[Weekly Q&A]

Chef Rick Moonen and the science of eating

The sustainable seafood apostle welcomes Matt Accarrino into the kitchen for a special dinner

Chef Rick Moonen cozies up to some seafood at Mandalay Bay.
Photo: Saeed Rahbaran

This week, Weekly Food Editor Brock Radke ranks his 20 most important restaurants in Las Vegas, but it’s not just bistros and sushi bars that steer our tastes. Often out of sight, chefs determine the way we eat, from picking portion sizes to introducing new flavors. And few Vegas chefs have been more influential than RM Seafood’s Rick Moonen. We caught up with the apostle of sustainable seafood to talk about culinary chemistry, having a great palate and a very special dinner with chef Matt Accarrino of SPQR in San Francisco.

Let’s start with your Shellfish Lover’s Paradise dinner on March 14. You’re teaming up in the kitchen for it.

It’s Matt Accarrino, who worked for me years ago when I was at Oceana. He considers me one of his great mentors. What he said is, Tom Colicchio taught him about media and dealing with all of that stuff. The strict structure, organization and running of a kitchen he learned under Thomas Keller. And he said his palate—learning about flavors and the excitement and balance of flavors and all of the things to do with his palate—he learned with me. I’m just a nut who is very focused on how food reacts in your mouth. I always tell people, if it doesn’t make you salivate when you taste, you didn’t do something right.


Shellfish Lover's Paradise
With chef Matt Accarrino
March 14, 7 p.m., $150.
RM Seafood, Mandalay Place, 632-9300.

That’s pretty high praise from the Michelin-starred Accarrino.

They used to call me, not to my face, they called me “the Palate.” Anytime someone would come up with something in the kitchen, they’d say, “Bring it to the Palate.” I would taste it and I’d go, “Yeah, this is great except it needs a little more acidity.” And I’d send them off. … And when they got it, we’d high five and put it on [the menu] as a special.

Is that something you can learn? Are you just born with a honed palate?

I think it’s something that you’re born with or you’re not. I didn’t realize I was born with it. To me it’s normal; it’s no big deal. But I find so many people struggling with the way I’ll describe food to them. Matt got it. He embraced it. He instituted it into the matrix of what makes him Matt Accarrino today. I’m so proud of him. He’s the next generation of modern Italian cuisine, but it’s still through the eyes of an American chef.

So what dishes or ingredients are making you salivate right now?

One of the dishes that I’m serving on this particular menu is a Thai green papaya salad that I just think screams umami, ’cause it’s got such a bite. ... The depth of flavor comes from a shrimp paste that is mixed with green papaya, which is one of the greatest things you could possibly eat, ’cause it’s got great fiber. It’s packed with an enzyme called papain, one of the most powerful digestive enzymes that you could take. In fact, they use it as a meat tenderizer. Papain can digest 20 times its weight in protein.

Chef Rick Moonen says he's getting ready to reinvent the upstairs of RM Seafood. "It's not going to be fine dining seafood, I can promise you that."

Chef Rick Moonen says he's getting ready to reinvent the upstairs of RM Seafood. "It's not going to be fine dining seafood, I can promise you that."

Wow. I’ve never heard of that before.

When I was a chef down in Key West, Florida, I became the kitchen doctor. Somebody would go out on the beach and they’d step on a sea urchin or get bit by a jellyfish or a bee sting, they’d come in the kitchen and I’d take Accent, which is a meat tenderizer, make a paste out of it, put it on and it just sucked out the toxins.

I feel like I just had a science lesson.

As a kid, I wanted a chemistry set my whole life. My parents wouldn’t give it to me ’cause they were smart enough to realize that I would probably blow the house up. But I loved the reactions of things, how things happened. I was so hyperactive my mother would take me in the kitchen and make me stir the pudding. And I’d be stirring it, bored out of my face, and all of a sudden it’d thicken before my eyes. It’s chemistry and science that really intrigued me about cuisine—baking bread, watching it rise. The whole thing just blew my mind.

Are you still working with local farms as suppliers for RM Seafood?

Yes. Now with my new executive chef, Johnny Church, who’s so into it with me, we’re getting produce from Boulder City. I’m getting eggs and produce and stuff from Pahrump. And of course, we’re getting stuff from California, because reality be, Las Vegas, Nevada, is closer to more organic farms than Los Angeles, California. We’re not as remote as people may think. We can still kick butt on foraging and coming up with really cool ingredients.

Let’s talk about your interest in sustainable fishing practices. How did that start?

I started at Oceana and I got a phone call from Nora Pouillon, who has Nora’s, an organic restaurant in D.C. She called me and asked if I would participate in a Give Swordfish a Break campaign, which was an awareness-pitched program to get people to realize that if we don’t do something about the way we procure and consume North Atlantic swordfish, it would be commercially extinct within the next three to four years. … So there’s the kickoff of Give Swordfish a Break, the media’s invited, very well attended. So Nora Pouillon would go up to the podium … Then Eric Ripert said something. Then I got up, Rick Moonen, the American chef, was over here talking about how he goes to the Fulton Fish Market and the fish used to be 200 pounds and up—called a double marker—and now the normal sized fish is under 100 pounds, which is called a pup. I walk away thinking my job is done; I’m participating; life is good. No. The media pushes me in a corner, starts talking to me. Why? ‘Cause I was the only person without a heavy accent. I ended up becoming the poster child for Give Swordfish a Break. Started my belief in being responsible, and I just got more and more involved with over fishing, by-catch issues, habitat destruction, aquaculture’s not as good as you think it is. … I couldn’t turn my back on it.

What can consumers do to help?

The most important thing is, to me, Rick Moonen, diversity. There’s millions upon millions of species of fish in the ocean. Edible protein—delicious. And we’re the top predators so we just want a select few that we deem to be delicious.

I read a study recently that found a lot of fish are actually mislabeled in stores, so we think we’re eating snapper but really it’s sea bream. Why are we so obsessed with a few species of fish?

We just haven’t been exposed to the other species of fish that are absolutely very delicious. Chefs are dying to get their hands on something different. I’m sick and tired! I don’t want to just cook salmon, tuna, bass. I’m done with that. There’s so many other species out there.

Do you ever personally get to go out fishing?

I do. I’ve been up in Bristol Bay; I was fly-fishing with Dan Rather. Bristol Bay is one of the most beautiful places in the world; it’s untouched by man; it’ll make you weep it’s so beautiful. You get from fishing area to fishing area by float plane, and the reason I went up there was they discovered a large concentration of gold and copper. And they want to do an open pit mine at the headwaters of these rivers that supply close to 50 percent of the world’s supply of sockeye salmon. And that mine would just make that go away.

You’re a New Yorker, but you’ve become a longtime Las Vegan.

I love where I live; I love watching it grow. I’ve been here long enough that I can see changes happening and be a part of them and be supportive. … We’re in a city where you always have to reinvent yourself. So that’s why upstairs is going to be fun. I’m reinventing upstairs. It’s not going to be fine dining seafood, I can promise you that.

Tags: Dining
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