Before this year’s Top Chef Masters season aired, Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker insightfully observed that it represented a more mature, honorable breed of reality show. Here were established restaurateurs vying for money for charity, not personal fortune, and that left the characters with little motivation to be petty or back-biting the way contestants are on most of these shows. Being unpleasant on TCM, in fact, is risky; it could even turn potential patrons away.
Indeed, the contestants behaved, and two Mandalay Bay residents, Rick Moonen of RM Seafood and Susan Feniger of the Border Grill, went far. Feniger came across as an adorably zany Jewish grandma, and Moonen came in second by a whisker to New York’s Marcus Samuelson.
But then came scandal. The standard-issue reality show misbehavior was provided from an unexpected source: Judge and British food critic Jay Rayner. In Rayner’s since-removed BravoTV.Com blog after the finale, he admitted he ensured Moonen’s loss because the Vegas chef made New Zealand venison for his final dish.
So? Well, Rayner found it hypocritical of Moonen, a seafood specialist known as a fierce advocate of using ingredients derived from practices that don’t despoil marine habitats, because that beef had been transported thousands of carbon-emitting miles to the table. He quizzed Moonen on this on the show and Moonen explained he’s first and foremost a chef, “not a tree-hugger.” He went on to explain to me that his interest in environmentalism is about saving threatened fish species and being healthy for eaters: “I’m a sustainable seafood chef. That’s not a locovore.”
Rayner’s conduct is disturbing because the outcome came down not to what was on his plate but to his political agenda, writing Moonen had shown a “craven attitude to environmental issues,” according to the blog TastingLasVegas.Com. In the process, Rayner snatched $100,000 from Moonen’s charity, the Nevada food bank Three Square. Moonen had won them more than $22,000 in earlier challenges.
“He really took me by surprise,” Moonen said. “I thought the world of him until I read his blog. When he went after my professional integrity, excuse me. Excuse me! You’re going to call me a shameless opportunist? If I were a shameless opportunist, I’m a goddamned genius because I’m on the 30-year plan.”
Indeed, one reason Moonen is a popular Vegas food figure is that he’s often shown little interest in fame. He’s the only chef to ever close a thriving NYC eatery to open on the Strip; most Manhattan chefs throw up outposts and oversee from afar. Rick’s accessible to journalists to promote his business, but he’s also passed on many empire-building opportunities. His next gig? He’s to cater the planned Las Vegas Railway Express, a train from LA to Vegas that may start running next year. That’s not exactly glamorous.
Like many viewers, I was baffled by the outcome because the judges seemed repelled by one of Samuelson’s final dishes. He defended it as authentic cuisine from his native Ethiopia, as if an authentic foreign dish can’t be done badly, but the judges bought that.
Moonen and Samuelson are old friends who this week are teaming up for a dinner at RM Seafood to benefit Three Square. And Moonen gave Samuelson credit for playing the reality-show game better at that crucial moment of judgment.
Materially, the difference is insignificant. RM Seafood is buzzing thanks to Moonen’s appearances and perhaps even the perception of injustice. He now sells 30 copies of his cookbook a night and “the place turned into a party. I’m selling rooms in the hotel now.”
“What do I really have to be upset about?” he asked. “We were doing it for charity. If people want to come to your restaurant because they like you and they know your food’s going to be good, that’s a win. Everything else is just bullshit.”
True, but he and Three Square still got robbed. The hope now is that Bravo sees that, and that removing Rayner’s posting was the first step to distancing the show from him. Send him to America’s Next Top Model or something vacuous where his talents at inciting controversy are more appropriate.