The conundrum is clear. New York is a coastal city, surrounded by seas rich with life and towns where fishermen have been harvesting the ocean’s bounty for centuries. Yet it’s next to impossible to buy fresh fish, caught locally, anywhere, even at many docks themselves, where fishermen have exclusive deals with distributors who pump the fish directly into the commodity markets. All we want is fresh fish. Why is it so damn hard to find?
Gabe Stommel wants to fix this. She grew up in Cape Cod with a dad who fished for a living. She has a deep love for the fishing heritage and culture of the Northeast, a culture whose very survival has been under grave threat for a generation. She couldn’t bear the thought of losing it, and she wanted to do something to support local fishing communities. But what?
She hatched her plan around a simple concept – good fish. To Gabe, good fish is fresh, wild fish, properly handled and quickly moved from the ocean to the plate. Global commodity seafood markets have come to dominate the trade. Close to ninety percent of seafood consumed in the United States is shipped here from abroad, and most of it is farmed. Mislabeling of fish is rampant. Freshness as she defines it is virtually impossible to find.
There’s a twist: There are hundreds of delightfully delicious species of fish in our regional waters. Over time, the market has rigidly focused on just a handful of those species, which has placed immense pressures on groundfish stocks like cod, while many other species that are just a good to eat have flourished, unfished.
Her idea? Move to a coastal New England town where fishing is still the traditional way of life. Strike up relationships with dayboat captains, who go out in the morning and come back in the afternoon with a fresh supply of fish pulled from the ocean only a few hours prior. Focus on underutilized species, which are plentiful and delicious, and work with interested consumers and chefs to create a market for them.
The goal? Everybody wins. Fishermen struggling to survive under a daunting web of regulations get to catch and sell more fish by shifting their attention beyond the handful of species everyone thinks they want. Chefs and consumers get access to good, fresh fish of the highest quality. Those few, irrationally fetishized species of fish get a little break. And Gabe gets to be a Fish Babe.
It’s happening. Gabe moved to Point Judith, Rhode Island, last winter and launched ‘Gabe The Fish Babe.’ She buys fish from the dayboat guys, her neighbors, every day, ships it overnight to chefs throughout the city, and directly to urban seafood geeks through her ‘Fish Club,’ which delivers a package of fish and shellfish to members each week.
We wanted a closer look at the Fish Babe, so we drove up to Point Judith. We spent a morning fishing for Jonah crab with Don Deberardino, a dayboat captain who frequently sells to Gabe; an afternoon chasing Gabe around the docks until sundown, then an evening enjoying a feast of bluefish, butterfish, skate and beer. The next morning we followed Don’s crab back to Brooklyn, to the kitchen at Allswell in Williamsburg, where chef Nate Smith has found something he’s always been looking for in Gabe – someone who provides a direct link to local fishermen, who can keep him in good fish.
From the Field, in the waters off Point Judith, Rhode Island, with captain Don Deberardino, fishing for Jonah crab aboard the F/V Umiak…
So Don, tell us about Jonah crab.
You know, the guys around here, generally, we’re lobstermen. We catch lobsters. That’s what we do. These Jonah crabs and Peekytoe crabs, we always thought of them as a bycatch. They’d end up in the traps and we’d throw them back over the side. We never used to keep them. The attitude was always, “We don’t do crabs.” I can sell one lobster for eight bucks, or I can sell fifteen crabs for ten bucks. And nobody ever wanted to buy crabs. They always wanted lobster. There was no market for them, so why would we mess with them?
The thing is, now the government is going to cut our lobster pot quotas back by fifty percent over the next five years here in the inshore fishing grounds of Rhode Island. That’s really going to change things. The only people who are going to be able to stay in business are the big rich guys. The little guys like me are gonna get squeezed out of it because we aren’t going to have enough pots to pay the bills anymore.
So what we’re trying to do around here by working with Gabe, is to create a market for these crabs so we can stay in business and keep fishing. With crabs, everyone used to think they were just too much work. They’re not as easy to eat as a lobster. You have to pick the meat out of the legs. It takes time. It’s a little work. But you know what? It’s delicious. The crab meat is absolutely delicious.
When I started catching crab and trying to sell it people would tell me, “Nah, I don’t want crab. It’s too much work.” So I’d say, “Here, take a couple of these crabs home and eat it tonight. Just go home and try it.” Next thing you know, they’re coming back. “Hey, you got any more of that crab?” They come back.
So anyway, they’re going to cut my lobster pots back by fifty percent over the next five years. What I’m trying to do is find an alternative to lobsters so that I can keep doing this. The other guys around here too. You know what? I can still go out and throw crab pots, because there are so many crabs. There are so many crabs down there, it’s pretty unbelievable. And the good thing is that they’re so delicious to eat. If I can catch and sell more crabs, I can still make a living. I can afford to keep fishing, which is what I like to do.
