By Douglas Feiden
It was a product rollout with high drama that unfolded over a two-day period and borrowed a leaf from the corporate playbook: Tantalize and tease the consumer. Build suspense. Add a dash of mystery. Heighten anticipation. Determine the market. Establish the price point. And unveil the goods with fanfare and panache.
But there was a difference. This was no sleek smartphone or hot-model auto. The consumers were actually 210 kids, pre-K to 12th grade, in the Bridgehampton School. The price point? Well, there was no price point. The product — given away for free and with great flair in the school cafeteria — was the “Montauk Fishburger.”
“In 30-plus years in education, I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” said Bridgehampton School Superintendent Dr. Lois Favre at a kick-off assembly in the gymnasium on Thursday, January 21, for what has come to be known as the Montauk Fishburger Project.
Students appeared eager, hungry and a tad perplexed. No wonder. They had to wait until Friday until they could dig in to the 240-calorie, Montauk-landed, fish-based product.
Served on a bun made from wheat grown and harvested at Amber Waves Farm in Amagansett, the patties were juicy, succulent and nutritious, their resemblance to the traditional hamburger a child-friendly design inspiration.
Three or four years in the making, the initiative aims to do for the oceans and the fisherman what the farm-to-table movement did for agriculture and the farmer. That means bringing fish — wild, super-fresh, traceable, sustainable, and, of course, local — to the plates of those who live or dine near the seas where it was caught.
Driving the Fishburger Project is an unusual partnership between the school district, a group of top-caliber East End chefs, nutritionist and NPR host Stephanie Sacks and Dock to Dish, a Montauk-based, community-supported commercial fishery.
“The idea is to provide good food and fair food for everyone, not just for the privileged few who can afford to pay a lot of money,” said Judiann Carmack-Fayyaz, who teaches environmental design at the school and is past chairwoman of Slow Food East End.
The group is sponsoring “Fishburger Fridays” at the school on the third Friday of every month. It’s a pilot program, organizers say,
they’d like to see replicated elsewhere on Long Island and around the country because locally caught seafood is healthy, delectable — and all-too-rare a treat in America’s school cafeterias.
“There were an awful lot of clean plates today,” said Sean Barrett, a lifelong fisherman who in 2013 co-founded Dock to Dish, which is run as a cooperative. “The burger format helps because they’re accustomed to it, but the fishburger is much, much healthier than any chopped meat.”
And product demand from envious consumers is already running high, said Jason Weiner, executive chef at Almond restaurant in Bridgehampton, who whipped up the sides of sweet potato fries, artisanal coleslaw and cauliflower tartar sauce that accompanied the fishburger.
“We’ve gotten emails from the Hamptons and Sag Harbor and all over the country, and people are literally standing in line,” he told students at the kickoff assembly. “And to all of them, we’ve had to say, ‘No!’ because Bridgehampton got there first.”
In addition to Mr. Weiner, chef Sam McCleland, who co-owns the Bell & Anchor in Sag Harbor, and Joe Realmuto, executive chef of the Honest Man Restaurant Group, which includes Nick & Toni’s and Rowdy Hall in East Hampton, will take turns making monthly educational presentations to students highlighting the fare’s local origins and nutritional values.
And their restaurants, all of which have been strong boosters of the sustainable fishing movement, have also been getting into the act. To coincide with the rollout, Almond, Bell & Anchor and Rowdy Hall all added the Montauk Fishburger, an adult-oriented version, to their menus.
“It was a natural fit for us at Rowdy Hall,” said Mr. Realmuto, who says the restaurant is charging $19. “We’re known for our burgers, and we thought this would be a good way to showcase it and get it out to the masses.” He says Nick & Toni’s will introduce the fish patties on its brunch menu by the end of January.
How did the kids react to the new creation? “Some of them loved the whole thing, some loved only the burger, some loved only the bun, and some even grasped the whole concept of boat-to-table,” said Kat McCleland, a Bridgehampton school board member who works with the school’s edible garden.
“Some asked for seconds, and some would have taken thirds. But look, it would be naive to think everybody loved it, that’s not how kids work. Some kids take many, many times to accept something new. But they’re all being exposed to new flavors, a new diet and a new context, and that in and of itself is very positive.”