully puree them. Add the fish paste, fish sauce, lime juice, lime zest and honey. Whisk everything together to dissolve the honey. Whisk in the oil, and let the dressing sit overnight to develop its flavor.
- 12 sea scallops (3 per salad)
- 1 small green papaya, very firm
- 2 cups mung bean sprouts
- 12 scallions, cut on a bias, 2 inches long
- 6 plum tomatoes, cut into long, thin strips
- 1 cup cilantro leaves
- 1 cup mint leaves
- 2 cups roasted peanuts
Season sea scallops with salt and white pepper.
Heat a small saute pan on medium-high heat and put a tablespoon of olive oil in pan. Sear scallops on both sides until carmelized. Hold.
Peel the green papaya (the flesh should be white), then slice it in half to remove the seeds. Using a Japanese mandolin, cut the flesh into thin strips 3 inches long. Place in a large bowl with the scallions.
With a muddler, bruise the papaya and scallions with 4 ounces of the vinaigrette. Add the sprouts, tomatoes, peanuts, cilantro and mint. Add more dressing to moisten and toss to combine.
Distribute the tossed mixture on four large shallow bowls in a mound. Pour the remaining vinaigrette from the bowl over the top. Arrange the cooked scallops around the side of the salad. Garnish with extra peanuts and cilantro sprigs.