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Take Five with Chef Rick Moonen, On “Top Chef Masters” and Saving the World’s Seafood Populations

In person, talking a mile a minute, and jumping up from his chair to make a point with arms gesturing wildly, Chef Rick Moonen is a blur of frenetic energy just as he is as a competitor on this season’s “Top Chef Masters.’’

The 53-year-old chef jokes that he gets mistaken for fellow bespectacled, facial-scruffed Chef Rick Bayless ever since the two of them appeared together on the first season of that wildly popular Bravo TV show. This despite the fact that Moonen is a Las Vegas chef, whose restaurant RM Seafood is known for its menu of eco-friendly fish, and Bayless is a Chicago chef, whose restaurants Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, are famous for authentic Mexican cuisine.

Indeed, at RM Seafood, Moonen has banned Chilean Sea Bass, Japanese hamachi, monkfish, and grouper from his menu because they are so over-fished. He also refuses to serve Atlantic farm-raised salmon because of its destructive impact on the environment. Instead, he takes pride in featuring sustainable, but lesser known species such as Hawaiian walu and Australian ocean trout.

If he hadn’t been a chef, Moonen, who grew up playing with chemistry sets and Tinkertoys, says he would have been a teacher or doctor of alternative medicine. Good thing for us, he chose the culinary road instead.

Moonen was in Monterey this past weekend, where he was one of the guest chefs at the ninth annual “Cooking for Solutions’’ event at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I caught up with him during a break to chat about his redemption on this season’s “Top Chef Masters’’ and about his dedication to the world’s oceans.

Q: When I interviewed Chef Michael Chiarello of Bottega in Yountville about his defeat in last year’s “Top Chef Masters,’’ he said you were the one who really would have given him a run for his money in the competition. Was it a huge disappointment to you last season when you were knocked out practically at the start because you weren’t able to plate anything before time ran out in the first ‘Quick Fire’ challenge?

A: I would have beat him. He knows it. I know it. (laughs) If I had just put a piece of parsley on the plate, I would have had it.

That’s why this year, they created the ‘Moonen Rule.’ The ‘Quick Fire’ scores don’t count now in the final tally.

Q: That’s right! Seriously, that change came about because of what happened to you last year?

A: No one told me that officially. But I think it is the ‘Moonen Rule.’

It was a very big disappointment for me last year. I realized I blew it. It’s me, I’m anal-retentive, compulsive, ADD-Rick. Imagine you’re a clown. I grab you and put a gun to your head and tell you that you have to be funny. That’s what it felt like. Now, if you had given me a minute to really think and organize, I would have kicked his butt.

Q: Why did you want to do the show in the first place?

A: I have a restaurant with a lot of people working for me. A handful of them had been approached to do ‘Top Chef.’ There are all these stages you have to go through to make the cut. None of them made it. I got called up about ‘Top Chef Masters,’ and said, ‘Yes,’ thinking I would never make the cut, either. I almost holy sh***ed my way in. I thought it would be good for business. I went into it to have fun. I’m not that competitive really. I just didn’t want to come off looking like a jerk.

Q: What surprised you the most about the show?

A: The physical part. I thought I was in decent shape. But these things are taped one right after the other. There’s no week of rest in between. I burned my knuckles in the ‘Wedding Wars’ challenge and had to go cook again the next morning. They wear you down, and it forces your personality out. You get to your room finally at 2:30 a.m. and you have a call time the next day at 7 a.m. You are worn down. Luckily, I don’t sleep much. I don’t. And that came in handy.

Q: What was the hardest challenge?

A: There’s one coming up, but I can’t talk about it until it airs.

Q: Oh, you can hint around a little.

A: Oh, no, I can’t.

I’ll tell you this much: I lost so much time finding ingredients in the pantry. People were screwing each other. You know nutmeg is in the pantry; you’ve seen it there. But you go back there and it’s gone. Someone took it and nobody’s saying they have it.

There was definitely more camaraderie last year. This year, people were hogging the stove and ingredients. In the ‘Simpsons’ challenge, I made a sloppy Joe. I needed ketchup. When I went to the pantry, there was none. So, I ended up having to take the time to make my own ketchup, and I still won.

Q: Do you like watching yourself on TV?

A: No. I hate it. I’ll watch once, only to learn what I can do better. I didn’t even watch the last episode that was just on.

Q: Who was the most intimidating judge?

A: Gael Greene, because I never had any association with her during her career. When I was at Oceana in New York, she never wrote about me. I thought she hated me.

Q: Which of your competitors would you most want to cook you a meal?

A: I can’t wait to eat at Tony Mantuano’s Spiaggia.

Q: What led you to cooking?

A: I was in the kitchen a lot. Science and math were my passions. My Mom kept me in the kitchen with her a lot because of my ADD or whatever. She’d tell me to stir this or help her do that. My uncle knew I wanted to be a dietitian so he gave me an application to the Culinary Institute of America. It changed my life.

Q: What ignited your concerns about sustainable seafood?

A: I was at Oceana in the early 1990s, where I started a social network of chefs, where we would share information. Genetically modified organisms and the “Give Swordfish a Break’’ campaign were hot topics then.

Our business is built on trust. People put what we make into their mouths. I have a passion to poke the world in a better direction to create better respect for our environment. For too long, we’ve lived a life of entitlement. It’s wrong. We’re not treating our world nicely.

We needed a recession and an oil spill. We needed to be punched in the gut. People don’t give a sh*t unless you scare them. I’m sorry about the jobs in the Gulf, but maybe the snapper, grouper, shrimp and bluefin will come back now. Nature can regenerate if you just leave it alone.

Q: Your servers at RM Seafood are required to memorize the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s ‘Seafood Watch Guide’?

A: I probably have more of those brochures than the aquarium does. (laughs)

Q: Do diners ever complain when they don’t find their favorite seafood on your menu?

A: No, I never hear of that. I challenge people to try something out of their comfort zone. Some are a little wary at first. But when people try something new and love it, that’s the best.

More: Rick Moonen’s “Baked Scallops with Porcini Butter”

More: My Q&A with Chef Michael Chiarello

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