Off the Hook: Sustainable Fishing with Sea to Table’s Michael Dimin
Michael Dimin believes there’s nothing better than freshly caught, wild seafood. His lifelong passion for fishing led him to found Tobago Wild, today known as Sea to Table, which connects sustainable fisheries to the best chefs and restaurants in the country. He spoke with us recently about the health and ethical reasons for choosing sustainable seafood, the exceptional taste of a fresh catch, and why the modern fisherman has the most dangerous job in America.
Why should people care about eating sustainable seafood?
To support their own health — wild sustainable fish is the healthiest protein you can eat. If they buy domestically, they will help to support the traditional fishing communities that depend on that fish for their livelihoods. 90% of all the seafood consumed in the US comes from outside the U.S. — almost all of it imported. This mostly farmed fish — primarily from Asia — is not necessarily produced in the most sustainable, proper or hygienic way and not as healthy as it should be for people. If people want to support the right levers in the food system and their own health, they should buy domestically caught fish.
How does sustainable seafood differ in flavor from commercially-raised fish?
To me, nothing tastes better than wild, sustainable fish directly from the dock. We work with fisherman all around the country, and we ship their catch directly to 38 different docks and over 1,000 chefs in 46 states. If a fish is properly caught and properly handled it tastes amazing — the enhanced flavor comes from how quickly it goes from the water to the plate.
Have you noticed any trends in what chefs are asking you for?
Progressive chefs are understanding how important seafood is as a protein, and they want to connect as directly and quickly as they can with the source of their food in general, as with the farm-to-table movement. They want to understand who the people are behind the food they cook and serve. The supply chain is a long, opaque, convoluted one. Sometimes diners can’t really understand where their food comes from. We try to have a transparent model — to be able to tell who caught it, how it was caught, where it was caught and that it landed a day ago.
Do you think the locavore movement will affect food policy in the U.S.?
The good food movement is growing by leaps and bounds, and awareness is becoming a big part of our popular culture. The food system generally is incredibly broken. It doesn’t really serve the producers or consumers, but drags all the value to the middle of the supply chain. We think [farmers and fisherman] should be respected and properly compensated and understood to be the important part of the system. At the other end, consumers and especially the chef community (who’ve now achieved celebrity status), they very much want to connect with the people who produce it. But food policy is really difficult to change. The Farm Bill last year did a couple of good things and a myriad of bad things to support large scale, industrial interests. They don’t necessarily behave in the best interest of producers and consumers.
What’s the biggest problem in our food supply system?
Industrial meat production, what it does to our bodies — consuming hormones, antibiotics. It’s one of the biggest contributors to our health problems in this country and around the world. We have the capacity to really screw things up, but I’m cautiously optimistic that there’s enough awareness already that we’ll be able to turn some corners and make some things better. I don’t think people realize what industrial meat production is a contributor to global warming. There are a lot of large, monied interests involved — it’s a political football.
Anything surprising about the life of a modern-day fisherman?
Fishing is the most dangerous job in America. More fisherman die than in any other industry each year. It’s extremely dangerous, extremely expensive, pretty high risk. But if you can organize it well, do it well and not have to do it in bad weather where it’s most dangerous, you can make a lot of money. But it’s super hard work.
What do top restaurants look for when sourcing their seafood?
Chefs want to know the fish has been handled well, iced well, kept cold. With seafood, the fresher the better. The traditional seafood supply chain has many many links, and for a fish to get from a boat to a chef, generally it’s at least six days because it has to pass through so many hands and so many marketplaces. We are able to take a fish that was caught today and deliver it tomorrow to a chef’s kitchen. That’s really the biggest single thing. Chefs want to know who grew their tomato and also, who caught their fish. The traditional supply chain is more like a regional warehouse situation — they receive fish from all over and then go out and deliver to local distributors who then take them to restaurants. Our stuff goes from the dock to the restaurants the next day.
To what extent has technology impacted the seafood industry and your business?
In the 70s and 80s, the tech of being able to find fish and identify where it is — sonar and depth finders — allowed fishermen to basically wipe out fish stocks. So a lot was not good for the fisheries. Now, we’re managing it much better. The seafood industry is kind of a really really old-school industry. Brokers have information and carefully guard it to protect themselves in the chain. We’ve tried to use tech to be able to share everything that we’re doing and use all social media outlets to help chefs share where their food comes from. For the fisherman to know where the fruits of his hard labor have gone — he loves to know that that’s being enjoyed by people, and he loves seeing photos on social media of the stuff he caught. We’re very gratified to help.
What is your favorite way to enjoy fresh seafood?
I love to do it so simple — I’m a high proponent of olive oil, salt and pepper, and don’t cook it too much. If you can get it right fresh — as soon out of the water as possible — the less you do to it the better. The way our model works, the only way to get fresher fish is to ride down to the dock and get it yourself.