Tune in to Cooking Channel tonight at 10:30 p.m. to watch the final episode of Ben Sargent's seafood-centric show Hook, Line & Dinner, taking place in San Diego. You can also catch reruns of the series on Cooking Channel all week. Check the times at cookingchanneltv.com.
Ben Sargent is the kind of friendly, unassuming guy who'd invite you to his apartment for a small dinner party after meeting you for the first time. And it's the genuine kind of invitation, not the, "Yeah I'll see you around sometimeIguessmaybe" kind. But it wouldn't be just any dinner party; it would feature homemade lobster rolls and lobster bisque. Nor would it be just any apartment, but one with ukuleles on the walls, an aquarium full of colorful fish, and a ceiling lined with surfboards.
That's what I experienced the second time I met Ben, at the end of January 2010, during a night of freshly made lobster rolls in his surfer-themed apartment with a small group of friends. The first time I had met him was just a few weeks before then at a group dinner with our mutual friend, food documentarian Liza de Guia.
Since during the span of the meal he had made himself out to be one of the funniest, most approachable guys you could ever meet, I took him up on his lobster roll invite—not knowing that he had once run his own seafood restaurant in Brooklyn, during which he had gained fame for his chowder recipes, and had founded the Brooklyn Fishing Derby in 2009 to gather fishing enthusiasts in New York City and promote urban fishing in the city's public waterways.
Basically, I had no idea I was in the presence of a major seafood fanatic.
About one and a half years later, that passion for seafood has made Ben the host of Cooking Channel's TV new show Hook, Line & Dinner. What happened in the meantime? The lobster roll dinner I went to in Ben's basement apartment was a forerunner to his infamous Underground Lobster Pound, which started as a sort of lobster roll "speakeasy" run out of his apartment before Ben switched to a lobster roll delivery service in Brooklyn.
Propelled by plenty of press, his not-so-legal business went on for about a year—at his peak, Ben was selling over 150 rolls a night—before the NYC Department of Health shut him down.
But Ben's foray into food service didn't start with the Underground Lobster Pound; after graduating college with a degree in fine arts, he studied restaurant management at the French Culinary Institute, ran a seafood restaurant, Hurricane Hopeful, in Williamsburg from 2001 to 2003, and designed and consulted other restaurants after. He became well known enough for his chowders to cook chowder on Martha Stewart Living, pit his chowder-making chops against Bobby Flay in the premiere episode of Throwdown with Bobby Flay (alas, Bobby won*), and get hired by former soup company City Soup to develop their line of chowder. As for his seafood background, he grew up with a love of seafood and fishing during his childhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he picked up his grandfather's chowder recipes.
Although Ben has experience running his a web video and radio show Brooklyn Chowder Surfer (YouTube page), being the host of a show like Hook, Line & Dinner was new to him. Also new was the rigorous taping schedule of one month for eight episodes around the country—Louisiana to catch crawfish, San Francisco to rake steamers, and Miami to harvest spiny lobster, to name a few places—each episode featuring two or three restaurants and the fishermen who provide the seafood for the restaurants. But the hard work paid off, and he's raring to do it again in order to tell the stories of the unbelievably hardworking restauranteurs and fishermen across the country.
How The Show Developed
Ben attributes his success to being in the right place at the right time. When he pitched his idea, Cooking Channel didn't yet have a seafood-themed show, yet here was one they could use from someone with a seafood background. The timing was also fortuitous for the show's production company, Red Line Films. Hook, Line & Dinner gave Red Line Films—who had plenty of TV experience, but mostly in sports, not at all in food—a way to expand in a direction they wanted while bringing a different look to Cooking Channel due to their background in sports television.
Ben's original idea for the show was to focus on fishermen and their personalities and cooking with them; Cooking Channel added the idea to feature restaurants to give viewers destinations to visit. And adding restaurants to fishermen was no easy task. While a show like Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive Ins and Dives may cover three restaurants in one episode, Ben's show similarly cover two or three restaurants while also including the restaurants' seafood sources, making for very long days of shooting. "We'd get up at 5 a.m., get on a boat, go fishing—that right there feels like a full day," Ben said. "Then you take the fish to the restaurant, getting there at the busiest hour—right when they don't want to see you—and then try to shoot it."
But being thrown straight into the restaurant during business hours wasn't a bad thing. Ben likes that they almost always shot the show in real time; they didn't set up kitchens or shut down restaurants. "We were right in the throes of craziness. It was hard, it was frustrating, but it was cool. People were, like, burning themselves and yelling." (Ben admits he added to the burning and yelling by starting a few accidental fires.)
How did they choose locations? Redline's team of researchers would help come up with places, some sounding so terrible Ben couldn't understand why they chose it in the first place (the presence of "fusion" in any restaurant name seemed like a red flag). But Ben found out he was sometimes dead wrong about Redline's choices.
One of the surprising gems was Baci Ristorante, an upscale Italian restaurant in San Diego. It didn't seem like it would fit into a seafood show, but Ben realized, "You can only have so many downhome seafood places. It's boring after a while. You want a place that takes the same seafood and treats it completely differently." For that episode he dove for sea urchins to be used in Baci's pasta con ricci, a simple dish of pasta mixed with sea urchin.