The good thing is that people have started to really gravitate to the crabs. The problem with us Americans, you know, is we have no patience. We think we don’t want to sit around with the whole family picking crab meat. With us, it’s like, “Give me a big lobster claw! Arrrgh.” Or, “Give me a big steak! Now!” Or they want to throw some hot dogs on the grill and be done with dinner in five minutes.
I used to be like that. But now I like it. Crab is a good meal. Now I don’t mind spending some time sitting around a nice pot of crabs with my wife and some friends, picking crab meat and having a nice meal. You spend some time with the food, you spend some time with some people, and that’s a good thing. I think people need to just slow down and eat some crab. The world would be a better place. [laughter.]
What we’re seeing is, as more and more people try this kind of crab, they see how good it is. They want more. So that’s a good thing.
How do you actually fish? What do you do out here on the boat? How does it all work?
For the most part, I’m a single man operation. I run a thirty one foot boat. I run trawls – lobster and crab pot trawls, which means I have a bunch of pots on one string. I’ve got about a hundred, hundred twenty feet of line between each pot. I go out a little ways from the dock and I drop the pots over the side. The string sits on the bottom, stretched out along the ocean floor, anywhere from eight to twenty pots long. The end of the string is attached to a buoy, so I can find it easily, set the line on my winch, and haul it up to the boat when I come back to check it.
Each pot gets baited with either skate, herring, menhaden, or flounder racks…stuff that we get from the draggers. The draggers are out looking for groundfish and that sort of thing. They supplement their income by selling skate to us to use as bait for lobster and crab pots. Skate is another fish that’s always been considered a bycatch. There’s never been much of a market for it. We use it as bait. But there should be a market for it. It can be really good to eat.
I’m what they call a dayboat fisherman. I go out from the dock about four thirty in the morning, and I’m back around two o’clock in the afternoon. When I get out there, I’ll go to a spot where I have a line of pots, and I’ll haul the trawl. Your average fisherman around here will haul two or three hundred pots a day. I’m a small-time fisherman. I’ll do about a hundred. A lot of guys, at the height of the season, they’ll go out for three days in a row, take two off, then go out for three days again.
So what I do is I go out to my trawls and pull up my pots one by one. I attach the line to the winch and pull a pot up to the side of the boat. When I get a pot up here, I empty it out. I’ll take out all the crabs or lobsters one by one, measure each one, keep the keepers and throw the rest back. Then I start stacking the empty pots on the back of the boat.
When I’m done with a full string, I bait each trap again, then start up the boat and drop them off the back down to the bottom again. Then I move on to the next string and do it again, and I keep doing that until it’s time to go back in.
When I get back to the dock, I’m not done. Then I’ve got to sell my catch. Some days it goes really quick, other days it’s like sticking a fork in your eye. [laughter.]
See, it’s gotten to a point for guys like me where dockside sales have become really important. Since the prices for the product have gotten so low at the commercial docks that are run by the wholesale operations, it’s gotten to the point where the only way smaller operators like me can make any money is by selling the lobsters and crab that I catch right off my boat to people who come down here themselves looking for really fresh stuff.
If you come down to the dock to buy straight from me, I can save you on average two to three dollars off the price you’d pay at the market. At the same time, I’m making two to three dollars more by selling it to you than I would by selling it to the dealers. There’s plenty of big offshore boats that go out for a week at a time that are going to always sell to the commercial docks because they’ve got thousands and thousands of pounds of product, but for a lot of us smaller dayboat guys, we’re only making it because of those dockside sales.
The thing that’s good about it is when you buy it from me, you know you’re getting a really fresh product. You can watch the boat come in after going out that morning, and buy your crab or lobster right there. You know it wasn’t sitting somewhere in a tank for weeks on end. People like being able to get a fresh product and seeing where it came from. They get to talk to the fisherman, and often we end up having a rapport with the people who come to us to buy, and they keep coming back. It’s good for everyone.
You know, I’ve been fishing for a long time. Everything’s a lot different now than it used to be. Back in the heyday, everyone around here fished for a living. There used to be something like three thousand commercial fishing license holders around here. Now we’re down to about twelve hundred. Guys are getting older. The average age of the fishermen now is probably in the mid-sixties. There are hardly any young guys coming up into it anymore because it’s not the way it used to be. It used to be, a lot of guys got rich fishing around here. Now it’s pretty tough to make a real living at it.
What has changed?
The things that have changed the industry the most, I gotta believe, are technology and regulations, and they go hand-in-hand.
Back in the day, we used to have wood lobster pots. The old timers will tell you that the amount of work required to keep a pot in fishing condition was incredible. Then came the advent of wire pots and that changed everything. One of these wire pots will last you twenty, twenty five years. So now you don’t need to spend hardly any time mending the pots. You can just have them in the water fishing all the time.
