Sean Barrett’s epiphany came on a trip to Spain, sitting at a restaurant in a sleepy fishing village. “I saw these fishermen return in the evening with wicker baskets full of what they’d caught hours before,” he says. “They just went straight into the back of the restaurant, and minutes later, the waiter erased the chalkboard and put up what had just come off the boat. I thought, Why can’t we do that at home?”
Barrett, a restaurateur from Long Island, New York, had been thinking about the absurdities of the current state of seafood in the U.S.: Though fish is best fresh–and fisheries in the U.S. are more sustainable than much of the rest of the world–90% of American seafood is now imported. When he got home, he started to work on a new model for the industry: the “restaurant-supported fishery.”
The organization, called Dock to Dish, works a little like a CSA box that someone might subscribe to at a farmers’ market. Restaurants sign up to be members and then take deliveries of whatever local fishermen happened to catch for the day, instead of placing orders. It’s basically how fishing worked for centuries, until recently.
“We’ve developed a demand-based system for seafood in the U.S., which is totally not a natural occurrence,” Barrett says. “If you look at the way seafood was handled in the preindustrial, prerefrigeration era, it was always the catch of the day.”
When restaurants (and everyone else) order specific fish, it strains natural supply and creates demand for fish farms. Now, of the 90% of fish that is imported, over 50% is farmed. Wild-caught imported fish is often pirated, unreported, and under-regulated.
At the same time, in the U.S., tighter regulation has restored many fish populations. “The United States is a beacon of light around the world for how to manage fisheries and maintain sustainable fish levels,” Barrett says. “But our market system is still this antiquated, post-World War II demand-based system.”
He started by working with restaurants in Montauk and New York City. Dan Barber, the legendary owner of Blue Hill restaurant, helped lead the charge. In August, the program opened on the West Coast. An L.A.-based, Michelin-starred restaurant called Providence has signed up to buy whatever a small group of fishermen in Santa Barbara can catch.
“I like the idea that there’s 100% traceability,” says Michael Cimarusti, executive chef and co-owner at Providence. “There are just so many questions in terms of where seafood is sourced, where it’s from, how it’s caught, all that kind of stuff. I’ve worked very hard with our current purveyors in order to get all of that information, and sometimes it’s difficult–Dock to Dish removes all of those questions, and gives you clear and concise answers.”
Each night in the restaurant before service begins, Cismarusti sits down with servers and talks about the seafood on the menu for the night. “I want our servers to be thinking about it, I want it to be top of mind for them,” he says. “And when someone asks where it came from or how it was caught, I want them to be able to answer directly and with confidence. That’s why it’s something we talk about every day.”
Dock to Dish spends about half of its time researching every detail of the fish it helps provide. “Fifty percent of our work is getting the freshest, cleanest, safest, healthiest seafood from the dock directly to the chefs in the smallest amount of time possible,” Barrett says. “The other part of our work, which is equally arduous, often, is getting all of the really important information that goes along with that: the fishermen, the gear type, the method, things that are going on in the fishery.”
He’s convinced that knowing those details actually makes the fish taste better. “People kept telling us, ‘I’ve never had fish like that before,'” he says. “We realized it was a combination of two things: People are having extraordinarily high-quality, fresh seafood. But when they know the name of the fisherman and they’re seeing pictures, that helps their minds reconnect to the actual food source.”
The program has a hard-core following of restaurants in New York, and Google’s New York office also recently came onboard. But it’s growing slowly.
“It takes a rather specific restaurant to thrive in this model,” says Barrett. “Many restaurants are operating on a demand-based system, meaning they print the name of a fish on their menu, and then demand that from the marketplace–they basically tell the fishermen what to fish for.”
Switching to the catch of a day can be a challenge. “Chefs don’t know what’s coming to your door,” he says. “That can be exciting, but Michael used the word daunting–you’ve got to figure out what you’re going to do with 60 pounds of whelk, 50 pounds of rock crab, and 40 pounds of lean cod.”
Still, he’s hoping that at some point–even if it might not be in his lifetime–the whole seafood industry shifts back to a catch-of-the-day model. “I would love to see a mass conversion to a supply-driven, membership-based market for seafood,” he says. “We really firmly believe that is a solution to many of the problems that we have in fisheries today.”