Problems On Set
Luckily, Ben and his crew didn't run into much opposition from restaurants about being featured in the show, save for one place that didn't want to televise their cooking techniques, leading Ben to feature a neighboring, but not as good restaurant. They still made a fine episode, but Ben laments that the first place would've been cooler.
For another unfortunate one-time-only experience that you won't be seeing, nine hours of Ben's best footage—what would've became his favorite episode—ended up being scrapped after finding out the fisherman being featured had been arrested six months prior for illegal fishing. "Anything else would've been fine—drug abuse, anything, we don't care—we can't have you doing illegal fishing. It's a fishing show!"
But there is an unfortunate one-time-only experience that you will see: Ben puking. A lot. (He thought Cooking Channel would cut the puking; turns out they loved it.) During his episode in Oregon, gastrointestinal disaster struck when he ate chowder before going on a fishing boat.
"I couldn't keep it together; the seas were rough," Ben recounted. "I felt sorry for the sound guy because he could hear my body going like [makes gurgly noises]." Ben picked a seemingly private spot on the boat, away from cameras, to unload his stomach contents—then looked up to see a cameraman taping from the wheelhouse. If Cooking Channel didn't have B-roll of someone puking before, they did now.
Those were some of the low parts of shooting the show—not that there were any smooth parts. Ben mentions that there were times when he and his crew would be at the end of a dock, shortly after the break of dawn, and find that the fishermen decided not to come. Another major problem was when the fishing season changed without their knowledge. "You'd get there and you could be a day out of season," Ben said. "Fishermen can self-regulate; if they think they've been catching too many fish, they close the season. So you call the Cooking Channel and tell them, 'There is no fishing in Louisiana this week.'" Luckily his crew was good at adjusting to new situations and could come up with a new show on the spot
There were also times when no fish was caught. Ben may enjoy fishing, but he admits he's no expert angler. But not catching any fish was an episode in itself; Ben would just explain that that's what happens sometimes. "I think it makes for a more true fishing story." (And although Ben didn't enjoy it at the time, puking probably brought out the truth as well. Along with chowder.)
Learning On the Job
Ben wasn't a natural TV show host. "I hated the first four episodes because I wasn't myself," he admitted. "But then by the end, with the camera being on you all the time, you become yourself. You don't forget the camera's there, but you stop being 'host-y.'" Not that he had time to not act like a host with the rigorous sleep- and energy-depriving shooting schedule.
The schedule also forced Ben to learn a lot, as fast as he could. As much as Ben knows about fishing, he was kept on edge since one of the show's producers was a die-hard fisherman with decades more experience who'd fished all over the world. Ben would spend exhausted nights reading up on what they were doing—good for his own seafood knowledge, but also to avoid looking like a fool in front of the producer. It worked; the producer was impressed with Ben's knowledge.
With his seafood upbringing, Ben grew up wanting to be a a fisherman with his own boat. After doing the show and seeing how hard fishermen have to work, he's changed his mind. "These guys are up against the odds," says Ben. "The industry is closing in on them; they don't want their kids to do it. The boats have to get faster, the fishing has to happen quicker, and everything is getting more dangerous."
But with all those pressures, the fishermen Ben encountered were also very serious about sustainability, researching their fishing methods to make sure they were environmentally sound, and working directly with chefs so they knew where their food came from. And for the very serious, there were people like Peter Kornack of T. W. Graham & Co. Seafood Restaurant in McClellanville, South Carolina, where Kornack was the chef and the fisherman. "He was saying how hard it is because he's the only one he has to blame when he doesn't have product," Ben said.
Which brings up an important point: How do you portray an industry in peril and tell people to eat seafood when you know they shouldn't be? The question was too complicated to fully probe during our interview, but Ben said this much: "Stay clear of any fish that's on the 'do not eat' list, and push things like mollusks, crustaceans, and lesser known fish that don't have the pressure." It sure makes for a more interesting show—no one needs another salmon recipe.
Ben doesn't know if there will be a second season for Hook, Line & Dinner (psst—this is your cue to watch the show if you get Cooking Channel), but despite all the work that goes into it, he hopes there will be. It would give him more leeway to do things he couldn't do in the first season, of which there were many. Ben would like to vary the content more, not necessarily sticking to the fishing-and-restaurant format in every episode, but going out on fishing trips that would last for days to catch big game fish.
Ben is also interested in writing books, even more so than having a TV show. "When I see books I'm jealous. I'd love to go out and have trips and write recipes. Who wouldn't want that job?" And you very well may see his name on bookshelves soon; he's currently in negotiations for a book deal.
The final episode of Hook, Line & Dinner will air tonight at 10:30 p.m. ET, but you can catch reruns on Cooking Channel all week. Check the times at cookingchanneltv.com. (Episodes are unfortunately not available online.) Ben is blogging about the show at blog.cookingchanneltv.com.
* Because I wanted to mention this somewhere, a small note: Ben was a guest judge on this week's episode of Iron Chef America where he got to critique the chum salmon dishes of his old adversary, Bobby Flay. You can watch the fun unfold in these clips on Eater.