Another thing is fiberglass boats. Guys used to spend a tremendous amount of time maintaining their wood boats. Tremendous amount of time. Now, you get a fiberglass boat, and if you keep it clean and don’t crash into anything, it’ll be good practically forever and you hardly ever need to take it out of the water. So you can just be out fishing all the time.
Then you have the electronics. It used to be, you’d go out and troll around for fish. You spent a lot of time looking for fish, looking for your gear. Now you just follow the radar, the GPS. The new electronics can pick up one fish in eight hundred feet of water. Fog, bad weather doesn’t make any difference anymore. You can always go fishing, and you can always get right on top of your fish.
Everything’s more efficient now. A lot of the problem came in because we ended up with a market that only wants a few different species of fish. You’ve got hundreds of species of fish out here, and most of them are real good to eat, but there’s only a market for a few of them. Everyone wants the groundfish like cod, haddock and flounder, and lobsters and scallops. That’s it. So everybody is trying to catch the same few kinds of fish, and the technology allowed everybody to spend a lot more time out here catching them.
So what happens? The numbers of those fish everybody’s after drop, and you end up with very strict regulations, and that means a lot less people are able to make a living doing this. The best thing we can do is start convincing people that they should be eating some of these other species of fish. There’s nothing wrong with them. They’re delicious. People just aren’t used to them.
How did you start working with Gabe?
When Gabe was starting up her business, she started coming down to the docks and talking to us guys. She told us about what she wanted to do. She wanted to promote the dayboat catch – product that came in fresh that day, not stuff from the big offshore boats. The big boats will be out fishing for a week at a time, so a lot of their fish has been on ice that whole time. She wanted the highest quality, freshest fish she could find, that she could sell to chefs and people in New York.
And she didn’t care about the species. She just cared about freshness and quality. She said she’d take anything – crabs, bluefish, porgies, butterfish, whatever – as long as it came out of the water that day and was of the highest quality. Those are the kind of fish that are pretty abundant out here, but that are normally really hard for us to sell. It was a new kind of idea, and it made a lot of sense.
At the town dock, the dealers want to take everything you have. That’s how that side of the business works. And if you don’t have a thousand pounds of stuff, you’re not even going to make enough to pay for your fuel for the day. Gabe wants less quantity, and only the highest quality. What Gabe’s doing is going to help all of us – fishermen, and chefs and people who like to be able to get fresh seafood. So we try to help her out, and everybody helps everybody out.
So Don, how did you become a fisherman?
I grew up in Charlestown, Rhode Island. I always hung out at the docks. I used to work part time on the charter boats. A lot of my older friends were lobstermen. It was always one of my dreams to be a lobsterman. From the time I was a young kid, I’d be down at the docks stringing up bait and stuff like that, hanging out with the guys.
But for a while when I got a little older I worked at a marina for a while, working on high performance boats and motors, rigging offshore racing boats and stuff. I loved it. I was nuts for that stuff. The last thing I wanted then was a lobster boat. I always thought that someday I’d own an offshore racing boat.
So even today my wife says, “I can’t believe you wanted a boat that goes a hundred miles and hour and you ended up with one that does nine knots!” [laughter.] But I’ve always been interested in the fishing stuff, and as time progressed I got a commercial license, and I went from a small fishing boat, to a bigger boat, to a bigger boat and finally to what I have now. I just hope that by working with Gabe and trying to create a market for all of these fish out there that nobody used to want, I can keep doing it – we all can keep doing it. It’s good for everybody.
…To the Docks, with new-school fish dealer Gabe ‘The Fish Babe’ Stommel…
So Gabe, tell us about what you’re trying to do here in Point Judith.
I grew up around fish. My dad was a commercial fisherman on Cape Cod. So I appreciate good fish. For me, good fish means fresh, wild fish that’s been caught sustainably, and handled properly from the moment it comes out of the water to ensure the highest possible quality. The problem is that a lot of people think it’s getting harder and harder to find good fish. The good thing is that fresh, local, wild fish isn’t disappearing at all, it’s everywhere. In order to get it, we just have to start eating different species of fish than we’re used to eating.
The NOAA studies seafood consumption in the United States. Last year, they said almost ninety percent of the seafood consumed here comes from abroad, and the vast majority of it is farmed. Ninety percent! If your fish is coming from a different country, it’s not going to be what I consider fresh. That doesn’t mean it’s spoiled, it’s just not fresh, and when it comes to good fish, anyone who’s ever eaten fish that’s just been pulled out of the water knows that that’s what makes all the difference. That’s good fish.
And there are all kinds of other issues with the global seafood market. Mislabeling of species everywhere is rampant, at many different levels. It’s staggering, and we’re just starting to understand the scope of it. This group called Oceana ran studies in a bunch of areas of the United States. They did genetic testing on fish being sold at restaurants and supermarkets to see whether the fish was actually the species it was labeled as, and found that in many places, the fish was mislabeled half the time or more. Some species were mislabeled seventy percent of the time or more.
