Sarah Rathbone holds a box of vermilion and flag rockfish flanked by fishermen Shen (left) and Waiman Meinhold with a catch (June 28, 2016)

Paul Wellman

Sarah Rathbone holds a box of vermilion and flag rockfish flanked by fishermen Shen (left) and Waiman Meinhold with a catch (June 28, 2016)

Faces of the Sea: Sarah Rathbone

Dock to Dish Is Changing How Top Chefs Do Seafood on the West Coast

To Sarah Rathbone, cofounder of Dock to Dish L.A., the back kitchens of top dining establishments and fishing docks feel remarkably similar. Both are peopled by “diligent, innovative, creative, hardworking individuals who love fish,” says Rathbone. And both appreciate the red-gilled, clear-eyed, landed-less-than-24-hours-ago specimens that Rathbone delivers each Wednesday to some of L.A.’s hottest eateries.

Based in part on her past experience as co-founder of Community Seafood of Santa Barbara Rathbone is relying on chefs’ passion for fresh seafood and culinary creativity to expand Dock to Dish’s Restaurant Supported Fishery (RSF) program on the West Coast. Originally envisioned by Dock to Dish founder and leader Sean Barrett and successfully operating on the New York restaurant scene since 2013, the RSF program offers chefs a subscription service that delivers hundreds of pounds of super fresh, locally caught, sustainable seafood to their kitchen each week.

There’s one important catch to the Dock to Dish RSF that makes it unique among seafood sourcing programs — chefs receive whatever local fishermen pull in. That means a given week’s delivery could consist entirely of familiar staples, such as white sea bass, rockfish, or yellowfin tuna. But it could also include a long-nosed skate and several pounds of wavy turban snail. When unexpected sea fare arrives, chefs need to quickly invent dishes that can delight palates unacquainted with these types of seafood.

“It’s new for them, and it’s a challenge,” says Rathbone. But many top L.A. chefs, such as Niki Nakayama of n/naka and Michael Cimarusti of Providence, relish the challenge of experimenting with unusual ingredients and the chance to embrace seafood seasonality. These chefs are pioneering a new paradigm for restaurant seafood where “fishermen are ultimately determining what is sexy,” as Rathbone puts it.

Rathbone believes that winning the support of famed chefs for RSF can help start a much bigger transformation in how seafood is sourced and what Americans eat. “Getting these top chefs on board is great because they are the industry leaders. What they say is the trend,” Rathbone explains. She compares Dock to Dish’s strategic vision with avant-garde fashion. “You start your ideas at the top, and eventually, they make it into Walmart.”

Translated into the world of seafood, the dream is that one day average Americans living near the coast will buy snail along with salmon, skate along with shrimp. The benefits of a broadened American seafood palate are numerous. By widely embracing new types of seafood, we can rely more on seafood raised in our own salty backyards and less on seafood from abroad, and we can also decrease pressure on popular global fisheries and enhance their sustainability — a good deal for local fishermen, fisheries, and foodies alike.

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