Brooklyn Brewery’s Dinner Party is a collaborative dinner series dedicated to spotlighting local producers and rare beer pairings held at Humboldt & Jackson. This month, we celebrate sustainable seafood with Island Creek Oysters and Sea2Table. Don’t forget to buy tickets.
If you haven’t been eating fish from local waters dogfish, tilefish, and squid, you’ve been missing out. Lucky for you, the seafood experts from Sea2Table & Island Creek Oysters are bringing an embarrassment of local-seafood riches to Humboldt & Jackson for Dinner Party No. 4. Andrew Gerson (Brooklyn Brewery), Hannah Grady (Island Creek Oysters), Daniel Del Coro & Sean Dimins (Sea2Table) discuss below what you might see on the menu, and why you should care where your seafood comes from.
Caitlin: Andrew, what can we expect from the menu?
Andrew Gerson: We want the menu as soon as possible, but it’s subject to change with what the fishermen are bringing in. I hate that idea that there is a set menu and we’re sticking to it – there are fishermen going out every day and they’re catching what they catch.. I’m happy to work with whatever’s coming in and is awesome. We’re flexible enough to highlight that.
C: Hah, okay. So, Sean, how did Sea 2 Table get started?
Sean Dimins: We were on a family vacation, I think in like 1996 or so. I’m one of five kids, and my parents would take us on what we thought were really whack vacations. We weren’t going to Club Med – they would just get frequent flyer miles and go to very strange places.
C: Like where?
S: Like Mayan ruins in Central America that I did not climb up as a kid. We ended up in a really amazing fishing village called Charlotteville in Tobago. It had something that was uncommon in the Caribbean which was a really vibrant fishing community. Most of the Caribbean is fished out, but these guys all fish in open wooden pirogues with bamboo outriggers and everything they caught was hand-lined, hand over hand.
So we went out fishing – I had the best day fishing of my life.We caught maybe 400 pounds of fish in a 22ft boat out on the open seas with no electronics or gear or anything. I was psyched, but the dude I went out fishing with – Ratface – was pissed. Because all the other fishermen did really well, there was no market for his catch. That day my dad had the idea that if we could get the fish off of Tobago to our home town of New York City, chefs would absolutely love this hand-lined fish, the fishermen could get a better market, and we could start a family business.
I left and took the concept to Alaska, for a business called Alaska Wild, where we figured out how to ship with FedEx and expanded out from New York to around the country. We’ve been rolling since. Now we work with 38 different fishing communities round the country. We’ve figured out through packaging, logistics, and information flow how to turnkey these docks to give them better markets. Where they would usually drop it onto a dock to ship it to a wholesale market, we’ve figured out how to do direct sales to chefs.
C: What’s the positive impact that comes from that?
S: The easy one is that we pay more. That’s why people work with us. We provide better value than what they’d get selling in their local markets or to sell to decentralized markets like the Fulton fish market. Maybe one you can’t measure is that they now have a connection. The same way a chef wants to know where his food comes from, fisherman seeing where his fish actually goes to. Seeing the chef’s name on every box of fish and getting pictures back to him of what’s being done with his catch, there’s this intangible pride that is really an incentive there. For how long did they just blindly sell into markets and were dictated pricing? Now they actually get to name their price and know where the fish goes. We get the guys who care, and the best fish, because those are the guys that handle their fish better than anyone. They know where it’s going,
C: Is there a similar germination story for Island Creek?
Hannah Grady: Skip [Bennett, founder]’s father was a lobsterman in Duxbury Bay, and then Skip decided to try his hand at oysters. The first few years, he was delivering and doing all of it. He was dropping the first bags off with chefs at the back doors of restaurants in Cambridge. Over time, chefs would visit the farm and we started creating relationships with them.
Obviously a lot changed in New York when he and Thomas Keller met, but we really try to collapse the distance between the farmer, the chef, and the table and make it as short a distance as possible and one that’s established with a lot of care. Every time we give a new oyster to a new person they get a one sheet that talks about who the specific farmers are and their family and their story and their efforts for grow and all those different details.