In the kind of global seafood market that has developed, fish changes hands many, many times before it reaches the consumer. There are so many opportunities for someone to pass off a cheap, farmed fish as something wild and highly sought after. Farmed codfish from Iceland gets sold as local, line caught Chatham cod. Chemically treated, frozen sea scallops are sold as natural dayboat scallops from Maine. No one checks this stuff. The FDA checks two percent of all the fish brought into the country. I don’t like the lies. I don’t like that dark side of the business. And it’s rampant.
On the other side of it, you have this very beautiful American tradition of fishing – fishing culture, fishing heritage. In fishing communities, fishing isn’t a job, it’s a way of life. It’s been a very important way of life for many generations in many places, and that way of life is disappearing because it’s so hard to make a living at it anymore. This global commodity approach to fish and the regulations imposed as a result of the overfishing of a few species are destroying this traditional way of life in New England and all over the planet, really.
Fishermen don’t want to do anything other than fishing. It’s who they are. They live on the water, pulling fish from the sea. That’s what they do, and what their fathers and grandfathers did. They don’t function in offices, they go out on the ocean in boats and fish. It’s a part of our heritage as Americans. Nobody wants these fishing towns and this fishing culture to disappear. This is the world I grew up in. It means a lot to me and I don’t want it to disappear, but it’s at the brink.
So I wanted to find a way to do something about it, to support these local traditional fishing communities, and to get the really fresh, super-high quality fish that people in these communities are catching, directly to people who want it, to people who appreciate it. My idea was to work directly with dayboat fishermen to get good fish, and to focus on what we call underutilized species.
There are hundreds of species of fish in the waters off New England, but for some reason people only eat like, five of them. It’s crazy, and it’s not sustainable. Those few species everyone is familiar with, like cod, were once the most plentiful and the easiest to catch and process and sell. So markets developed for just those species, and before long, everyone forgot about all the other ones.
So a few species get overfished and become highly regulated and are then the least available and most expensive, while all these other species flourish. And these other species are just as good to eat. They’re just as good. Consumers have just kind of come to forget that they exist. The fishermen are catching tons of them and throwing them back because there’s no market for them. It’s totally crazy and very out of balance.
One of the reasons Point Judith is such a perfect place for me to be is that there’s a huge variety of species caught here. You can get wild cobia in the summer. You can get dogfish, ling, fluke, bluefish, porgies, butterfish, whiting, skate, monkfish…Squid, oysters, clams, scallops…There’s a huge variety of fresh, delicious fish.
I think you have to respect what a place is giving you. You have to respect the balance of the ecosystem. It just doesn’t work in a wild environment if we’re totally focused on only harvesting a handful of things. Everything gets thrown out of whack, and the fish suffer, the fishermen suffer, and consumers suffer because they’re getting shitty fish.
If you say, “I have to have fluke, and that’s all I’ll have,” the chances are you’re going to get something that’s been bouncing around the Fulton Fish Market for two weeks, or that’s been frozen. And if that mentality goes on for too long, you’ll end up with something like Atlantic salmon – those few species everyone wants will end up disappearing from the wild and just being farmed.
The best fish is fresh fish. Ask any chef or fisherman, or anyone who really loves seafood. The species doesn’t matter. What matters is how fresh it is. Anything you take out of the ocean, if it’s really fresh, can be prepared very simply and it will be absolutely delicious.
Take dogfish, for example. Dogfish are a very small kind of shark. Haddock fishermen around here will tell you they can’t even leave their longlines out in the water long enough for them to fill up because there are so many dogfish and they eat all the haddock off the hooks before they can even haul in the lines. We’re eating the haddock and the dogfish are eating the haddock, and there are a lot less haddock now than there used to be. So you know what? Maybe we should be eating the dogfish! And you know what else? Dogfish is delicious. If you’re trying to preserve the prey, eat the predator. It’s easy when the predator is delicious. It’s just an obviously more natural way of doing things.
Or Jonah crab. The lobstermen catch tons of Jonah crabs, and they just throw them back over the side because there’s no market for them. But they’re delicious. Or skate. Most fishermen around here have never, ever eaten skate. They just use it for bait. Skate is soooo good to eat. It’s unbelievably tender. Or porgies. Porgies have a lot of bones. That annoys some people. But if you appreciate the flavor of a fish, you’re going to love porgy. It’s unbelievably sweet and succulent, and it’s incredibly plentiful, so it’s cheap.
Bluefish! Everyone thinks bluefish is gross. “It’s too fishy,” they say. It’s totally not. Bluefish run with the striped bass. The eat the same things. They taste very, very similar. Stripers are highly regulated. They’re expensive. Bluefish is plentiful and cheap. They’re just as good. People just need to try it and they see.
