From sea to table: Washingtonians know that the best seafood is fresh seafood

From small boat generational fisherman to chefs who base their menu around the weekly catches, in Washington, fresh, locally sourced seafood is a way of life.

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Each week, Chef Jamie Davis of The Hackney in Washington, North Carolina spends hours on the phone and on the road. His mission both changes and stays the same every time. What’s been caught this week? What produce is freshest? He needs to discover his options before he can make his menu; each week, no, nearly each day, the menu at the Hackney changes to reflect what the local farmers and fishermen have been able to provide.

Many people have heard of the growing farm-to-table model for intentional eating. But what is still catching on for much of the country has been a way of life for generations in Washington. Settled in the 1700s on the northern bank of the Pamlico River, the “original” Washington -it was the first town to be named after our first president after all- served as a vital port during the Revolutionary War. Afterward, the town became an economic center, primarily because of its location at the junction of the Pamlico and Tar rivers. The navigable waterways allowed for fishing and commerce to flourish. And the growing economy allowed for generational fishermen with small boats to succeed.

Today, generations later, that symbiotic relationship still exists.

“All of our seafood is local,” said Susanne Hackney, owner and restaurant manager. “We are seafood led. Chef Jamie is the best seafood chef I’ve ever seen and he has a great heart for buying local.”

While it may seem understandably biased for an owner to call their chef the best, the reality is that when Susanne and her husband Nick Sanders originally wanted to open the establishment, they were more focused on the gin distillery. The restaurant, they thought, could wait until they had the distillery established. But when Chef Jamie walked through the door, their mindset shifted.

“Every week I hear someone tell me that they’ve never tried a certain food, but if Chef Jamie is behind it, they’ll try anything. He has built that trust with our customers,” she said.

While part of that trust comes from repeated exposure to delectable meals, it is also because of the fact that customers at The Hackney, like many local establishments, know exactly where their food comes from.

“A chef can know exactly where [a fish] came from, know who fished it and could even tell you what kind of equipment they used,” said Jason Hall, co-owner of Washington Crab, along with his wife, Lindsay Hall.

Originally opened in 1972, Washington Crab has been a staple wholesale provider for seafood to restaurants, farmer’s markets, and grocery stores. In recent years, the company has added a cooked-to-order seafood restaurant to provide fresh seafood directly to consumers. Always modeled as a family business, the Halls are the 4th owners and were attracted to the venture, in large part because of the relationships.

“Washington’s a small community. We like to say there are no secrets in our industry because we all know each other and people are in the fishing industry because their family was in the fishing industry,” said Hall.

The relationships are so strong that both Hall and Hackney often referred to the anglers by first name, instead of by company name. And both Hall and Hackney also showed appreciation for the strength of the community amongst the fishers.

“It’s a team environment. These guys see each other broken down on the water, they’re not flying past, they’re stopping and helping or towing them back in, even if that means they’re not going to get to work for the day,” said Hall.

It’s those relationships and the generationally-owned trust that ensures the seafood in Washington is fresh, never tampered with (Hall mentioned additives that outside vendors often add to shrimp caught from the Gulf of Mexico, for example) and something that should not be missed. Hall added, “So many chefs in our local restaurants are just waiting to hear what’s been caught so they can make the menus for the week.”

From tuna and grouper to shrimp, oysters and the sweetest blue crabs, Washington restaurants ensure that residents and guests can get their fill of the most succulent and fresh food available from the sea.

“It was during COVID, when we had time to sit and really focus, when we decided we were ‘seafood led,’” said Hackney. “[Chef Jamie] has a way. Everything is seared, chosen, prepared perfectly. I lived abroad, in England and France, half my adult life and I’ve never tasted seafood like he is able to prepare … We rarely bring back a plate that has anything on it.”

After living abroad for so many years, the fact that The Hackney restaurant has become an integral part of the fishing economy is special to Hackney. She says it makes her especially proud to see when local farms and fishing families continue to grow and succeed because of sustained business. She loves to see customers grow in their appreciation of new foods, all while supporting the local economy. “It makes the job fun,” she said.

Hall, who fell in love with North Carolina after serving in Fort Bragg, agreed that there is a sense of pride in being part of a close-knit supportive community. Especially one that can provide such a rich service. He said, “People that are further from the coast really need to take advantage of learning about the culture and history of their state. North Carolina is blessed with a beautiful coastline and a rich fishing industry. The flavors and tastes of seafood of North Carolina, I mean, you can spend many weeks down here and still not even experience them all.”

This article was written for our sponsor, Washington Tourism Development Authority

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