Boat to Table

When fishermen own the restaurant.

CommercialFishing2_StephenMunshin

In the 2000 film “The Perfect Storm,” the long-line tuna boat Andrea Gail, its captain and crew desperate for fish, left Gloucester, Massachusetts, and headed for the fishing grounds of the North Atlantic, despite some questionable weather forecasts. Two weeks later, with a boat full of fish and their radio malfunctioning, the boat was consumed by a confluence of storms that had never occurred in recorded history. Real-life fishers love the flick, because it portrayed calculations they make every day.

“We’re using up our Loligo quota,” said Bill Grimm, captain of the 90-foot trawler Perception, on a blustery day in Montauk this past winter. He was referring to the fishery for Loligo pealei, also known as squid. “Normally a gail warning or storm warning would keep us at the dock, but if they’re going to close the fishery.” He trailed off. The current quota system isn’t allocated by boat, but for the entire region, so each boat fishes as much as it can. “It makes for derby fishing,” added Kevin Maguire, captain of the Evening Prayer. “And that’s when people get in trouble.”

Both Grimm and Maguire had just returned from nearly a week at sea, motoring 30 hours both ways to the squid fishing grounds not too far from where “The Perfect Storm” occurred. Their boats were heavy with tons of alien-looking mollusks that were being methodically scooped out of the boat holds and packed into ice-laden cardboard boxes, to begin their new life as frozen calamari on tables across America. (This dock moves more squid than all but two others in the country.)

Fortunately, these two fishermen probably won’t head out immediately, because they’re turning to another income-generating option that is risky, but less life-threatening. This particular morning, rubbing the sleep from their eyes and pining for their families, the two were over-seeing some finishing touches on a massive stone fireplace, looking over a preliminary dinner menu, and wrestling with the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements for accessible bathrooms. “I don’t think you can have too many bathrooms,” was Grimm’s conclusion when they realized they’d have to lose some locker space for kitchen staff. Maguire added, “We don’t know anything about restaurants. We just know about eating.”

The two are learning quick. Assuming all goes as planned, this Memorial Day they and the four other fishers, who collectively own this dock and packing facilities known as Inlet Seafood, will open a dockside restaurant. Just across Lake Montauk from Gosman’s (on a plot of land that Billy Joel tried to buy and still covets because of its sweeping “tri-state” views that include the Connecticut shoreline, Fisher’s, Gardiner’s, and Block Islands), Inlet Seafood Restaurant could kick off a new era in East End cuisine: the people who harvest the ingredients—in this case, tons of fish—will also run the restaurant dishing them up.

The concept seems novel today. But around the world, fishing villages often host a seafood stand or two run by fishermen. And decades ago, the East End’s seafood packing houses often ran informal restaurants next door. “We’ve lived out here most of our working lives, and there’s only one or two restaurants out here that only use local fish,” said Grimm. “And I can understand that. It’s easier to have frozen fish that’s already cleaned and filleted.” (It’s true that many East End chefs will occasionally greet a fisherman at the back door to make a grey market purchase, but few restaurants buy from fishermen as a habit.)

Fortunately, this isn’t something that Inlet Seafood has to contend with. They have the fish. They have the dock. They have the guys who clean the fish. “We’re trying to do a direct thing,” said Maguire. “To set the menu with fish that we have.” He holds up a behemoth crustacean half his size, just one of the forms of marine life that sometimes end up in the squid nets. “Right now we’re showing lobsters like this, so let’s have a special on lobsters, or fluke or scup. Or John Dory. They really love them in France. What are you going to do with seven trigger fish?” He continued as he honed his pitch. “So the menu changes every day. These are fish that haven’t even hit the refrigerator yet. What could be better than that?”

CommercialFishing_StephenMunshin

FRESH FISH

The owners of Inlet Seafood have a history of similar creative thinking. All boat captains, the group has weathered a few decades of shake outs in Long Island’s fisheries by buying bigger boats and by targeting different fish. “We all lived up the Island in Bethpage and Massapequa,” said Maguire. “We were clam diggers and surfers. We came out here to go surfing. We were living in vans and chasing girls.” The six friends worked their way up on boats, eventually acquiring their own. When Montauk’s fish packing houses started to fold, the current owners of Inlet Seafood, all boat captains at the time, pooled their resources to buy one. “We saw the writing on the wall,” said Grimm. “We just realized if we didn’t get together and organize we’d get driven out of the packing business too.” The move gave them more bargaining power with fish distributors, a flavor for the marketing business, and control over where they kept their boats—the sailor’s equivalent of owning real estate versus renting.