Are there ways to help the flavor of any fish? Of course. It starts on the boat as soon as they come out of the water, and proper handling varies from fish to fish. Some fish need to be bled and iced. Others need to be put in a brine. For these underutilized species, some guys don’t know how to handle them properly to get the highest quality. I work with them to make sure everyone knows the right way to handle these fish that they always used to throw back into the water. It’s not complicated. The species really doesn’t matter. If it’s good fish – fresh and well handled – and you know how to prepare it, it’s delicious.
What I can say about my seafood is that it’s sustainable because it’s caught here in New England by New Englanders who have been doing this for generations. I am personally buying my fish from people that I know, who are my neighbors. I work with them to make sure the fish is handled the way it needs to be to be of the highest quality when it reaches my customers. I see everything I buy with my own eyes. My office is on the docks. I see the fish come off the boats. Everything I sell is hand picked by me. If I don’t like it, I don’t take it. My thing is that I’ll never reject something based on the species. I’m only interested in freshness and quality.
And that’s something a lot of the fishermen appreciate. They can’t necessarily control what they catch and what they’re allowed to catch. They can control making sure they treat what they catch properly to ensure it’s of the highest quality. I can say to these guys, “Hey, I don’t care about the species. I want triggerfish, butterfish, bluefish. You bring me good fish, I’ll buy it and I’ll make a market for it. We’re going to send it straight to New York City where all the coolest people in the world are going to think it’s the best thing ever!” [laughter.]
They understand what this is all about and they want to work with me. I pay more for the catch than the large scale dealers at the commercial docks. And I’m able to send the stuff to chefs down in the city and directly to consumers through the Fish Club. It’s good for everyone. It’s good for the fish because it takes some pressure off these few species that are overfished – it spreads the harvest more evenly. It’s good for the fishermen because they can catch and sell more fish – those underutilized species are much more plentiful so they’re far less regulated. It’s good for the chefs down in the city, because they’re able to get something different and a little unique, that’s really fresh and of the highest quality. And it’s good for consumers because the Fish Club is one of the only ways around where you can get really fresh fish that’s caught locally.
I’ve got a long way to go to get all this where I want it to go. I want to have an impact. If we can create a real market for these underutilized species, we can restore some balance in the fishery and we can buy more fish from these local guys and pay them more. If we can push this new kind of line of seafood distribution, eliminating almost all of the middlemen and moving fish directly from the boat to the individual, we can improve the health of the fisheries, improve the quality of the seafood available to chefs and consumers around here, and we can revitalize communities like this, where a way of life is really under threat.
I’ve made this place my home. I’m definitely chasing a dream here. I’m on a mission. I want to work with the fishermen here and with chefs and individuals in places like New York City to create a new model for sustainable fishing for the future in New England, while improving the quality of the seafood people have access to at the same time. I am not fucking around. I want to add value to the supply chain on both ends. I want to make it better for everyone. If you can do that and be truthful and honest, people understand what you’re doing. When it’s true and real and good, people get it. It takes a while, I know, but I believe that hard work and patience tend to pay off.
What’s a typical day like for you?
Crazy. The office here is on the docks. I live right over there in a little shanty. I wake up early and walk over here. I check the orders from chefs for the day and for the next few days. I check to see if anyone new signed up for the fish club. And then I start to plot out how much fish I’m going to need, and who I’m going to get it from. I get organized and I start calling around, talking to the guys on the boats, seeing who has what, and then I get everything straight and I buy some fish.
While we wait for the boats to come in, we’ll do things like start putting together our recipes for the Fish Club. Each week the fish club features a different fish, and we always we send a recipe along with each member’s package of fish each week. I try to alternate more familiar fish like bonita or fluke or mahi with less familiar ones like bluefish, skate or dogfish. We try to keep a good variety going from week to week so it’s interesting and fun for people. I curate it. It’s like a dance. I want everybody to be happy.
When the boats come in, we go over and look at the catch. We take what we’re going to take that day and we bring it back to the warehouse here where we do the processing. I spend some time in the warehouse talking to the guys, making sure everything is perfect.
There are so many little things. Like the plastic totes we use to hold the fish – some totes have holes in the bottom and some don’t. The difference is really important. If you put oysters on ice in a tote with no holes and the ice melts, you lose those oysters and I might not be able to get any more. I have to check the cooler to make sure the shellfish are separated from the fish. I have to make sure the mussels and steamers are buried under ice and the oysters are sitting on top of ice. I have to make sure the bonitas are in a brine and that the bluefish have been bled. It’s constantly checking temperature and handling, constantly looking for ways to do things better.
Then you’re scrambling to get everything ready to go out when Fed Ex shows up…It never ends.
How did you end up doing this here in Point Judith?
I grew up in Woods Hole, on Cape Cod. Woods Hole is a very special place in the world. It’s a small fishing village, but it also has the highest per capita number of PHDs in the country because of the marine biology and oceanographic institute. It was a very active commercial fishing port until the nineties.
