“We use local, organic ingredients as often as possible”
For today’s discerning diners, that once-reassuring line on a menu doesn’t cut it anymore. It seems like it’s almost de rigeur for new-school Brooklyn restaurants to reserve a spot on their menus to proudly name the farms from which they source their meats, produce, and cheese. You’ve seen it:
“All-natural pasture-raised beef from Grazin’ Angus Acres in Ghent, New York” or
“Bayley Hazen Blue, a natural rinded blue cheese made with whole raw morning cow’s milk by Jasper Hill Farms in Greensboro Vermont”
While jaded trend-watchers may roll their eyes, this is undeniably a good thing. Come on, who doesn’t want to know where their food comes from?
But what about the fish?
It’s rare to see the fisherman who reeled in your fish credited in the same way. Clinton Hill-based Sea To Table is working to change that. By working with fishermen from Tobago to Alaska and points beyond they’re bringing the freshest possible seafood directly to chefs nationwide. And they’re not just bringing it fresh, they’re bringing the story.
The Dimin family owns and operates Sea To Table, and they believe that connections matter. They’re dedicated to creating real relationships between the fishermen catching the fish and the chefs serving it.
Sounds simple? In reality it’s something that’s virtually impossible to achieve within the machinery of the traditional industrial-scale distribution chain that dominates global seafood markets. But the Dimin clan wasn’t daunted – they just created a new model, and found that both fishermen and chefs loved it.
Sea To Table’s headquarters is just off the BQE a block from the Navy Yard. The office is perched well above the elevated expressway, and its view of silent cars streaming by is jarringly peaceful. The sunny space itself is as homey as you’d expect for a company staffed by people who share the same last name.
I sat down with Sean Dimin over a couple of slices of lemon merengue pie to get the story behind the family biz.
So Sean, how did this all start?
We’re a pretty big family – five kids. I grew up in Brooklyn – Park Slope – with two brothers and a sister. When my parents had their fifth child we moved out to ‘the country’ – New Jersey. We spent ten or twelve years there, but once we all had grown up and gotten out of school, we all found ourselves back here in Brooklyn.
When I was a kid we travelled a lot. My parents would take us to really weird places. I later realized that those really weird places were spots you could get to with frequent flyer miles – a lot of Central America and a lot of Caribbean.
One year we went to Tobago. We flew into Trinidad, way down in the furthest southern reaches of the Caribbean, and we took a little hopper flight over to Tobago. On Tobago we rented this little Suzuki Samurai jeep. We somehow loaded five kids, two adults and a bunch of luggage into this tiny jeep and drove all the way across the island on these narrow winding roads through the hills to a little village called Charlotteville.
It’s just an absolutely gorgeous untouched picturesque little fishing village. Fishing is the main industry. There’s very very basic tourism – at most a handful of Brits or Italians in town at any time – and fishing. The bay is filled with these pirogues – these 20 foot long open wooden skiffs with 40 horsepower motors and outriggers made of bamboo that they’d just chop out of the forest.
I’ve always fished. My grandfather was a fisherman – a recreational fisherman – but to say he did it as a ‘hobby’ is a joke. He was on the water non-stop. He still is. He’s 85 and he’s still obsessed with it.
I was about twelve years old on that trip, and I started just tugging on the shirts of these guys in Charlotteville saying, ‘Take me out! Take me out!” So eventually they took me out. We caught a ton of fish. Gorgeous tuna, wahoo, amberjack…we filled this tiny pirogue with like four or five hundred pounds of fish in one morning…with just handlines and live bait. It was unbelievable.
They’d just take little live baitfish, throw it on the hook, put a spool of line out over the side, and wait for the fish to bite. When they got one on the hook the line would just start ripping away until the guy would grab it, wrap it around his bare hand, give it a yank and haul in an eighty pound yellowfin tuna.
The guy I was with let me pull in maybe ten or twenty pound fish, and it was a real struggle for me. It was a battle. He was pulling in eighty and hundred pound fish without really breaking a sweat. It was amazing.
So we came in with a boat full of fish, and all the other fishermen came in with their boats full of fish and I was pumped. But the fisherman was pissed. He had no market for his fish. It’s a tiny island and everybody had caught fish that day. There wasn’t just enough demand in that little market for all that fish, so he had to load his catch into the back of a truck and drive it all the way to the other end of the island to try to sell it.
My dad saw this happening, and he just had the idea. All these gorgeous fish were being landed but there was no real market for them on this little remote island. We’re from New York. He thought that if we could get this unbelievably fresh fish from Tobago to New York overnight, bring it to restaurants, and carry the story of the fishermen with it – who they are, how they do what they do, where they do it – chefs would love it. He just said, “That’s the idea. That’s it.”
At the time he had a company doing plastics manufacturing. It wasn’t until ten years later that he got out of it, and that’s when he started following up on the idea.
