East End Eats: New Fish Burger Earns an A+

Were the fish burgers a hit?
Daniel Pacella, the chef for the Bridgehampton School, left, and Sean Barrett, the founder of Dock to Dish, celebrated the road test of the school’s new fish burger lunch. Durell Godfrey Photos

But how does it taste? 

I know that’s the number-one question on your mind about the new, history-in-the-making, right here on Long Island, this-recipe-was-formulated-by-the God-of-all-fish-cookery-Eric Ripert(!), etc., etc. Dock to Dish Montauk Fishburger introduced at the Bridgehampton School on Friday. Well, you’ll just have to wait a few paragraphs.

First, a bit about our hometown heroes, saints, and angels who made this happen. One day in 2012, Judiann Carmack-Fayyaz, an environmental design teacher and co-founder of Bridgehampton’s Edible School Garden program, was having coffee with Sean Barrett, co-founder of Dock to Dish, the first community supported fishery (C.S.F.) in New York and the first restaurant supported fishery in the country. They wondered why our abundant local bounty of nutritious fish isn’t on school lunch menus. Enter Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, the chefs Joseph Realmuto, Jason Weiner, and Sam and Kat McCleland; Stefanie Sacks, a culinary nutritionist, and Katie Baldwin, a co-founder and farmer at Amber Waves in Amagansett, and the ball got rolling. They brought in some big guns, Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin, who developed the fish burger recipe, and Dan Barber of Blue Hill to help formulate the bun recipe. The wheat for the buns is grown at Amber Waves and the buns are baked by Carissa Waechter’s Carissa’s Breads in Southampton.

At an assembly the day before the first fish burgers were served to the entire school, kindergarten through 12th grade, the school superintendent, Dr. Lois Favre, told the children that in her 32 years of education she had never seen people so committed to a project. Ms. Brady said she had been trying to implement such a program without success for many years until now.

Ms. Sacks asked the kids to raise their hands if they cared about nutrition and most of them did. She asked them to raise their hands if they cared about the environment. Oh, well, maybe that word is too big for kindergartners. A short video from ABC’s “The Chew” featuring Mr. Barrett’s Dock to Dish was shown next. This being the era of fast-paced, get your attention TV, the segment was titled “Slim and Sexy,” and had exciting, dramatic footage of fishing and filleting and loud music and the ubiquitous Hamptons montage of girls in sundresses drinking rosé on the beach. 

By this time I was squirming along with the youngsters. Mr. Weiner cracked some jokes about being the only chef with the guts to stand up and talk in front of the kids.

Then came Friday, the moment of truth, history in the making. The Bridgehampton School cafeteria is more like a beautiful dining room, with a tall ceiling and bay windows looking out onto playing fields and the school greenhouse. There are posters all around encouraging kids to be healthy, “eat your colors,” and “live well, eat well.” The refrigerator contains Snapple and ham and American cheese sandwiches on kaiser rolls. Baby steps, people, baby steps.

I arrived before the feeding frenzy to talk with Daniel Pacella, the school chef, and his right-hand woman, Fay Gholson. Said Mr. Pacella: “I hope it works.” Said Ms. Gholson: “Some people will like it. Maybe if they put cheese on it, they’d like it. We’ll see.”

The first fish burgers were not exactly the Eric Ripert version, which contains striped bass and some soigné accompaniments like shaved fennel, roasted tomatoes, and garlic aioli. These fish burgers were made with winter skate and were served with tartar sauce, romaine lettuce, and sliced plum tomatoes with coleslaw and sweet potato fries on the side. More kid-friendly, to say the least.

Were the fish burgers a hit? Did the kids actually ate them? I would have to say a resounding yes. They were a huge success. And by that I mean that probably about 70 percent of the kids ate the fish burgers. Amelia loves fish and ate her tomato first. Saevion didn’t like it, but he tried it. Kudos for that! Luis loved it and ate an orange when he was finished. Constantine said, “I liked it because I like fish and it’s healthy for you.” He then asked for Luis’s tomato. 

Eustorgio, clearly a budding gourmand, assembled his into a sandwich with all the fixings and informed me that he likes to make salads at home with “lettuce, onion, cabbage, nuts and seeds, and ranch dressing.” Max piled coleslaw on his and gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Probably one of the more touching moments was when a high school student said she didn’t like fish but would try it in honor of her father, a fisherman who recently passed away. She liked it and said thank you. 

Throughout the lunch hours Mr. Barrett, Mr. Weiner, and the McClelands stood at the front of the room, beaming. Mr. Weiner got the kids worked up with a “Gimme an F!” “F!” Gimme an I!” “I!” and so on. Mr. Barrett got a bit emotional, recalling the years it took to get this project going, and now here it was, right in front of him, kids eating local, sustainable, wild-caught fish. “I’m having a moment,” he said. “Today is a dream come true.”

When the teachers and administrators got a taste, the fish burger garnered more raves. Coach Carl Johnson topped his with hot sauce. “I’m from the South,” he explained. Robert Hauser, the assistant superintendent, declared it delicious with no more than lemon on it. Ron White, president of the school board, loved it so much he had to leave before he was tempted to grab a second. “I’ll take my wife to Almond and get the adult version.”

Fish burgers are being served at Almond and other restaurants, and they sell out consistently. It is a brand-new work in progress. Mr. Barrett will provide whatever fish is seasonably available. Next will probably be scup, then golden tilefish, black sea bass, tuna, fluke, flounder, and so on. Each chef involved in the project will take turns coming up with a complementary sauce and side dish each month. The fish burger will be served the third Friday of every month. Mr. McCleland is working on a blackened version with remoulade.

And what did this fusspot restaurant critic think of the Montauk Fishburger? I though it was outstanding for several reasons. First and foremost, it was geared toward children. It wasn’t fishy tasting or moist or flaky or exotic, things that we adults might look for in a fish dish. It was dense and compact, with a texture closer to a hamburger, something the kids would like. The buns are nutritious, but soft. Again, more appealing to children.

These people are genuine hometown heroes and it was an honor to bear witness to history in the making. Schools across the Island and around the country are now lining up to try to do what this team is doing. The words I heard repeated over and over were “community and family.” As Ms. McCleland put it, “We are very fortunate to be a part of such a small but powerful movement working to change the way our children eat and the way they think about their food.” Amen, sister!

Now, gimme an F-I-S-H-B-U-R-G-E-R!

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Caleigh Hochstedler was one of those who enjoyed the new lunch option.Durell Godfrey
The full Montauk Fishburger entreeDurell Godfrey