ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The farm to table movement encourages restaurants to serve whatever is in season. Well, California's new Dock to Dish effort - cooking up whatever fishermen pull out of the sea - is much more challenging. That's because it really is whatever fishermen pull out of the sea. NPR's Mandalit del Barco visits a restaurant in Los Angeles that has embraced the fishery program.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: A dinner at Providence can cost upwards of $300 a person. The ambience is elegant. Each exquisite course is paired with its own wine, and it's presented ceremonially.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ladies, the white fish tonight is the halibut. The reduction on the bottom is matsutake mushroom.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This fish has been caught by Captain Morgan Castagnola. I swear to God - Morgan Castagnola from Cecelia, the boat.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Why not?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I love Captain Morgan.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Captain Morgan - let's all thank Captain Morgan. Bravo, Captain.
DEL BARCO: It's all part of the Dock to Dish program that allows local fishermen to sell directly to local restaurants. It's based on the model of community supported agriculture much like the farm to table idea. It allows people to get to know their fishermen like they now know their farmers thanks to farmers markets. Chef Michael Cimarusti says it's sometimes a challenge to come up with unusual recipes.
MICHAEL CIMARUSTI: You know, the fishermen that go out - they fish. They land whatever it is that they catch, and that's what we get. So you have to be flexible, and you have to be willing to experiment and, you know, deal with things that you might have absolutely no idea of how to prepare.
DEL BARCO: Things like fresh live sea cucumber, wavy turban snails and Kellet's whelk, the kind of sea life you find off the coast of Santa Barbara an hour and a half north of Los Angeles. Cimarusti loves to fish, and on this sunny, windy day, he's here in Santa Barbara to meet up with one of the fishermen who supplies his restaurant, Eric Hodge.
ERIC HODGE: Hey, Michael.
CIMARUSTI: How are you?
HODGE: Good, man.
CIMARUSTI: Good to see you.
HODGE: Good to see you got some rods.
CIMARUSTI: How's it going? Yeah.
HODGE: Love it.
DEL BARCO: We step aboard Hodge's 17-foot fishing boat and set off into the Pacific.
DEL BARCO: Hodge's skiff is powered by biodiesel.
That's why it smells like french fries.
HODGE: Right here - can you smell it?
DEL BARCO: Yeah.
DEL BARCO: Along the way, Cimarusti and Hodge chat about the effects of this year's El Nino, and they trade stories about the fish they've caught.
HODGE: That's a big fish, Dude.
CIMARUSTI: It's a good sized fish.
HODGE: That pulls hard.
CIMARUSTI: On this hook?
HODGE: On this stuff?
CIMARUSTI: No, on - I got it on that one.
HODGE: On that little guy?
DEL BARCO: The waves are too choppy to stop at Hodge's usual sites for catching Pacific Rockfish, so we turn around and head closer to shore where they cast their fishing rods for anything that might swim along. And they talk about Dock to Dish.
HODGE: Basically fishermen are finally being asked, what else is there out there to fish for? What's a sustainable fish that no one's really utilizing, right? Mackerel, for example - you can't really sell mackerel. There's not really a real market for local mackerel.
CIMARUSTI: It's not considered a glamorous fish, you know what I mean? So you don't see a lot of people serving it. Programs like Dock to Dish create a market for those unloved species that might otherwise be greatly appreciated had they found their way to the plate earlier.
DEL BARCO: Cimarusti says the Japanese market will pay $19 a pound for mackerel, but until now, Hodge says he and other local commercial fishermen have used that same fish as bait or just thrown it back into the water.
Back on the dock, the fishermen and the chef meet up with Sarah Rathbone, co-founder of Dock to Dish LA.
SARAH RATHBONE: I'm all about the weird fish. Weird is good. Let's redefine weird as a positive word (laughter).
DEL BARCO: Beyond the novelty of unusual fish, she says the program promotes a supply base system offering whatever is plentiful and in season. Dock to Dish launched three years ago in Montauk, N.Y., and has been hailed as a revival of community-based fisheries. Now Southern California is giving it a go, and it starts, says Rathbone, with reeling in tastemakers like Cimarusti who can then lure in others.
RATHBONE: My goal is to make it something that goes beyond those who can afford the fine dining to people who are just looking to make sustainable decisions when it comes to their seafood choices.
DEL BARCO: She admits this model is a revival of the way local fishing used to be, providing the catch of the day. On this day, Santa Barbara fishermen have a load of wild caught Ridgeback shrimp. They're still very much alive as the fisherman pop them into their mouths. Some they toss into the ocean for the seagulls. Rathbone shovels ice into a cooler packed with the shrimp that must be delivered and eaten within 48 hours - one reason they're not seen on many menus.
From the dock, the shrimp is bagged and delivered to Cimarusti's other LA restaurant, Connie and Ted's. The chefs are whisking polenta to serve with the Ridgeback shrimp. On this night, Cimarusti has prepared a special meal for the very fishermen who supply his restaurant. Jason Woods and Randy Graham are among those who've trekked down to LA.
JASON WOODS: Everything so far has been delicious.
RANDY GRAHAM: You know, it's kind of a revolution. Yeah, you're paying a little bit more for your fish, but we're not using nets. We're not using any unsustainable resources. This is what was caught in Santa Barbara today. Get used to eating it.
DEL BARCO: The concept seems to be catching on. Dock to Dish LA already has other chefs and restaurants waiting to jump aboard. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.