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From dock to dish

BY: Mike Feist, BBA Food Business Management

I was painted a vivid picture; almost 90% of fish sold in the US is imported, mainly from Asia, and about half of those from farms are in and around polluted rivers like the Mekong. The fish are largely illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) and forced labor is prevalent in the industry. Due to these factors, US seafood prices are rock-bottom. The number of US imports surpasses the previous record each year, and the FDA only inspects about 1% of these imports before the food is distributed. More foodborne illness outbreaks come from seafood than from any other imported food. We have an epidemic on our hands.

Sean Barrett is a lifelong fisherman who is currently located at the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture. We met there to talk about what he’s doing to fight this catastrophe. In 2012, Sean created Dock to Dish, a network of fishermen, chefs, and some of the most brilliant people in the industry. He launched the operation in Montauk, having worked with Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Scott Chaskey at Quail Hill Farm, where the “farm to table” concept evolved into “dock to dish”.

The original initiative was simply a community-supported fishery (CSF), based on the community-supported agriculture (CSA) model, and the first of its kind in New York. Dan Barber crafted an additional new program with Sean, the first restaurant-supported fishery (RSF) in the world. Sean’s fishermen supply top-quality fish, always delivered within 24 hours and never frozen. At Dock to Dish, they only offer sustainable seafood by only fishing for underutilized and abundant species, and working with multiple agencies to ensure that remains true. They are also sustainable in their methods – only using pole- and spearfishing to prevent bycatch and sea floor damage. This also made them a supply-based restaurant purveyor, reversing away from the traditional demand-based motivation as a purveyor.

They supply seafood to 15 restaurants in New York, including Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Eric Ripert’s Le Bernadin, Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern, April Bloomfield’s John Dory Oyster Bar, and Mario Batali’s Manzo at Eataly. Their waiting list has over 250 New York restaurants alone. Google’s Chelsea office also demands ten times the volume of a typical shipment to one restaurant, a staggering volume of fish. Whatever Sean brings in the chefs will take, whether it be Atlantic butterfish, sea robins, triggerfish, or cocktail bluefish. Chefs love these underutilized (and historically bycatch) fish, and the public, once mostly wary, are now specifically asking for them too.

Sean Barrett grew up around the freshest fish. His parents said they’d send him to basketball camp and he would return home with a “best fisherman” trophy. He’s worked in fisheries and restaurants since he was young, including his family’s tavern, where he learned to stand his ground in a kitchen. He grew up around one of the first CSAs in New York, Quail Hill Farm, founded by Scott Chaskey. Chaskey’s book, This Common Ground, made him think, “could CSAs work for seafood?” Scott then helped them start their CSF in 2012, and Sean said it skyrocketed from there. It became so popular that right away he had over 100 families with a 300-family waiting list. Sean brought the idea of adding restaurants into the mix to Dan Barber. The pair piloted it at Stone Barns, where philosophically it was a perfect fit, matching ideally with the force behind The Third Plate.

Dan Barber developed Sean’s idea to work for other restaurants, and immediately got on the phone. Dan personally called Eric Ripert, April Bloomfield, and half a dozen other top chefs. With his reputation and his insight as to which chefs would join in, he quickly got them on board. Dan Barber also guided Dock to Dish through some operational kinks. The first couple of times, they delivered the fish to Le Bernadin around noon, which was too late in the day. Sean didn’t realize they served lunch there and the fish should have been delivered much earlier, around 7:45 am. So they strolled in, excited to deliver some beautiful fish, and didn’t realize – the staff was ready to go for service, without the fish.

Once the operation became replicable, they started branching out all over the US, now operating in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver, and Costa Rica. In California, they’re known for serving Michael Cimarusti’s Providence and Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. They always deliver within a 150-mile radius of the source, with an average of only 70 miles’ distance. In Vancouver, they average 11 miles away and in Costa Rica, it’s only 7 miles from the dock. They end up with the smallest carbon footprint of any distribution system in their class.

This month, Dock to Dish is launching a Kickstarter campaign for what they name Dock to Dish 2.0. They want to show transparency through traceability by introducing the first real-time seafood tracking system. It shows the fishing boats arriving just like watching an Uber pull up to your door. You can see information on the fishermen’s names, history, license numbers, favorite fish, recipes, and more.

They’re partnering with Google and the system will display on Dock to Dish’s website. The program has the potential to display on member restaurants’ websites or on a tablet at guests’ tables. Blue Hill already does similar demonstrations for guests, including showing videos of Sean and Dan’s crews out on the fishing boats. Sean hopes this transparency will spread to other types of purveyors, so he’s making everything open-source and easy to replicate.

I asked Sean about his personal philosophy. The work is hard, laboring on boats and docks, hauling and lifting. He admits to questioning his career, like many chefs do after a long and exhausting day. Sean questions his work more when he’s waiting through miles of traffic on the LIE before dawn, hoping to get to the Manhattan restaurants on time. However, he reminds himself that his products feel like preventative medicine, as good fish is fresh, clean, and healthful. With his program, he can check off all the boxes for sustainable, traceable, hyperlocal, and seasonal fish. So for the families and restaurant guests he feeds, he knows they can have a wholesome, delicious, and nutritious meal to end a hard day’s work. That idea is what keeps him going – knowing he’s making a difference.

He’s also excited about the nation getting back to its roots of locally-sourced food. It’s partly why he and Dan Barber are such good friends. Together, they also created the Squanto Project at Stone Barns, which started when Sean ended up with scraps from filleting fish for the CSF. Squanto and other Native Americans taught the early colonists that if you fertilize the earth with fish, crops will grow larger and stronger. Sean and Dan applied that knowledge to the compost for Stone Barns’ fields, and together with a switch from cardboard to reusable plastic containers for the seafood, they eliminated nearly all their waste  . They started teasing the Stone Barns farmers later that fall, having to harvest “Jurassic Park-sized produce” – due to the fish from the spring before.

Dock to Dish also works heavily with CIA alumni; Sean estimates that 75 or 80% of his restaurants’ chefs have graduated from the school. One of his closest mentors, William Rosenzweig, directs the CIA’s new Food Business School and is an Advisory Board Member.

The outlook of local seafood finally looks promising.   So many fish populations have been soaring over the past two or three years; fish like porgy and bluefish are both at 150% of their target populations. Sean says we now have the largest and most diverse population of sustainable fish in US waters that we’ve had in generations. And with a blueprint for fresh, traceable, and environmentally-friendly seafood supplies, the food industry has a bright future.