Oil and Water

Chef Rick Moonen tours the Gulf and ponders the fate of the seafood on his menu

Photo by Denise TruscelloMourning the loss of a way of life on the Gulf Coast.

Fishermen in Grand Isle, La., waiting for work.

Fresh from a recent trip to the Gulf Coast, chef Rick Moonen is somber as he sits in the second-floor dining room of his namesake restaurant. Downstairs, the place is buzzing as his staff serves plates of Louisiana-sourced blue crab cakes, Gulf shrimp and other seafood to the lunch crowd at Mandalay Place. But as he reflects on his trip to the region where much of what he serves comes from, he makes no effort to mask the emotion in his voice.

“You saw tons of oil,” he says, “and you saw tons of dolphins—they’re jumping through this stuff. I felt like telling them, ‘Go somewhere else.’”

After years of promoting sustainable seafood, Moonen’s name is synonymous with the cause. When the most important source of American seafood—the Gulf of Mexico—was hit by the worst oil spill in U.S. history, he was concerned.

“It kept me up late at night. I was obsessed with it,” he says.

So Moonen, along with fellow Las Vegas restaurateur Tom Colicchio and chefs Susur Lee, Rick Tramonto, Charles Carroll, Dean Fearing and John Folse, embarked on a 24-hour trip to Grand Isle, La., last month. The trip was arranged by the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board to bolster the state’s fishing industry and reassure consumers that Gulf seafood is still safe.

After seeing news reports from the area, Moonen was expecting the worst. That’s not what he found.

“I didn’t see the thick kind of mud that’s viscous and gooey and tar-like,” he says. “I think I got the soft tour.”

But he heard stories that likely made his hosts uneasy.

“Onboard a boat that I was on was a very young marine biologist, and I got to talk to him, candidly,” he says. “I asked him if he would eat anything from the Gulf, from anywhere in the Gulf, or feed it to his friends or his family. And he said, without hesitation, ‘Absolutely not.’”

Moonen stops his story and scans the darkened dining room. Then he continues. “He’s got no reason to make anything up, he’s just a kid, he’s in his 20s. And he said, ‘Absolutely not, no matter how nicely you cooked it up.’ That didn’t give me a sense of confidence.”

The situation weighs heavily on him, long after his return to Las Vegas.

“The fisherman down there are unemployed—generations of fisherman,” he says. “People who have licenses [to fish] in certain areas that have been closed by the government are out of work.”

That’s leading to a palpable tension, he says. “They’re frustrated—you can see it in their eyes, and they’re not saying anything. A lot of them have signed agreements [with BP], no question about it. Anyone thinks otherwise, it’s time to pull your head out of your butt—because that’s exactly what’s going on.”

About 30 percent of the Gulf of Mexico—some 78,600 square miles—is closed to commercial fishing, and more than 30,000 fishing families have been directly affected by the oil spill. Fishing represents one out of every 70 jobs in the state.

Adding to the tragedy is the toll on wildlife. A July 16 report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service states 2,624 dead animals have been found: 2,095 birds, 467 sea turtles, 61 dolphins and other mammals, and one other reptile.

“You’re going to hear more and more of that,” Moonen says.

Estimates suggest the Deepwater Horizon spewed between 94 million and 184 million gallons of oil into the Gulf during the 85-day spill. Some of it has already made its way into Lake Pontchartrain, and fragile estuaries—home to oysters, catfish and crawfish—have been effected.

“No one is eating oysters—no one,” Moonen says. “That’s the first thing that’s going to go, the oysters. That’s the canary in a coal mine.”

Moonen says Louisiana’s oyster harvest has come to a stand-still. But that’s not the case for the state’s entire $2.4 billion seafood industry.

“There’s still a lot of fishing going on, but it has to go through rigorous testing,” he says, noting that the combination of testing and the industry’s “chain of custody”—food being tracked from the waters where it was caught to the plate it is served on—is helping keep the industry safe and honest.

“I’m more confident now that it’s safe and tested, more than ever,” he says. “Truth in sourcing and safety testing is probably the highest it’s ever been.” The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has tested more than 15,000 fish and other sea creatures for toxicity since the spill. So far, only one sample didn’t pass the test, and it came from waters that had been closed to fishing. Less encouraging is research from the University of Southern Mississippi, which discovered oil in the tiny blue crabs on which larger species feed. While the news is mixed, most agree that it will be years before the impact of the enormous spill is known.

For Moonen, the situation demands diligence and a leap of faith. He’s never served fin fish such as tuna from the Gulf at his restaurant, belieiving the stocks aren’t sustainable. But for now he thinks that other Gulf seafood is safe. “One hundred percent of the shrimp that I use is white crab from the Gulf,” he says. “It’s delicious, it’s the best. … [and] it’s being tested. The shrimp is fine.”

And if problems do arise, relief is on ice. “A lot of shrimp is held [and frozen], so I can use shrimp that was harvested pre-oil spill,” he says.

While in Grand Isle, Moonen heard rumors of crews secretly cleaning beaches at night and clandestine teams keeping dead animals out of sight, but he saw nothing of the sort.

“That’s just talk,” he says. “You can’t go on the beach—they have these three-foot barriers on the beach.”

What he did see was evidence of BP’s efforts to burn hundreds of thousands barrels of oil from the surface of the Gulf. “You could see the smoke coming up, and you wondered what was going on out there,” he says. “Is that normal? I don’t know. I’ve learned to be skeptical of a lot of things, and to be safe. I’m from New York, so I don’t trust anything, but I certainly don’t trust BP.”