That was 18 years ago. Today, it’s one of just two packing houses left in Montauk. It’s the biggest in New York State—in terms of fish caught. On a busy day, they’ll ship out more than 200,000 pounds of squid destined to become frozen calamari tents, tubes, and rings at the Brooklyn and New Jersey processing plants of well-known brands like Top Catch and Fisherman’s Pride.

In the 1980s, when the Inlet fleet first started catching squid, there was little domestic market. The boats would transfer their catch to 350-foot Asian ships while still at sea. The pay wasn’t great and bargaining with such ships—while your product is getting less fresh by the minute—was nearly impossible. “We started working with one of the domestic processors,” Maguire recalled. “We were putting the squid in bags, pickle barrels, whatever he wanted. We experimented.” At the time, the government was trying to “Americanize the fisheries,” and offered boats like Evening Prayer and Perception loans to install giant refrigerated seawater systems that cost $100,000 in order to cool the fish without freezing it. “The government was encouraging us to do it. They said ‘Go for squid. It’s an underutilized species.’”

This strategy wasn’t supposed to jeopardize the fleet’s right to catch other fish, but, through a bureaucratic slight of hand, it ultimately did. Squid and whiting are now the only species that they can catch in commercial quantities. And so what to do with small hauls of other fish that end up in the squid and whiting nets? Serve them in a restaurant.

Of course, a restaurant probably can’t use more than a box or two of squid in a night, so the fleet isn’t about to abandon its wholesale market. But even if the restaurant absorbs just a few percent of the catch, Inlet Seafood is getting a significantly larger profit on that share. “You’ve got to try to get the most you can for what you’ve got,” Grimm said in a when-you’ve-got-lemons-make-lemonade sort of way.

SLOW SEASON FOR FISH, HIGH SEASON FOR MONTAUK

From September through March, the time when most people think of Montauk as dead, Inlet Seafood is buzzing.

“That’s perfect,” a fisherman laughed as he ducked and a hand-guided crane lifted three boxes of whiting out of the ship’s hold, right past his head, and into the entrance to the packing shed where they nearly knocked someone else off his feet. The boxes were labeled, stacked, loaded onto fork lifts and then driven into refrigerated trailers waiting nearby. The mood was elevated since, on this particular trip, both boats caught fish around the clock for five days. “We tow a 100-foot net that goes right to the bottom,” said Maguire. “We’ve got 90 foot boats and we’re out in 70-mile-per-hour winds and 30-foot seas. With a net over, there’s a lot of resistance,” he said holding up an inch-thick steel shackle the size of a loaf of bread that had been wrenched open while the full net strained against the bottom.

“We leave the dock with 20 tons of ice and lots of empty boxes,” said Grimm, who had returned from eight days at see with 30,000 pounds of squid, 3,000 pounds of scup, and “some fluke, porgies, and seabass.” “The fish go onto a conveyor. We wash them, sort them out by size, and then pack them. Ice, fish, ice on top.” On another boat, where the squid has just been stored in large ice-filled rooms, one man was below deck, chest-deep in fish, sweeping them into an endless chain of plastic baskets that were hoisted onto the dock where the fish were dumped into boxes.

“Boxes, boxes, and boxes,” chanted Sima Freierman, Inlet’s general manager. A fast-talking former ad executive in New York, who has taken to jeans and flannel, Freierman fell into the fish business through a former boyfriend. Today, she is the boss of the six owners, and spends her time haggling with buyers, coordinating boat activities, fighting for New York in regional fisheries meetings, and now juggling the completion of a restaurant. “When we’re rocking, I turn around six trucks a day.” Eight trucks is the record.

Inlet Seafood’s core business is as a commercial dock and will remain so for the foreseeable future. It hosts three dozen boats, including 13 trawlers, 1 longliner, 2 tuna longliners, 20 to 30 pin-hookers, and 6 gillnetters. But the bulk of Inlet’s fishing is winter fishing.