He took my older brother back down to Tobago. They reconnected with the fishermen we’d met, started talking to more fishermen in other villages, and ended up building a fish plant on the island, right by the airport. They bought a big truck, built an ice plant and started running the truck around the island distributing coolers, teaching fishermen how to ice their catch, dropping off ice…and they started buying fish. We called the company Tobago Wild.
They’d bring the fish in to the plant, clean it, pack it, and fly it up to New York where we’d start knocking on chefs’ doors, telling them the story of how we went down to Tobago ten years ago on a family vacation and met all these fishermen and then we’d show them a box full of gorgeous fish, caught there, yesterday. And the chefs loved it. They thought it was the coolest thing in the world.
All of a sudden we had this little family business going. It just started really happening. We learned that fishermen are really good at fishing, the processors are really good at processing, and that we were really good at telling the story of the fishermen and figuring out how to get their fish from where it was caught directly to chefs overnight.
Now we’re working with fishermen in Alaska, the Gulf, the Southeast and New England in addition to Tobago, and we deliver to chefs all around the country.
Wow. Wow! I should have put my family vacations to better use. Can you tell me a little bit about the traditional means by which fish gets from the boat to the table? How is what you guys do different?
In the traditional distribution chain for seafood – and this is the way 99.9% of the industry works – a fisherman sells to the dock where he lands his fish. The dock offloads his fish and cleans and packs it. The dock sells the packaged fish to a broker. The broker sells it to a wholesale market somewhere like the Fulton Fish Market. The fish often travels a long way from the dock to the wholesale market. At the Fulton Fish Market, it gets bought and sold again. It gets sold from a wholesaler to a distributor. The distributor then takes the fish from the wholesale market on a truck, or even a plane, to a third location, often hundreds of miles or more from the wholesale market, where he has a physical plant where the fish gets processed into fillets or whatever cuts the distributor’s clients want. Then it’s packed again and loaded back on a truck and delivered to the distributor’s clients – usually chefs or retailers.
So with that traditional distribution chain, the fish is at best a week old before it gets to the chef. It can be up to three weeks old. It passes through four or five hands in the process, making it more expensive and less fresh. But I think the worst part of it is that it loses the story of where it came from – who caught it and how it was caught. The chain is so convoluted that the fish just becomes a commodity that gets bought and sold on the creditworthiness of the look of its eyes or its skin or its smell.
It’s no longer tuna from Charlotteville in Tobago, or fluke from Montauk or Gulf white shrimp. It’s just tuna, or fluke or shrimp. No connection to where it’s from, who’s catching it, how they’re catching it. You just lose that connection to what it actually is.
It’s also really inefficient. With the traditional distribution model, a fish that’s caught in Beaufort, North Carolina will be shipped up to the Fulton Fish Market, sold, resold, and very well might end up being shipped right back to North Carolina where it will end up at a restaurant in Raleigh-Durham a week or more later.
When a fisherman we work with is 300 miles or less from a chef who wants their fish, we use UPS Ground to deliver directly from the fisherman to the restaurant. When the distance is farther, we use FedEx. It’s just a much more efficient way to deliver.
So when you first started approaching fishermen about selling directly to restaurants, how did they respond? Were they skeptical at first?
Yes. You learn a lot working with fishermen. It doesn’t matter whether they’re in Tobago or Alaska or Louisiana or New York – they’re all really similar. They’re all absolutely insane, totally independent. They work for themselves – they’re their own bosses, and they’re crazy. They’re a tough crew.
These guys had always worked in the traditional distribution system. When I approach them and tell them we want them to pack individual boxes for direct-to-restaurant sales? They wouldn’t laugh at me, they just wouldn’t do business with me. We had to find really progressive guys to get things going.
With fishery management really taking hold, less and less wild fish is being caught. Fishermen are getting squeezed – gas prices are going up, the cost of doing business is going up, and they’re selling fish as a commodity, but they’re only allowed to catch so much of them…The guys who are more progressive get that they need to find a new way of doing business. They see that this arcane method of shipping their fish into commodity markets isn’t working now that they don’t have the abundance of fish they were once allowed to grab from the ocean. Those are the guys who would say, “Alright, let’s try it.” And it would work for them.
Eventually we’d get a phone call from another guy saying, “Hey, I heard what you’re doing with Steve over there at that dock. What do you say you come over here and we’ll talk about doing business.” And then we’d get another call and another. Now we get calls from fishermen all over the world who want to sell directly to restaurants. And we have those relationships and logistics in place now to be able to take his catch and deliver it overnight to a chef. We can get him a little more money for what he catches, and get the chef a better product. So we’ve found ourselves in a really good spot.
The year before last was the first year where I really felt a turn in the business, but I had to go and really convince fishermen and docks to work with me. Nobody wanted to work with me at first.
