From Our Latest Issue: The Seafood Shop in Wainscott

Built on buying from baymen, the Seafood Shop gets the freshest seafood out the door.

WAINSCOTT—As a young adult, Colin Mather hated fish. He once got a fishbone lodged in his throat and required hospitalization. “I had to get the pliers down the throat, the whole bit,” he chuckles. “That was sort of a bad omen for me.”

Mather swore off fish entirely. But a few years later, in 1986, Joey Ambrose, who did clambakes for Wainscott’s Seafood Shop, offered him a job. He’s been there since; in 2000, he became the owner.

This year marks the shop’s 41st operating from the same location. And Mather’s unlikely entry into the seafood business mirrors the story of the store’s previous owners: school teachers who had an interest in good food and a knack for working with fishermen. Their love of the sea, their knowledge of their customers and their friendships with the baymen who supply the iced beds have helped the shop grow over four decades into a go-to source for all manner of fish and other delicacies springing from the waters surrounding the East End.

On summer days—and, more and more, during holidays in the off-season—a U-shape line of patrons snakes from the front door of the shop, past the island of essential groceries to go with fish (pasta, olive oil, onions, lemons), along a lobster tank to the fillet counter in back, past a selection of smoked fish, dumplings, salads and soups, to the checkout counter. It’s cozy quarters. The customers entering the shop and customers leaving with their bags could easily shake hands in passing. It’s crowded because of the impeccable fish, increasingly elusive as concerns grow about mislabeling, the depletion of certain fish stocks and toxins in seafood.

Over the years, this proximity is what gives the job depth, says Mather. “It was one of the few places where you’d get a guy like Harry Lester, who was a real salt-of-the-earth fisherman…and a guy like Peter Jennings. They’d share a few words together. I’d be like, ‘Where else do you see this?’ So, it was very, it was entertaining. It was fun.”

But there’s no fun to be had without a superior product. “Fish that isn’t fresh looks tired or dull,” says Alex Fausto, the gregarious general manager of the shop, who greets most customers by name while stretching his hand over the elevated counter. “But you also have to smell the fish. It has to smell like the sea. When a fish smells like fish, it’s no good. It should smell like the ocean.” (Before Fausto joined the Seafood Shop in 1999, he ran a shrimp company in Mexico; he has 25 years in the industry. “I like fishing, I like eating the fish,” he says. “If I liked steak, I might be a cowboy!”)

Given its history, it wouldn’t be surprising if a cowboy had worked at the shop. Once a grocery store and an office upholstery store, the Seafood Shop was started in 1972 by teacher Robert Wilford, who was tired of driving all the way to Amagansett to buy his fish at Stuart’s. Behind the register was Barbara Wyeth, Wilford’s sister, who still is making change there today. “It was all cash,” she says. “With a little lobster tank in the middle of the floor.”

Her brother, however, was more than a merchant. A dedicated and experienced cook with degrees from the Cordon Bleu and the Culinary Institute of America, Wilford soon started catering using the fresh fish from the store. “Sometimes he’d do 17 to 25 parties in one night,” says Wyeth. “He did a sit-down dinner at the Parrish Art Museum for 1,000 people. Gloria Vanderbilt was there. She brought her own gold silverware.”

By 1980, Wilford was cooking full-time and the shop was taken over by Jon Haessler, another former teacher, who had partnered with Wilford in 1976.

Today the shop has a beach-worn look, and it’s hard to believe that when it first opened, Ted Dragon, a towering figure from the golden age of the Hamptons, helped paint the walls. The blue and white exterior invokes the sky and sea, and in the summer, when the sun is bright, the crushed-shell parking area can be blinding. Inside, the blue and white theme is continued on the floor. Above, fluorescent lights flicker.

The backbone of the shop still is the independent fishermen who deliver to the back each day. On a morning in March, one of those locals is Wally Bennett, a commercial fisherman in East Hampton who has been delivering fish daily since the late 1970s. He’s got porgies, flounder, fluke and assorted other squirming fresh fish from a Gardiner’s Bay pond trap he manages.

Since its opening, the Seafood Shop has also served as a packing house where baymen bring their catch and pack it in ice for delivery to Fulton Fish Market and points beyond. It is one of the few packinghouses remaining on the South Fork, including Stuart’s in Amagansett, Cor-J in Hampton Bays, and several in Montauk. This role gives the Seafood Shop first dibs on the freshest fish, including local delicacies like steamer clams, blueback herring and whitebait, that rarely show up in grocery store fish cases.

But these fish aren’t always what customers want anymore. “When I started here,” says Mather, “we were almost exclusively local. In the wintertime, you had your whitefish, your cod, your fluke, flounder, gray sole. You’d be dealing with what was available at that time of the year.” But things have changed. “We’re becoming more and more removed from Mother Earth, Nature, however you want to put it, and that’s not a good thing. Life isn’t always about hitting a button and having it appear in front of your eyes.”

Consumers expect to find a tuna or salmon steak even though those fish may only be available thousands of miles away. It’s like finding a ripe tomato sitting in a pile of pale tomatoes at your local supermarket in January. It’s easy to take for granted, and the logistics that make it possible are usually only perceived when there’s some problem: a big storm off the Southeast that prevents the catch for a few days, or a drought in the Florida Panhandle that kills off the tomato crop.

Unlike those tomatoes, however, fish don’t grow on vines. Year-round demand has hurt fish populations. From April until October, Mather buys as much as he can from the locals. He points to nearby fishing families (Sonny and Tommy Schelling, Wally Bennett) and notes they are a backbone of the local economy and an important link in the local food chain. If not for this outlet a short drive from the docks, it’s likely that many small-scale fishers wouldn’t be in business—lacking the time or luxury to haul their catch long distances.

Mather acknowledges there’s a depletion happening out on the high seas and regulation is part of the answer, but that, “These guys that are running around in pickup trucks, they’re not the problem,” he says, it’s demand. The answer, in his opinion, to having sustainable oceans is eating seasonally. “Let the people down South feed off of the swordfish and the tuna while they’ve got them down there, and then we’ll get them back in June. That would make a dramatic difference. That’s the way it was. That’s the way it always was.”

Still, the East End is a diverse enough fish shopping community that Fausto, who represents the shop at the Sag Harbor and East Hampton farmers markets, can probably guess what you’re about to order, based on who you are. The locals? “They want it to be locally caught, and the freshest.” The European summer customers? “They want langouste. Sometimes skate fin. And they mostly buy whole fish, not fillets.” People with children? “Flounder.” And some of the more obnoxious summer crowd? “Caviar. Only they don’t know how to order. They just want the most expensive stuff.” (According to Fausto, people have gotten used to the taste of farmed fish, which makes up an increasing share of the global supply of seafood. “It’s milder,” he says, “so when you really taste or smell the wild fish, you think it’s too strong.”)

As I scan the available fillets at the shop, I have no problem imagining Bennett or another local fisher pulling up those nets. I hope they’re full, but I know he’s not pulling up mahi-mahi, tilapia or salmon out of Gardiner’s Bay, so my eyes fall on the little placards that say “wild” and “local.”

If Fausto was serving me, he’d already have sized me up. I’m that boring guy who gets the flounder and makes it extra salty in an attempt to get his eight-year-old to eat some of it. But today, Barbara asks me what I need. “A pound of flounder, please.” She scoops up a few fillets and throws them on the scale. Her first attempt and she’s three-hundredths of a pound off. Not bad.

Christopher Gangemi writes and ruminates from his home in Sag Harbor.