“This dock hits the wall in the summer,” said Freierman, exactly when most of Montauk and the East End are having their rush of business. “That’s why we’re doing this.” The restaurant will not only provide a market for the dock’s fish in the summer, but also employment for its winter workers. Last summer, one of the dock’s crew who is a master at cleaning fish had to get a job frying chicken in town. Another got dishwashing work. “Now I can keep those guys on,” said Freierman. “I can do one payroll, one employees benefits. There are synergies in a lot of this. Same guys. Same boats. Same fish.”

NOT JUST SQUID

The restaurant’s draft menu lists some 16 types of fish and shellfish, not including specials, and the words “local” and “caught from one of our own boats” show up repeatedly. In addition to the expected chowders and raw shellfish, there’s Bonac clam pie, lobster pot pie, conch fritters, smoked bluefish, ceviche of local fluke, and tilefish fillet baked fisherman’s style (that is, baked in foil with potatoes, onions, wine, garlic and butter). The tuna tartar and basket of crispy fried squid show up on other restaurant menus, but are, like much of the seafood, likely to be fresher here.

“I’ll take a whiting wrap,” she said, walking past the half-finished kitchen. “Wait till you see what we can do with trigger fish. Or catch-of-the-day taco. What do you got in the box, Boog,” she said, using one of the many nicknames born by her captains. (Ronny Bo Bonny, Spoons, and Mike the Russian or KGB are others.) “I wanted a chef who would do something with these fish. These are good fish. These are ethnic fish. They’ve got bones, but a good chef knows what to do with them.”

The chef she found is John Yashinowsky, most recently the chef at Fresno in East Hampton. A Montauker and avid surf-fisher, Yashinowsky owned Caswell’s restaurant and has developed a reputation for his seafood. Despite enough experience in the business to be wary of any new restaurant, Yashinowsky is noticeably excited about the possibilities of introducing diners to creative combinations of unlikely marine life.

The guys have been giving me cartons of fish to play with. We did mackerel sashimi last night that melts in your mouth. I’ve been grilling lots of whole porgies real hot with lots of olive oil. They’re bony. But the meat is really good. My kids ate them chopsticks with a spicy ponzu soy dip.” Yashinowsky is waiting for a new fryer to experiment with “French fries from the sea,” a generous portion of crispy fried whiting, about six inches long with their heads off. “I’m going to be the Bubba Gump of squid,” he said about his recent exploration of alternatives to calamari. Freierman finds confidence in the growing interest in farm- to-table—or in this case boat-to-table—cuisine: “We can drive a truck into that niche.”

But will customers drive to the restaurant, whose location is towards the end of a little frequented road on the less busy side of Lake Montauk? The owners are banking on word of mouth, and expect some spill over from neighbors. “There’s all the money that Gosman’s spends for advertising for people to look at our restaurant,” Freierman said. The favored view of Gosman’s patrons is eastward towards the working waterfront of Inlet Seafood and the restaurant’s giant roundstone chimney. (An early candidate for the restaurant’s name was “The Other Side.”) “We’ll have a yearround working population,” she said, pointing towards Gosman’s. “In November, when they’re shutting down, this dock comes alive.”

Freierman shys from too many comparisons to Gosman’s, but Inlet Seafood Restaurant is poised to be a working-class alternative. “We’re the real McCoy,” she said, before backing off. “We’re just trying to do it just a little bit different. We’re just trying to take advantage of the view.” In fact, the two-story, cedar-shingled and heavily windowed building offers multiple views. There’s a sizable sushi bar next to the main dining area and a 24-foot bar that looks out at the water and opens onto a wraparound deck shaped like the prow of a ship.

The nearby dune tops were historically used to look out for boats rounding Shagwong Point as they returned to Montauk. Freierman envisions people sitting at the bar in front of the fireplace, watching the harbor and replicating this old tradition of captain’s families. Such pleasant visions are sometimes clouded by the myriad details of starting a new business. “It depends on the day of the week,” she said. “It looks like a ship at sea right now, in the middle of nowhere. At least we’ll know that the fish is fresh.”

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Pat Marlowe writes from her home in Southold.