It’s funny – we have a farmer who’s a lawyer in New York and he grows these oysters called Nausets from the Cape that are awesome. His name is Stuart Miller. And whenever he takes a client out to dinner he’ll call me and go “Where did my Nausets go this week?” and it’s really nice to be like “They’re at the Breslin, they’re here, they’re there” and know that he can call me any time on my cellphone and I can tell him where they are so he can so see what his oysters look like on the plate somewhere.
C: Does it alter your cooking when you feel this close to products & producers like that?
A: Definitely. To know the difference between good quality is great, but there’s also a sense of terroir. The scallops coming from this bay because of these tides or the tilefish from this region versus that region – that has an effect. To me, it’s about flavors, but it’s also about honoring a place. There’s such a lack of value in our food system right now that to remind people that this specificity exists is important. And it makes me want to cook more and explore more of these local producers.
C: I think that idea of “lack of value” can really resonate with people in the beer industry, because for so long beer was just a sixpack of whatever from wherever. People are starting to get the idea that you should care where your beer comes from and how it’s made, for a variety of reasons. Is there a similar shift happening in seafood? And why should people care more?
H: Yeah, definitely. The nomenclature for different oysters is a very complicated and troubling subject. There’s no real baseline or ownership of nomenclature. It’s not regulated right now, and it’s an issue that a lot of oyster farmers and restaurants are encountering and trying to navigate. So for us to be able to go one step further than just saying “This is a Peter’s Point,” we can say “This is Farmer X’s Peter’s Points. These are his oysters.” It’s really important to us to connect people as much as we can and to bring chefs up to the point. There’s a lot of added value in making it not just an exchange but a relationship that’s reciprocal and is fostered as much as we can.
S: All of us make choices every day on where we decide to spend our money. We all obviously care about food – we spend more money, as a generation, on food than anyone ever has. So why don’t we direct it to places where it can have the most positive effect? If you just buy blindly from commoditized markets or even through decentralized wholesale markets, you don’t know where your money is going to go – probably not to the intended pockets. If you know where your fish is coming from and you can collapse the distance between them, chances are you’re going to have a greater effect. And that’s a really reassuring thing to me.
C: What are some local fish or oysters that we should be eating but aren’t?
S: I’ll take them all. NY, NJ, and LI right now , do excellent shellfish. They’re good for the water, they’re good for you. But a new-found favorite of mine from here to Cape Cod about twice a year is squid. It’s almost like eating insects. We don’t do it much, but we should. My favorite is grilled. You know when you get one dish and you bring it out to every party you can with different people because you know you really nailed it? I get really good local squid – it can be fresh or frozen, it freezes really well – with just some olive oil, salt, and pepper. Grill them up, get a nice char on them throw them in a salad with some cannellini beans with pepperoncini, salt, pepper and good olive oil. It’s – It’s –
A: What season are you getting them in?
H: You just sold me there.
S: That’s a good salad and it’s really easy to make and everyone is very impressed. Plus, it’s cheap. Squid isn’t $20/lb, or $10/lb. It’s like $4-6.
H: I’m a big razor clam girl. We work with 5 different harvesters so those 5 are the only ones who pull them for us. You can’t bring an extra pair of hands. We had them this week because we had the full moon & negative drainer tides, so we’ve been pulling them up all week. I think they’re an amazing creature to begin with – I love how temperamental they are according to the tides and the weather and if there’s too much rain – they’re sensitive to all that which, for me, makes the experience of eating them so much sweeter. I know that one man went out at dawn and wrestled those bad boys out with their hands. If you flash grill them for a second with lemon juice and chili pepper – they have an amazing texture, and I love the battle. They’re these clams that everyone was like “nah” on for so long.
A: For me, these days, I’ve been getting in to East Coast urchin. I didn’t realize for such a long time that there was so much urchin around here – Maine and a little further south. Different coloration than the pacific but really good flavor. Urchin for me – my new jam.
Daniel Del Coro: I would say bluefish – it’s another one of those emotional connections. I grew up going on these party boats with my dad and my brother, and we would just get in these schools of bluefish and bag ‘em for hours and hours, then go home and stock the freezer. That’s one of my first taste memories of seafood. Now, from a more intellectual side, I like it because it’s not a very forgiving fish and it takes some nuance to work with it. But I think that’s important because good food isn’t always easy. You have to know what it is to be able to pay respect to it and have it taste really good.