It definitely wasn’t easy. There were some awkward moments early on in Tobago.
Just little things. For example, in Tobago, no one goes by their real names – it’s all nicknames. Of course, you can’t choose your nickname – it’s chosen for you. We worked with one fisherman called Burnboy. Half his face had been badly burned when he was a kid. I just felt so awkward – it felt so weird to call him Burnboy when he had this huge scar covering half his face. So I always called him by his proper name, which created this disconnect between me and him, and between me and the rest of the guys because they all just thought it was weird that I kept calling him by his proper name. Little things like that matter when you’re trying to gain people’s trust.
Another funny moment happened when I was touring the island when we were fist getting started. We had a partner down there called Doc. He had something like six PHDs. The suffixes after his name went on for a mile and a half. He was a very well-educated, smart guy. We’d go around together in the back of a pickup truck and organize fisherman meetings in all these remote villages – to convince them to work with us and to talk to them about how to treat their fish and care for it, because the market demands it and these chefs have such high expectations…
I remember one meeting in Charlotteville. The fishermen had a fire going to the side of the cooler of ice where we were having our meeting, and one guy was just holding an iguana by the tail, singeing the skin off, scraping it with a knife. Another guy was popping the head off a chicken and getting ready to put it on the fire. I’m 22 years old, trying to concentrate on giving my speil to fifteen hard-ass fishermen, and they’re gnawing on Iguana carcasses and butchering chickens! Made it a little tough to keep my focus…
Tobago was fun. A crazy place to be at that age, working on a tiny totally rural island with a very rudimentary economy based on fishing. I lived down there for two years running the fish plant.
After that, I went to Alaska to start the same kind of business. Same thing – working with fishermen. Instead of having our own plant like we did on Tobago, we wanted to work with existing processors and figure out how to get what the fishermen were catching and landing shipped directly to the chefs we’d already been working with with Tobago Wild. We called the Alaska company, originally enough, Alaska Wild. Once that started really working, we combined the two companies under the name Sea To Table.
How did the Alaska project go? Was it any easier convincing people to work with you?
I spent about three months up there a few years ago just getting to know the different fisheries, working at the different docks, working with the different fishermen, going out fishing, meeting the guys, gaining their trust…
When you call them up and you’ve got a 718 number, you’re just some schmuck from New York, and they’ve all had bad, bad experiences with New York fish guys and the Fulton Fish Market. It’s still known for its corruption and its policy of not paying. I had to go and try to tell them that we do things differently – that we work around the Fulton Fish Market, we don’t work with it or through it.
To be honest getting to know these fisheries and fishermen is the most fun part of the job. I get to go spend a week or more in each different place we work with, just working and fishing.
What are the Alaskan fishermen you’re working with going after? What kind of fish?
So many things. Salmon’s big in summer. Big salmon runs. You’ve got your sockeye runs in Kenai, king salmon up in Bristol Bay, halibut in southeast Alaska, spot prawns, black cod…we work with the king crab and dungeoness crab guys that you see on TV…a lot of different things.
I got a great call just a couple of days ago from one of the guys we work with in Sitka, in southeast Alaska. He said, “Sean, I’m gonna go out Black Cod fishing. You want to hear something that might be of interest to you?”
I said, “Absolutely.”
He said, “Well listen, we catch these Black Cod, these Sablefish. They’re anywhere from five to twenty pounds. When we bring ‘em and drop them off at the processor at the dock, they cut the heads off and do something called a J Cut. They take everything below the collarbone of the fish. They throw the head away.”
So he goes on to tell me that connected to the head is the collarbone, and tucked inside the collarbone, pretty hard to get at, is this little awesome piece of meat called the collar. And the thing is that the work, the labor that goes into extracting that little piece of meat isn’t worth it for the processors. They just send the heads back out as bait for the crab traps.
But we like putting more labor back into the local economy. So he said, “You know, I’ve got a guy who will go and cut out all these collars for a few dollars a pound. Would this be something that would interest your chefs?”
And I’m like, “Wait, so you’re talking about a sliver of super-tender meat from sablefish, which is already one of the tenderest, ridiculously fatty fish around?”
He said, “Let me tell you – When I was growing up, my mom used to cook these, and what she would do is she’d put a hot kipper, a hot smoke on it for a few hours, which preserves it. Then she would steam it right before she would serve it, and she’d serve it over pureed peas and potatoes.”
And while he’s telling me this I’m just drooling on the phone. I said, “You know what, I’d love to take some of those collars.”
He says, “Well I’m gonna go out and catch 20,000 pounds of Sablefish in three days. Of that, you can probably get 150 or 200 pounds of collars. I’ll hold them for you. You tell your chefs about ‘em and when you’re ready, we’ll go ahead and ship them together.”
