The other week I was out to dinner at an old-line restaurant where the owner boasted that he had bought all his seafood himself by trekking to the New Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx. And I had to stop myself from responding with a hearty: “Dude, you’re doing it wrong.”
Once upon a time it did make a statement to schlep to the wholesale market and optimistically point at whatever looked good in crates dripping with melted ice. But these days, 90 percent of seafood sold in the United States is imported — and about a third may be mislabeled (looking at you, pink snapper). Trusting in the middleman is so last century.
And that’s why Sea to Table in Clinton Hill has revolutionized what has to be the world’s second-oldest profession. Using all the tech and social-media tricks on offer, the father-sons enterprise connects chefs directly to fishermen by acting as a digital clearinghouse — with no warehouse. As small fishermen out of 32 docks around the country land salmon, crab, flounder, grouper and more — all of it domestic, wild, sustainable and traceable — each catch is listed on Sea to Table’s “electronic blackboard” online. As chefs check what’s available, often by smartphone, the fish is packed according to the company’s meticulous standards and FedExed overnight to restaurants nationwide but especially around New York City. Just-landed tuna posted on Instagram by a fisherman in Montauk may be seen the very next day on a chef’s Instagram, transformed into a $35 entrée. (instagram.com/sea2table is a visual cornucopia.)
More than a thousand restaurants nationwide buy direct from fishermen through Sea to Table, but the company’s 15 employees, working out of an apartment turned office, never touch the fish. All the handling happens in at-the-dock processing plants the company has established relationships with for quality control. And rather than the seafood getting turned over from fisherman to broker to market to restaurant, with many ways and days to go bad, this product goes straight from, well, sea to table.
“No one out there is doing this,” says founder Michael Dimin, 60, who previously founded a packaging company that supplied big brands like Sysco. “We figured out how to get away from the centralized fish operation, with a mountain of fish moved by trucks, with fish mislabeled in warehouses, and reached deeper into the supply chain to connect with the fishermen. It’s like how a CSA works with beef, but it’s different because this is a wild product.”
His 31-year-old son Sean explains: “Every morning we communicate with each of the docks around the country to find out what they’re catching. We take all the information: what, who, how, what the vessel’s name is that’s landing, and the asking price. (We don’t set the price; the fisherman does.)” All that is transmitted to chefs.
Chef Katherine Youngblood of Lot 2 in South Slope says Sea to Table’s products are “absolutely the freshest fish I have ever gotten from a distributor—it’s absolutely pristine.” Plus, “it’s easy to talk to the reps about what’s fresh, what fits our price point on our menu.” She uses mostly local fish, from Montauk, Cape Cod and Point Judith: golden tilefish, fluke, wild striped bass in season, tuna, swordfish, all mostly to be pan-seared and teamed with the likes of sunchokes and pickled celery.
“I compare it to working with local farmers,” Youngblood says. “You have to be flexible enough to see what they’re going to have and how it works on your menu. You have to let the ingredients come to you, not dictate what you need. It allows for a lot more improvisation and creativity. You have to be willing to be flexible and have that sort of mindset.”
Michael Dimin conceived of the company in the late 1990s on a family vacation to Tobago when they went out with a local fisherman, filled their boat and “thought we had conquered the world,” only to return to find the port clogged with other fully loaded boats. “There was no ice, no refrigeration in the village,” he says. “It occurred to me that if someone could figure out a way to get this fish from the end of the world back to chefs in New York, it could really be a business.”
A half-dozen years later, he acted on that fantasy, returning to the island to set up a modern, safety-certified processing plant and a delivery system with FedEx. Fish caught one day could be on New York City restaurant tables the next. Tobago Wild, as he named it, became a big fish, selling at the top of the food chain to the likes of Gramercy Tavern, Cookshop and il Buco. From there he built regional variations: Sean went off to Alaska to build relationships with fishermen in Bristol Bay and Kodiak and Kenai for Alaska Wild, then to the Gulf Coast to make connections with shrimpers and crabbers for Dixie Wild. With each expansion, they had to train the fishermen in how to process, pack and ship. Station managers would text them what they had brought in — wahoo, mahi, blackfin tuna — and the Dimins would blast out an e-mail to potential buyers. (Chefs Collaborative, with its emphasis on sustainability, was something of an OkCupid in helping them connect holds to walk-ins.)
The Dimins were on the verge of starting Atlantic Wild when they realized they were on to something bigger. Tobago Wild by that time was no more — the fishery proved too small (and too poorly managed by the Trinidadian and Venezuelan governments). But the other Wild ones could be merged into their united states of fish, Sea to Table, which launched three years ago, with three employees and a dozen domestic docks. It is certified as a B Corp, one as bent on changing the world as it is on fattening the bottom line.
So the Dimins make much of their goal of getting Americans “to eat better fish,” not the farmed stuff or, even worse, the kind caught in poorly regulated waters overseas. Which is one reason they have moved beyond high-end restaurants and started marketing to college dining programs. “Kids on campus want to know who grew their tomato, they want to know that people (who produce food) are being treated right,” Michael Dimin says. “This has grown very rapidly.” Sea to Table now sells to Yale, the University of Michigan, Murray State, Vanderbilt and nearly 30 other schools.
Making that work depends on a reliable supply, which means fresh is not the only answer. Freezing used to be what desperate dealers did with fish they couldn’t unload; today it is the technique of first resort — Gulf shrimp can be arctified at sea in a glaze of salt water and remain “suspended in time,” Sean Dimin says: “And it appeals to customers who want a reliable price point and steady availability.”
Often schools are setting budgets in spring when fishermen are getting quotas, and “we can match those two up…so [the fisherman] can borrow the way a farmer can borrow for seeds.” It takes the uncertainty away. “The catch will be presold at a favorable price, and they love it.”
It’s easy to visualize steam tables in college cafeterias filled with hundreds of pounds of previously frozen monkfish. But chefs like Mary Cleaver of the Cleaver Company & the Green Table are onboard with flash-frozen, suspended-in-time Bristol Bay sockeye salmon and Gulf shrimp.
With 85 percent of its sales in fresh fish, though, Sea to Table has clients in cities short on local seafood, like Austin and Boulder, Cleveland and Louisville, and a few in Las Vegas, where ocean advocate Rick Moonen is a buyer.
“We’re directly supplied from the boats,” says chef Johnathan Adler of Franny’s. “There’s a certain amount of story that gets told when you know where your food comes from. And when you’re working directly with producers, you’re able to help when a boat comes in with 50 pounds of bycatch it needs a market for.”
And with Sea to Table about to unveil a partnership with the delivery service Good Eggs home cooks will be just as lucky.
Thirty-some years ago three partners who started Flying Fish caused a sea change in how New York chefs stocked their kitchens by flying in Dover sole from Europe. Today you can safely say the revolution has not just been digitized.
Find out more: Lot 2 in South Slope uses Sea 2 Table’s fish in her Wild Yellowfin Tuna and Anchovy Dip. Find the recipe here.
Photo Credit: Dan Goldberg