By Emily J. Weitz
Rudi Bonicelli and Sean Barrett have been fishing together their whole lives. They always appreciated the flavor of a fish that had been caught that day, one with no separation from the source. They would discuss the possibility of connecting the consumer directly to the fisherman, but Dock to Dish, the CSF (Community Supported Fisheries) that brings the freshest possible fish to its members, took a long time to become a reality born out of that dream.
One day about 10 years ago, Barrett was reading “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway, and he was deeply moved by what Hemingway wrote about oysters and fish.
“I booked a flight to San Sebastian, Spain the very next day,” he says.
In this salty coastal Spanish town, Barrett watched the concierge fishermen bringing the freshest catches right up to the restaurants.
“Restaurants had their fishermen,” he recalls, “and they brought baskets of the freshest sardines and snapper. It went from dock to dish in less than four hours.”
It reminded him of what he and his friend Rudi had always talked about: that this was the way it was always done, and this was the way it ought to be done. All the middlemen were mucking up the transaction.
“I came home from Spain,” says Barrett, “and Rudi and I talked about it, the seafood chain, and how a fish gets to a restaurant.”
That process can be mind-boggling. Often, a fish caught in Montauk will have to get on a truck and change hands several times before it comes back to Montauk to be served as “fresh-caught-local-fish.”
“The existing system is broken,” says Barrett. “Fishermen get down about it. They’ll sell a fish at $2.50 a pound and see it at Citarella for $22.95 a pound.”
Part of the reason for this is that there are so many people involved.
“A commercial fisherman catches a fish and brings it to shore,” says Barrett. “It goes to a cuthouse, then a wholesale distributor, then to the Fulton Fish Market in Hunts Point, NY.”
He compares the Fulton Fish Market to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
“It’s very aggressive,” he says. “It’s all buy-buy-sell-sell.”
Ten years went by, and the two friends continued to voice their disapproval of the system, and talk to fishermen who wanted it to be different. They saw the possibility of engaging directly with fishermen and to cut out all the extraneous transactions. Still, it was just a pipe dream, something they talked about over beers with their lines in the water.
“Last summer Rudi was getting married,” says Barrett. “We went to the spa at Gurney’s the morning of his wedding, and the subject went back to Dock to Dish. On his wedding day, I said, ‘So, should we give it a run?’ and that’s when we shook hands and decided to do it. From there, this project felt guided from above.”
Other members of the fishing community, of the not-for-profit Concerned Citizens of Montauk (CCOM), and of the food and agricultural communities started getting involved.
“We got together half a dozen influential folks who would give us honest feedback,” says Barrett. “We needed people who would understand our mission.”
They started bringing blackfish and bass to people, and they would ask, “What have you done to this fish?”
“The answer was, ‘Nothing,’” says Barrett. “This is what really, really fresh fish tastes like.”
Lots of fishermen wanted to be involved, and some didn’t.
“We have a code of conduct,” says Barrett. “Immediately you know what kind of fishermen they are. They either love the code of conduct or they say ‘F- you.’ Our whole mission is to deliver the safest freshest fish. Fishermen who take pride in what they do, they want to work in this family.”
That’s how Dock to Dish came to be, and they have just sold out their first season of CSF memberships, for the month of June. There are still some memberships available for July and August. For $70 a week for a family membership or $36 a week for an individual, members get fresh fish delivered to a designated drop spot. But don’t expect to know what the catch of the day will be.
“The most fun part about all this is that up until the day of, it’s a surprise to us,” says Barrett. “Fluke, striped bass, blowfish, tuna loin, those are all going to turn up. You get to see the migratory patterns of certain fish. Part of the beauty is that element of surprise.”
Seeing what’s abundant in the water and what’s not also reminds you that nature is bigger than us, and it’s not something that can always be controlled.
“It connects you more to the environment,” says Barrett, “to what’s fresh and local and what’s healthiest…The mantra is ‘Know your fishermen.’ If you know and trust your local fisherman you don’t need to worry about tracking codes or born on dates… This industry is plagued with misperceptions and deceit, and this is about accountability.”
Learn more or sign up for your share at www.docktodish.com.