Phone calls like that, I love. They’re so cool. He looks to me to try to take something that has little or no value, and make a market– to make money on trash – something that was going to get thrown away. And we love it. Our chefs absolutely love it. And the fishermen love it because they make more money on it. Those are the really fun phone calls you get in this business. You just say, “Let’s do something new, let’s do something different.”
So did you get hazed in Alaska or anything as you tried to convince the guys there that you were legit?
I’m not a real fisherman. I love to fish. I fish whenever I can, but I’m not a real fisherman. Put me next to a guy who goes out 150 days a year on the water, and I look like the Stay-Puff Marshmallow man. So I always feel like I have to prove myself, and sometimes I overdo things a little bit.
I was working with one crew up there, and they put me onto the lowest position in the operation. We were at a set-net fishery. They string nets from two anchored points in the water across the path of the salmon as they travel up the coast to spawn up the rivers. You inherit the rights to fish specific places. This was in the Cook Inlet off the Kenai Peninsula. You usually put out one beach net which drags from the beach through a few feet of water. It’s a 150 foot long net, but it’s only maybe five feet at the deepest. Me and the old guy who cooked for the camp were put in charge of manning this dinky beach net. We were mostly catching sockeye, but every once in a while you catch a king salmon, which are a lot bigger.
When the sockeye hit the net, the bobbers on the net bob a little bit and make a little splash. When a King Salmon hits – they can be as much as 90 pounds – those bobbers go way down and pop up with a big splash. The king salmon are worth three or four times more than the Sockeye, so you really want to bring those in.
With the beach net, you usually tie the end of the net to a truck and pull it through a pulley to haul it. I saw a king salmon had hit the net, and being the guy from New York wanting to prove myself, I jumped up and ran out there – I waded out over my shoulders in freezing cold Alaskan water to go grab this King Salmon. I grabbed him with two hands –it was about a 30 pound fish and I wasn’t gonna let him go – brought him up to the beach and was so proud and happy, and everyone looked at me like I was the biggest asshole in the world. They were like, “Go over there by the fire, take off your clothes, dry out and warm up or you’re gonna get hypothermia. Now you can’t work for the next six hours!”
You get a little bit of that when you have to keep proving yourself. Hopefully that’ll fade away over the next couple of years!
It sounds like your whole approach could change the way fishermen and chefs look at their work. Do you hear anything like that from the guys you work with?
With the fishermen, when they were working in the traditional distribution chain, they didn’t care about the fish – about keeping it as fresh as possible and treating it right to maintain the highest possible quality. If you’re selling into a commodity market and you’re just being paid by the pound, no matter what, what do you care? You’re just concerned with quantity and that’s it.
Once we created that connection to a chef somewhere, the fishermen realized that now their fish is going directly to a person, a chef. Once he knows it’s going to a specific chef, something changes. They start thinking, “You know what? I know where this is going now. It’s got my name on it. I’m being associated with it. I’m going to do whatever I can to really take care of it to get it to that chef in the best possible condition.” They end up having just as much interest and pride in the quality of the fish as the chef does. It’s really changing the way things are done.
And the chefs love it. These guys beg us to take them out fishing. A couple of chefs have come down to Tobago and have come out fishing with me. We hang out with fishermen. We go out fishing. And they love it. They become totally committed to working directly with fishermen.
We were just out in Montauk with a bunch of chefs on Wednesday. They want to come see where their fish is being caught, where it’s being landed, how it gets packed before it comes to them. They’ve got an idea in their mind, but for them to go see it and meet the guys creates a real connection and a commitment, and it makes doing business really easy once the two parties know each other. They want to know where their food comes from.
I’ve got to give a shout out to our great friend Jacques Gautier from Palo Santo in Park Slope. He’s been working with us for years. He’s come out and spent two weeks in Tobago with me. He’s come fishing out in Montauk with me. He’s a real good friend of ours and he does great fish. He’s over on Union Street between 4th and 5th. He’s getting married this summer, so congratulations to him!
So am I gonna have to open a restaurant in order to get in on this, or do you have any plans to find a way to let consumers in on what you’re doing?
Absolutely. It’s a market that’s looking for really good fish. Right now, we’re working now with Heritage Foods up in Williamsburg and with some other partners to get fish from our fishermen direct to consumers. While we started with very high-end restaurants and very specific fishermen, we realize that that impact is…a little elitist. And we’re trying to figure out how to do what we do on a larger scale – to open it up to more people.
You can sign me up right now! Any favorite things about Brooklyn?
We just bought a house out in Bed-Stuy. I like to see people moving out and seeing all of the borough. Everyone knows the popular neighborhoods, but there’s a lot more to it. It’s huge. Go out to China Town. Go to Sunset Park for Mexican food. We’re in those places all the time. I hardly ever go across the river anymore. There’s so much right here.
For more on Sea To Table, check out their website at http://sea2table.com/