Unlike the business’s founder and namesake, the waterfront headquarters of Gabe the Fish Babe are neither cutting-edge nor 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—aka Gabrielle Stommel, a 27-year-old fishmonger hell-bent on supplying pristine Rhode Island catch directly to prestigious city chefs and home cooks—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 and 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, gape-mouthed monkfish still dripping with sea slime or explaining the benefits of 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 gal 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 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—Blue Moon, 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 both fresher and sustainably caught—“what Gabe has to offer is what is being fished out of the water right then,” says Nate Smith, the chef-owner of Allswell, the much-lauded Williamsburg gastropub—but because she’s also paying extra money for what she calls “well-handled species,” 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 the kitchen at Roberta’s 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 living in Bushwick and working as a waitress in the city after college and a few years of South American travel, she would sometimes bring haddock, cod and hake that her father caught off the Cape. She’d drive around and sell chefs his impeccable product from the back of her car, 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 in Brooklyn, 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 Marlow & Sons, Babbo or 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). Plus 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 while words might capture chefs’ attention, what she really wanted was their 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 sold door-to-door, and worked at a big-time city distributor. And by then she had a partner, having met Warren at the bar at Hundred Acres in the West Village. Together they decided to strike out on their own, and launch a dockside business selling fish.
(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 $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 than the Cape, but unlike bigger ports near Boston, there are more day boats and its fishermen are smaller and—like Dean Pesante—open to working with somebody new.
“I was looking for somebody who appreciated quality product,” says Pesante, who 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, 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 Pierless clients, within weeks Stommel was selling to fish-obsessed chefs at Buttermilk Channel, al di là, Rucola, Northeast Kingdom, Roberta’s, Gran Electrica, not to mention Blue Hill and Jean Georges.
Most of those restaurants still have multiple seafood suppliers, but at Allswell, Stommel’s fish are usually the sole sea creatures, says chef Smith, who met the monger when he was chef at the Spotted Pig. He loves that he knows not just when and where his fish were caught, but how they were cared for from the second they’re pulled aboard. “Fish are one of those things,” he says, “it’s hard to find people in the industry you can trust.” Plus, Stommel’s off-the-boat supply offers him the same chefly thrills as local produce: Not only is it fresher and better tasting, it changes with the seasons, forcing his menu to migrate, too, and often with species that bigger wholesalers don’t carry. “They’re off the radar,” says Smith. “That’s exciting to me.”
He’s currently smitten with Pesante’s snaggle-toothed smooth shark, aka the dogfish, a mild-fleshed, meaty species beloved in Britain but still snubbed Stateside. “It’s like a cross between swordfish and halibut,” says Smith. He’s treating it like tuna, salt-curing it for 24 hours then slow-poaching it in olive oil before pairing it with duck fat–fried potatoes and chimichurri sauce; or serving it like veal tonnato, in a salad Niçcoise, or in a puttanesca-like pasta laced with briny anchovies, olives and capers.
But Smith’s passion for smooth shark isn’t widely shared. Half of Stommel’s battle to date has been getting chefs to buy not just her monkfish liver or her live sea urchin, but those speckled whelks and tiny butterfish or sea robin she often promises to buy from fishermen along with the best-sellers. Species that are plentiful, and plenty delicious—but average city diners aren’t going to order them, no matter how many recipes for dogfish puttanesca she posts on her site. That’s mainly why she’s 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. Pickup sites include Dépanneur and Brooklyn Kitchen in Williamsburg and Victory Garden in Clinton Hill.
With the fish club, Stommel doesn’t have to scramble to sell lesser-known species or deal with special demands from chefs. 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 pay C.O.D.
But from our perspective, those mixed bags—full of whatever’s just in from her fishermen—are beneficial to us, too, beyond a decent price point, 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 fish club 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 species 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.
GABE’S MOM’S CLAMS CASINO
Makes 1 dozen clams
From Gabrielle Stommel, aka Gabe the Fish Babe
1 dozen hardshell clams (such as littlenecks or cherrystones)
¼ bunch flat-leaf parsley, washed and de-stemmed
3 pieces raw bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
Bread crumbs, preferably from French or sourdough bread
Freshly cracked pepper and lemon juice to taste
Preheat oven to 425°. Shuck your clams so that they’re on the half-shell and lay them on a baking sheet. Add a pinch of bread to each clam. Add a leaf of parsley to each clam. Cover each clam with a piece of bacon. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Add cracked pepper and lemon to taste!
Photo credit: John Taggart