POINT JUDITH, Rhode Island—Unlike the business’s founder and namesake, the waterfront headquarters of Gabe the Fish Babe are not beautiful, cutting-edge or sexy. The little upstart seafood company—essentially a dockside trailer with a computer, a scale, a walk-in cooler and an ice machine—might be a block from the ferry to famously beautiful Block Island, but this is a working waterfront, and her neighbors aren’t sailboats or surfboards but rusty trawlers like the Excalibur and the state office of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
But that’s precisely the point: Gabe—a.k.a. Gabrielle Stommel, a 27-year-old fishmonger hell-bent on supplying pristine Rhode Island catch directly to prestigious city chefs—isn’t here for the beach; she’s here for the fish.
The daughter of a commercial fisherman, the granddaughter of a legendary Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution marine scientist, a sixth generation Cape Codder, Stommel is serious about seafood. This honey-haired, long-legged creature is in fact a bona-fide babe, but one who’s happiest hauling in a six-foot, gaped-mouthed monkfish still dripping with sea slime or explaining the benefits of a water-ice slurry over pure ice to cool fish on a boat. (Less breakdown of cellular structure.) She’ll tell you why she mainly works with day boats (short trips mean fresher product); which species are plentiful, sustainable and cheap (porgy); and will rail against misleadingly labeled product, the ever-growing web of fishing rules and regulations, the rising price of diesel fuel and all the other forces making fishermen, as she puts it, “an endangered species.”
So when Dean Pesante, an easygoing 53-year-old gill netter who helms a blue and white day boat called the Oceana, texts Stommel to say he’s headed into port—she’s typically clutching her pink-cased iPhone—she’s waiting at the docks to meet him.
There, with help from a few members of her tiny team—her business partner/boyfriend, Arthur Warren, a few part-time shleppers and scalers and a girl from the bank who does the books—Stommel helps heave plastic tub after plastic tub into the back of her big white van, back from city deliveries mere minutes before. Dressed in skinny jeans and white Doc Martens, her hair tied up in a bouffantey bun, she moves the slippery monkfish, cod, snapper, mackerel, dogfish and shiny blues barely in rigor up off Pesante’s boat, working post-haste to keep the fish out of the afternoon sun. Within minutes the catch is gutted, scaled, weighed and iced, ready for its road trip south to New York the next morning. Stommel is already back on her pink phone, trying to interest city chefs in the thousands of dollars worth of fish she’s just bought from Pesante.
Buying directly from boats is both rare and brave for a Manhattan monger in an international market, and Stommel has the sleepless nights and furrowed brow to prove it. She has to pay up front, store it well, deliver it fast, sell it faster. While some chefs ferret out direct relationships with fishermen—those Greenmarket sellers, for example—most distributors who sell to restaurants take delivery from other middlemen who could be picking up anywhere from Massachusetts to Japan. But to Stommel it’s worth it: Hers is not just fresher and sustainably caught—“Gabe’s got the real deal,” says chef Eric Korsh, who was one of her first customers at the Waverly Inn—but because she’s also paying “extra money for well-handled species,” as she puts it, it’s fairer to fishermen, too.
In fact, when she and Warren moved up from the city in March to open Gabe the Fish Babe it wasn’t because Eric Ripert was demanding sea robin or she saw a fortune to be made in conger eel or swirly-shelled moon snails. (The latter, a Rhode Island specialty, are harvested to order and best, says Stommel, marinated and “steamed hard-core.”) Rather it was because she regards our oceans as the next frontier in the good-food movement.
“There is something much greater than bizz-nazz to all of this,” Stommel blogged recently on GabetheFishBabe.com. “That ‘bigger picture’ relates to community, ecology and economy, a mission that smart people call the triple bottom line.”
Stommel’s actually been thinking about selling good seafood for nearly a decade. In 2008, while she was working as a waitress in Manhattan after college and a few years of South American travel, she would sometimes bring haddock, cod and hake (all gadiformes, Stommel will tell you) that her father targeted in his boat the Nobska while fishing Georges Banks off the Cape. She’d drive around and sell her father’s impeccable product from the back of her car to chefs, under the business name Brooklyn Haddock.
People bought it, but it was “uncharted, unorganized,” says Stommel. “I didn’t know what I was doing. It was way too much to work, I didn’t have a business plan, I didn’t have the skills, and I was just winging it.”