My father was a commercial fisherman. He was very good at it. He always caught more fish than anyone else. He’d be out on the boat for five or six days at a time, then home for two before going back out again. He would always bring home fish. It was just called fish. No one ever talked about what kind of fish it was, it was just fish. I never saw any fish that wasn’t a white, skinless fillet. It was all groundfish, like cod – the stuff that’s under so much pressure now.
Everyone in my extended family had free fish, always. Lobsters too. He caught a lot of lobsters. My mom traded lobsters to her hairdresser for haircuts. It was that kind of life. It was a magical place to grow up.
In college I majored in Latin American Studies and Spanish. I went hog wild down in South American for extended periods of time. It was awesome. And that made me really want to go to New York when I came home, because I wanted to be in a place with a lot of different cultures and food.
So after college I moved to New York. The first job I had there was translating for a personal injury law firm. I was basically translating for people suing other people. It was totally not for me. So I started working in restaurants.
I’d go home a lot. I always loved going home. I missed my town, that special way of life, my mom’s cooking. Every time I left home to go back to New York, I’d kind of shed a single tear. [laughter.] I wanted to find a way to bring a part of that New England fishing town life with me to share with people in New York.
About five years ago I had an idea. I started buying fish from my dad and bringing it down to the city in the back of my car to sell to restaurants. I remember the first day I did it. I picked up two hundred pounds of my dad’s haddock right at his dock. I had it all on ice in the back of my Toyota 4runner and I drove it down here and started pulling up at restaurants and knocking on the kitchen doors and trying to sell people haddock out of the back of my car. [laughter.] I called the operation ‘Brooklyn Haddock,’ because I lived in Brooklyn.
I didn’t know a damn thing about anything when I was doing this. I just knew my dad had good fish and that I wanted to find a way to bring his good fish to the place where I lived. I wanted to be an entrepreneur. But it was a complete mess. These chefs must have thought I was totally insane. I think they were buying fish from me because they felt sorry for me. [laughter.] I had no system in place for keeping track of orders or billing. I had no idea who owed me money or how much. Nobody knew how much anybody owed me, including me. It was a disaster. had to shut the whole thing down.
After that, I travelled around, kind of licking my wounds. I was in California for a while, then Colombia for a while. I never stopped thinking about what I was going to do for a living. I wanted to do fish. I wanted to take another shot at doing something like Brooklyn Haddock, but I knew I had to learn how to actually make it work before going in again. So I went to work for Pierless Fish, which is one of the biggest and best distributors in the city.
They hired me as a salesperson. I learned so much there. I learned what to look for to identify really fresh, high-quality fish, and how to care for fish to maintain that level of quality. I learned about the business side of dealing in fish. At Pierless they were dealing with everything – fish from around here and fish from all over the world. They weren’t focused on anything as specific as I am now – underutilized species like Jonah crab and dayboat catch from fishermen in one port. They were focused on filling the needs of their customers, many of whom are chefs at some of the world’s best restaurants. They saw seafood as a global market, and their goal was to get the best quality fish regardless of where it came from. They are very good at what they do.
I learned a lot there. I met a lot of people, a lot of chefs. After a couple of years, I decided it was time to do my own thing. I wanted to find a fishing town that I liked and that was in striking distance of New York, and I wanted to move there. I thought it was important for me to actually live there so I could develop relationships with the guys I was going to be buying fish from. I wanted to work with smaller dayboats to get the best, freshest fish to send to customers in New York the same day it came off the boat, and I wanted to have an emphasis on underutilized species. That was the plan.
The key to it all was being at the source of the fish. I didn’t want to be in Boston. I don’t know anyone in Boston. I checked out New Bedford, which is a big fishing town. It was kind of too big, and there wasn’t much of a dayboat fleet there. It’s mostly the bigger offshore boats there. My dad suggested Point Judith. He came down here with me and we checked it out. I loved it right away. It’s a small, tight-knit fishing community. People were really nice. I went down to the docks and talked to a lot of fishermen about what I wanted to do, and they seemed like they’d be interested in working with me. I decided to give it a shot. I got started last winter. It took a little time for the local guys to get to know me, to see they could trust me, but we have a good thing going now. Like I said, this is good for everyone.
And I had a lot of support from a bunch of the chefs I knew back in New York. Some chefs really need their supplier to be able to guarantee certain cuts of specific species of fish each week, and that’s just not how things work up here. The chefs I work with are the ones who are able to be flexible, and are willing to take whatever’s coming off the boats. They have to trust me in order for this to work.
There have been fits and starts. I kind of had to reboot everything in the spring, when we started the Fish Club to give individuals a chance to get fish too. It’s got a long way to go, but it’s going and we’re working hard to get it there.
…To the Kitchen, at Williamsburg’s Allswell, with Chef Nate Smith
So Nate, tells us about the Rhode Island Jonah crab you’ve been getting from Gabe. What are you making with it today?
