Thursday, May 12, 2011
“The bluefin tuna is done,” says Rick Moonen, with uncharacteristic pessimism. Though a man of unabashed hope, the sustainable seafood chef knows his science, and appetites: The most optimistic estimates put the Atlantic bluefin population at 20 percent of their numbers from 40 years ago, a drop which most scientists equate with the brink of annihilation, and if sushi-driven economics are any measure, its western cousin can’t be far behind – last year a 500-pound Pacific bluefin sold for $170,000 at a Tokyo fish auction.
Moonen’s hope, in the face of bluefin realities, and the precipitous decline of other iconic marine species and their ecosystems, is founded largely on the premise that we might be turning a corner, that there are others out there who care as much about fish and the ocean as he does. And certainly, he’s found that in Monterey: The Aquarium’s landmark exhibit Fishing For Solutions, which ran from 1997 to 1999, featured one of the first-ever lists of sustainable seafood – the Seafood Watch – an instant hit for those concerned about the state of the seas. Finally, there was a blueprint for responsibly enjoying delicacies from the deep.
Many forward-looking chefs were eager to capitalize on the increased consumer awareness, and in some circles (notably, at Oceana, where Moonen was cooking in New York), sardines soon became sexier than orange roughy. It is this marriage of the sustainable to the delicious that inspired the Aquarium’s first Cooking For Solutions a decade ago.
A lot has changed in those 10 years, and Moonen, the honored guest at this year’s festivities as the Aquarium’s Chef of the Year, sees a shift in momentum that he takes to heart. “It’s been fun to see that tipping point, that emotional embrace of the message,” he says.
This year’s highly anticipated 10th Solutions is a reflection of that momentum, and promises to be the best yet, extended to three days from two, and boasting an unprecedented lineup of activities and all-star chefs that include (aside from Moonen) Michael Cimarusti, William Dissen, Virginia Willis, and the Aquarium’s own Cindy Pawlcyn.
For most of the weekend, the toughest task (aside from securing a ticket) will be in the choosing – you can’t do it all – but Friday night, it’s all gala: With dishes from 70 top spots that include Berkeley’s slow food beacon Chez Panisse, San Francisco’s fusion mecca The Slanted Door, local gems Fishwife, Passionfish and Montrio, national standouts The Market Place (a farm-to-table pioneer in Asheville, N.C.) and emmer&rye (a seasonal luminary in Seattle, Wash.), as well as wines from 60 organic and sustainable wineries including Bernardus, Estancia and Heller, it is doubtful that a diet for a small planet has ever partied this big.
Saturday morning serves up cooking demos from Cimarusti, Dissen and Willis, gardening and seafood presentations from P. Allen Smith, Alton Brown and Robert Irvine, six food and wine adventures that feature incredible lunches from top chefs (too many to name) at local vineyards or seaside estates, the new “salon series” with cookbook authors Myra Goodman, Maria Rodale and Kristine Kidd, and in the evening, the already-sold-out seafood challenge, a cookoff á la Iron Chef on the seaside patio of the Monterey Plaza Hotel.
Sunday kicks off with a Champagne and Cajun-inspired buffet, an afternoon of more mind – and palate-expanding presentations, and a demo from Portland-based sushi chef Brandon Hill of Bamboo, the only certified sustainable sushi restaurant in the U.S.
Both Saturday and Sunday, the most economical way for many to take part is just by visiting the Aquarium, where one can sample local produce and sustainable seafood delicacies, attend cooking demos, mingle with local growers and enjoy the Kid’s Zone for the price of admission.
CFS inspires annual visits for Moonen.
“I have a longstanding relationship with the Aquarium,” he says. “They address every single issue – overfishing, bycatch, habitat destruction, health concerns – and it’s all broken down into a traffic light.” (The Seafood Watch color codes choices as best, good and avoid, with green, yellow and red.)
Moonen’s collaboration with the Aquarium came naturally: as he was making a name for himself in New York in the early ’90s, he was approached by the nonprofit Seaweb, and signed on to help lead a spirited defense of the severely threatened swordfish.
His career since has been marked by one success after another – his New York restaurant rm received three stars from the New York Times – culminating with his current venture Rick Moonen’s rm seafood and r bar café in Las Vegas. “What better place to make a statement than Sin City?” he says. “60,000 pounds of shrimp are consumed in Las Vegas every day. That’s more than the rest of the U.S. combined.”
Moonen distributes thousands of pocket Seafood Watch guides, and is often on the road year-round to preach sustainability. The biggest challenge ahead, he admits, lies in changing people’s mindsets, getting them excited about lesser known fish. “There’s enough biomass in the ocean to feed the world,” Moonen says, “but there’s a very narrow acceptance of seafood. If your average American doesn’t see salmon, tuna, cod, or Chilean sea bass on the menu, they order the pork chop… It’s a Catch-22 right now – if you were a seafood distributor, would you carry a species that would be rotten in a few days?”
The best things folks can do, in Moonen’s opinion, is follow the Aquarium’s lead. “If people would just follow [the Watch list], we’d be in a much better place.”
Scientists and chefs can only do so much, he says. Ultimately, it is on the people to create a sea change.
COOKING FOR SOLUTIONS takes place May 20-22. The gala (7:30-10:30pm Friday) is $150 general; $120 members. Saturday-Sunday events at the Aquarium are free with admission. See www.montereybayaquarium.org for details.