So in 2009, she got a job as an account rep at Pierless, one of the city’s bigger fish suppliers to high-end restaurants. Ever-enthusiastic about the industry—“Follow me to the depths of the pelagic zone and beyond!” reads her Twitter handle—she started putting together a newsletter geared to clients like Babbo and Le Bernardin. And on her own time, she also started that blog, officially becoming Gabe the Fish Babe. In her newsletter she’d maybe explain what defines sushi-grade fluke (“they bleed the fish,” she says, “onboard the fishing vessel”) or wax poetic on plentiful but less popular local species like Jonah crab (our version of Dungeness) and scup (also known as porgy or sea bream, says Stommel, it’s the American cousin of farmed European daurade, which is half as sweet but twice the price due to its uniform size). Better still on the blog, she peppered her purplish prose (“welcome to a world of fresh red mullets and golden tile in rigor”) with a photo of herself dressed as a mermaid and sexy bits like pictures of “bacon bras and hot chicks,” says Stommel.
“Chefs are rude and crude,” she smiles, “and love that kind of stuff.”
But they also love her knowledge: Stommel proudly reports that chef Dan Barber, who’s written several op-eds for the Times, told her she was doing a good job. Tired of working for other people, Stommel considered becoming a full-time writer, dedicating herself to extolling the species in the sea. “But do I want to be a blogger,” she thought to herself, “or do I want to sell fish?”
The answer was the latter: While words might capture Barber’s attention, what she really wanted was his business. “It just seemed like the logical next step for me after Pierless,” says Stommel. She’d grown up catching and selling fish, after all, and knew the ropes—literally. She’d also sold door-to-door, and worked at a big-time city distributor. And by then she also had a partner, having met Warren at the bar at Hundred Acres, where both knew the chef. So together they decided to strike out on their own, and launch a dockside business selling fish.
(A Korean-American jack-of-all trades who grew up at a bed-and-breakfast in the Adirondacks, Warren has farmed, worked as a private chef and also built Gabe’s Web site, where you can see not just what boat caught your black-backed flounder, but with what type of gear. “I couldn’t do this,” says Gabe, “without him.”)
So in November, with encouragement from her mother, Sabrina—and about $30,000 scraped together with help from family and friends—Stommel moved back home, searching for a friendly Northeast port to place a bare-bones office and fishermen who might sell to a 20-something chick. She decided on Point Judith for two reasons: Not only is it closer to New York City than the Cape, but unlike bigger ports near Boston, there are more day boats and its fishermen are smaller, more independent and—like Dean Pesante—more open to working with somebody new.
“I was looking for somebody who appreciated quality product,” says Pesante, who also appears to get a kick out of this couple’s hands-on business model. “Nobody but Gabe and Arthur,” he laughs as they load coolers of his fish into the back of their van, “comes like this!” (Day-boat captains weren’t the only ones who were friendly, says Stommel: Her landlord, who owns an engine-repair shop on the docks, gave her some time to pony up the rent, and the guys who sold her equipment and her refrigerated delivery van also let her pay them over time.)
Still, like the other fishermen Stommel buys from, Pesante could sell to other, bigger operations with dedicated docks where he can deliver, or processing units that ship prepped, filleted and frozen fish worldwide for a consistent price a fisherman can count on. One Montauk squid pro, stuck in Point Judith with engine trouble, told Stommel he always sells to a processor “because at least you know what price you’re getting. If you send it to a fresh market in the city,” he says, meaning bigger companies, “you could get $2 a pound or 50 cents.”
But by selling to Gabe, Pesante and his fellow trawlers and gill netters and rod-and-reel guys have learned—you just might get $4.
And you might get the name of your boat on some of the city’s best-read menus—mackerel fillets from the Oceana, black sea bass from Captain Aaron Williams, day boat scallops from the Foxy Lady or Hope Island oysters. By March, Stommel’s office had finally been legally approved to buy, sell and store fish, and thanks to sales calls toting supreme squid and sea bass four hours south to her old clients at Pierless, within weeks Stommel was selling to fish-obsessed chefs at Waverly Inn, Il Buco, Dovetail and Hundred Acres, to name but a few.
You’ve only got to taste it, says Eric Korsh, who recently left the Waverly Inn to open Calliope in the East Village with his wife and co-chef, Ginevra Iverson. “It’s the greatest,” says Korsh, who bought from the Babe back when she was just driving around with a trunk full of fish. “When you get it directly from the boat,” he says, “it’s just a different thing.”
Like Calliope, most restaurants have more than one seafood supplier, meaning while he might buy squid and live uni from Stommel, he’s likely sourcing from Pierless or other companies, too. But her products—and Point Judith fishermen—are the star on his Euro-farmhouse menus: Pesante’s pristine sushi-grade fluke flayed for his grapefruit-kissed crudo; Captain Shaun Jones’s tender squid pan-roasted and floating in tomato broth with cucumber, basil and olive oil; her fresh, fresh bluefish from the fishing vessel Anne Kathryn, laced with harissa paste; Captain Aaron Williams’s black sea bass roasted in upstate grape leaves with lemon-herb butter and ratatouille.