I had tried Jonah crab maybe once or twice before Gabe started sending it down here from Rhode Island. I’ve probably had Jonah crab legs on a raw bar or something. The meat is really sweet, and the crabs Gabe sends are really fresh. So Jonah crab is out there, but there’s not much of it around. It’s not something you’re going to come across with any frequency. I was kind of surprised when Gabe told me how plentiful they are up there by her.
They’re a little finicky to work with. Since they’re crabs, you have to keep them alive until you cook them, and they tend not to want to stick around very long once they’re out of the water. They don’t like hanging out in our walk-in. Once they arrive here you have to deal with them quickly. You have to get them cooked right away.
Picking crab meat isn’t as easy as filleting a fish and pulling out the pin bones. It’s definitely a process, and we’ve got it set up so that when the crabs come in we all pitch in. We steam them, and then we all team up on picking the meat out of the legs, which takes some time. But it’s worth it. You get a lot of meat out of them, the meat is delicious – so sweet – and it’s something that’s interesting because you don’t see a lot of it around.
So today, I’m going to make a crab toast with this Jonah crab meat. This is a dish that’s definitely inspired by a specific moment. I grew up near the coast in northern California. There’s a restaurant called Duarte’s Tavern in a town called Pescadero which is about halfway between San Fransisco and Santa Cruz on this beautiful stretch of Highway One. The place has been there for over a hundred years.
The first time I ever had a crab sandwich was at Duarte’s and I remember it very well. It was totally basic – just a simple crab salad with a couple of crinkle-cut pickles on white bread. Totally basic, but it was one of those things that has stuck with me throughout my cooking career. The pleasure that I got out of something so straightforward and precise and respectful to the ingredient that it was actually showcasing was striking and beautiful. Everything was there to just compliment the crab. It was simple, but it was perfect.
That sandwich wasn’t just the inspiration for this crab toast I’m making now – it was something that has affected everything that I do. It reminds me how you can have such a meaningful experience while just sitting down and eating lunch or dinner in a humble environment without any bells and whistles. Good food is about the product, the ingredients, and respect for the product. Your job as a chef is to be creative, but at the same time to really try to bring out what’s great about the product you’re using without diminishing it through distractions or doing too much.
So crab is something that has kind of a special association for me, and when Gabe told me about the Jonah crab, it seemed kind of perfect. I just said, “Send it down!” It’s great stuff.
This dish is basically deviled crab on toast. I’m going to start with the crab meat, and add some tarragon, a little bit of chopped caper, and some brunoise shallots. I’m going to add a little chili flake, a pinch of Old Bay. Old Bay can be very strong, and I find it’s often overused, but it’s really nice when used with restraint, and it’s so classic with crab. It just goes. It’s familiar, so it transforms the dish instantly into a kind of comfort food. Then I’m going to add a bit of mustard, a little lemon juice and lemon zest, and I’ll finish it with a tiny bit of mayonnaise, and mix everything up.
We bake our own bread every day in house. Everything that we can do in-house, we do in-house. So I’m going to take a slice of this nice sourdough bread and drizzle it with some olive oil, then toast it on the grill. When that’s done, I’m just going to put the crab salad on the toast like this and serve it. Pretty simple.
The idea is that the crab is what shines. It’s sweet, it’s subtle, but it’s at the heart of the dish. The capers we use come packed in sea salt. We soak them for a few minutes to draw off some of the salt, but they keep that briny, cured, but bright flavor that compliments the crab really nicely. The tarragon is bright with a very light hint of anise. The lemon zest and juice bring it up even more. The mustard adds some acidity and a little bit of spice. The little bit of chili lifts your palate, warms it, opens it up and heightens your ability to taste everything else.
And my job is to balance all those elements so that none of them diminish the sweetness and flavor of the crab. So we’re able to incorporate some acidity, some spice, the aromatic herbs, the briny capers, and then you have the pieces of finely diced shallot that are small and delicate, but still have a little sharpness to them, and that sharpness cuts the sweetness of the crab a little bit and gives it more dimension. So all of those elements kind of give you many different windows in one dish onto that sweet flavor of the crab.
In terms of texture, once you bring the crab salad together, it’s all kind of creamy, and the creaminess contrasts nicely with the toasty sourdough with olive oil. It’s not a complicated dish, and I think it pays homage to that first crab sandwich I ever had pretty well.
How did you end up working with Gabe? Why do you work with her?
We met at an event earlier this year, not long after I had opened Allswell, but I had heard of her before that. A few years ago, I was at The Spotted Pig with April Bloomfield when she was opening the John Dory Oyster Bar at the Ace Hotel. Gabe had been selling haddock that her dad had caught off Cape Cod out of the back of her car. April told me about it. I thought it was a pretty cool story. I remembered it.
So when we met I already knew who she was, and I was happy to meet her. She told me about what she was doing, and what she was offering was very, very appealing. She told me she was living up in Point Judith, buying fish directly from the dayboat guys every day, and shipping it to people in New York.