Or whomever’s fish Stommel recommend he try: “She’ll text me when the boats come in with what’s available,” says Korsh, “and nobody else in New York will do that.” As luck would have it, his new place is now just a short walk from the East First Street apartment where Stommel, Warren and their pit bull Cream sometimes crash when they make sales calls or deliveries in Manhattan. Owned by a model-actress for whom Warren used to work—and who also invested a little in the company—it’s a funky, loft-like space a world apart from their Rhode Island offices.
But Stommel stays in touch with her customers for reasons beyond fostering community. Half her battle is getting chefs to buy not just her monkfish liver or her live sea urchin, but speckled whelks and tiny butterfish or sea robin or bonito or the snouty-nosed dogfish she often promises to buy along with best-sellers. Species that are plentiful—and plenty delicious, Stommel will tell you—but most average city restaurant diners aren’t going to order them, no matter how many recipes for dogfish she posts on her site. That’s mainly why she’s just started a side business selling directly to the public—a seafood club where members buy in for weekly shipments of fish fillets and bags of shellfish. It works just like a short-term CSA—you pay upfront, and take what you get—and Manhattan members currently pick up their catch at a weekly stall she runs at Sunday’s New Amsterdam Market. Right now she sells retail, but it’s a short-term project mainly to recruit new customers for the fish club, which also has pickups in Brooklyn, Connecticut and back in Rhode Island.
With the fish club, Stommel doesn’t have to scramble to sell lesser-known species or deal with special demands from chefs who might not take what she delivers if it’s not to spec. More importantly for a small business less than six months old, members pay in advance: Early on, Stommel was almost $30,000 in the hole waiting for kitchens to ante up; now she makes most chefs use C.O.D.
But from our perspective, those mixed bags—full of what’s just in from her fishermen, whatever it may be—are beneficial to us, too, beyond a decent price point and supporting small fishermen and responsible fisheries and “shortening the sea-to-table supply chain,” as Stommel puts it in the sustainability statement she packs into every box, along with a thank you note for “saving the world.” There’s also flavor: As her father and her grandfather taught Stommel well before she ever sold seafood for a living, it isn’t what fish you’re eating, but how fresh it is.
“Eat like a fisherman,” she is fond of saying. Or in other words, eat like the Babe.
Seared Bluefish with Avocado
From chef Eric Korsh of Calliope (84 E. Fourth St., at Second Ave., 212.260.8484)
Gabe the Fish Babe, aka fishmonger Gabrielle Stommel, usually gets bluefish from day-boat fisherman Dean Pesante in Point Judith, Rhode Island, and often sells it to Calliope in the East Village. “Bluefish is an oily fish and can stand up to other bold ingredients,” says Stommel, “the combo of harissa, avocado and sweet bluefish make for a splendidly balanced dish.” Adds Korsh: “Most people serve it hot-smoked,” he says of bluefish, “which I think is boring.” This is not.
3 ripe avocados
4 spring onions, thinly sliced
3 teaspoons black sesame seeds
1½ pounds day-boat bluefish, skin-on
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons of harissa (Moroccan hot chile sauce, available from specialty food shops)
Peel avocado into ¾-inch segments, sprinkle them with sliced spring onions and lemon juice and salt to taste. Sprinkle on black sesame seeds and set aside. Check fillets for pin-bones and cut into ¾-inch pieces. Season the pieces of fish in a bowl with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add pieces of fish, skin-side down, and sear until cooked completely throughout, sliding pieces of fish around the pan with a spatula so they don’t stick. Stir together 2 cups olive oil and the harissa in a pot. Heat this mixture and pour it over the fish. Place a few pieces of avocado in a bowl, add a few pieces of fish on top. If you like, garnish with more sliced spring onion and a drizzle of olive oil.
Calliope’s Simple Fluke Crudo
Serves 4 as an appetizer
From chef Eric Korsh of Calliope (84 E. Fourth St., at Second Ave., 212.260.8484)
“Delightfully simple,” says fishmonger Gabrielle Stommel. Sushi-grade fluke means the fish are bled immediately on the boat, says Stommel, who often eats it raw at home. This crudo takes seconds, or for a little more effort, try chopping it into a medium dice with red onion, fresh chilies and herbs and dousing the lot with citrus juices for an easy fluke ceviche.
½ pound fresh Rhode Island sushi-grade fluke
A buttery extra-virgin olive oil (Korsh recommends using Arbequiña olives from Spain or Chile)
1 each lemon, lime and orange
½ jalapeño chile, slivered
Cut segments of fluke into bite-size strips. Use a very sharp knife, and try to cut the fish with one-stroke motions. Arrange the strips on your serving plate. Drizzle olive oil lightly over the raw fluke. Add a few drops of juices from the orange, lime and lemon to each strip of fish. Finish with a sprinkle of sea salt and slivers of jalapeño.
Photo credit: John Taggart