The reason that was really appealing was that…the thing with fish is that you never really know what it’s been through, and sometimes even what it really is. It’s got a short shelf life and it’s got to be moved quickly, and when you’re buying fish and asking questions about it, you often feel like you’re not getting the full story. In fact, it’s often hard to get any story at all, to be honest. The dealers don’t even know where it’s coming from or when or how it was caught. By the time your dealer gets a piece of fish at the Fulton Fish Market, it’s probably passed through five, six, seven different hands since it left the boat.
We source all of our other product very directly. We know the story behind everything else we use. We know the people. And that’s how we like to work. With the fish, we wanted that direct human connection to the person bringing it in from the ocean, and we were having trouble finding that. So with Gabe, the opportunity to have a person that I trust, on the ground in a local fishing port, inspecting fish coming off the boats, picking the very highest quality stuff, buying it from fishermen that she knows personally and sending it to me? It’s pretty phenomenal.
And Gabe’s product is phenomenal. It’s so fresh that it’s almost incredible. Now after working with her for a little while I’m just happy to trust her completely. I source all of my seafood through Gabe exclusively now. I don’t know of any other way to get both that direct personal connection to the guys catching the fish, and to get fish of that freshness and quality than through Gabe. She’s honest and she’s looking for good relationships with people who are flexible. Not flexible on quality, but flexible on species. She’s not flexible at all on quality, but she’s all about being flexible with species and she expects you to be too.
I was definitely skeptical at first, though. [laughter.] She would send emails out to her chef clients that told you what was available. There were always things on the list that I had never even heard of, and that were really cheap. I was suspicious. I was like, “Sea robin? Butterfish? What the hell is this stuff and why is it so cheap?” [laughter.]
But she convinced me to try some things and I did and it was awesome. Dogfish was one of the things she sent me to try. I’d never worked with it or eaten it or even really heard of it before, and I fell in love with it right away. It’s an interesting fillet. It’s very narrow and long, and you have to cut it a certain way, but I found it really flavorful and really fresh and the meat was different. It cooks almost like halibut would, but it has a little bit of a firmer texture. I fell for it right away.
Now, I don’t even care what Gabe sends anymore. It took me a little while to get there, but now she can send me anything and I’ll take it, because everything she sends is so fresh and fantastic. All these unknown species of fish that she sends? They’re delicious. They’re wild animals from the sea. They’re fresh and clean. How could they not be good? We have to get away from focusing on just a few species of fish. It doesn’t make sense. We have to open up to all of these much more sustainable species and approaches to seafood. It’s our responsibility to market things that are sustainable and of the highest possible quality. Gabe is really opening up a whole new world of possibilities and opportunities for people like me who cook for a living, and I think for the fishermen and for people who like good food too.
And I really like the variety of fish that are coming in. It’s just what’s freshest and of the highest quality. That’s really how we want to source all of our ingredients. Why should seafood be any different?
Gabe’s able to provide me with food that I can’t get anywhere else. I really like working with the variety of species. It’s healthy for the restaurant because it’s a challenge. Being complacent in anything that you do just breeds unhappiness. I don’t want Gabe to send me thirty pounds of cod. I want her to send me ten pounds of whatever’s good one day and ten pounds of something else the next. I want to use all of whatever she sends me one day that night, so the next night it’s something new. It’s very rare to be able to have so much seafood on the menu and to be able to keep it so fresh by turning it around so quickly.
You do have to keep your customers comfortable. There’s a kind of natural craving for an ordered, defined experience. People want to know that something is going to be on the menu when they come in. There’s a hunger for the signature dish. People like to be able to say, “Oh, you’ve got to try this at that place.” It’s not necessarily easy convincing someone to try a new kind of fish that they’ve never heard of, or something like bluefish that they may have grown up hearing bad things about. It’s not easy to have a menu that changes every day like ours does here. But we’re fortunate in that our customers seem to be totally getting it. They understand that all our fish is coming from Gabe. They get it.
With Gabe and with us and with our customers, it all becomes about trust. We trust Gabe to send us good product of the highest quality. She trusts us to present her product in a way that gets people excited about it – that makes people want more. Her fishermen trust her to create a new market for this stuff so they can continue doing what they do for a living. Our customers trust us to give them good food. The fishermen are signing on with Gabe. We’re signing on with Gabe. Our customers are signing on with us. This is a new idea, a new way of doing things when it comes to seafood. We’re all in it together. Everybody has to trust each other and go along for the ride, and by doing that, it might take us somewhere really interesting.
Gabe the Fish Babe’s Fish Club delivers packages of fish and shellfish fresh off the Point Judith dayboats to pickup locations in Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, Greenpoint, Park Slope and Williamsburg each week. Home delivery is also available.
Allswell is located at 124 Bedford Avenue, at North 10th, in Williamsburg.
Photography by Morgan Ione Yeager, who totally did not puke while getting tossed around on Don’s boat. All rights reserved.