Dogs, it has been said, tend to look like their owners, often sharing personality traits. Ned Baldwin — chef and fisherman — doesn’t have a dog; he has a boat: a seaworthy and dependable 27-foot Eastern. It’s a traditional lobster-boat design, and most assuredly not what you’d call flashy.
“When you get down to it,” Baldwin says, “it’s a floating pickup truck, a 1985 Ford F-150 with bench seats and manual windows.”
Like his boat, Baldwin, who is 48, isn’t particularly flashy, either. His restaurant, in an out-of-the-way corner of Manhattan, is called Houseman, a name he chose in celebration of home cooking. He earned his toque under the cooking legend Gabrielle Hamilton at Prune, where he started as a Sunday brunch egg scrambler and worked his way up to chef de cuisine. Like his mentor, his food is bold in flavor and defiantly unfussy. Although lauded by food critics and New York’s thrill-seeking dining public, he still thinks of himself as a home cook who became a restaurant chef serving food you could make at home. When he is not in the heat of the kitchen, he is fishing, or thinking about fishing, or cooking the fish he caught.
Having written about food almost as long as I’ve written about the outdoors, I’ve given up chasing after restaurants that get good write-ups. Too often, the check is too large, and the food falls short of my fantasy. Still, there was something about the Houseman review that Pete Wells wrote in The New York Times — in particular, Baldwin’s roast chicken — that had me crossing the Brooklyn Bridge for a 7 p.m. reservation.
As Baldwin made rounds in the dining room that evening, he stopped to chat. “You’re Peter Kaminsky,” he said. I gulped, fearing he recognized me as a food critic and would launch into a deep dive about the farm-to-table philosophy.
Turns out, that’s not Ned’s style. Yes, he shops at the farmer’s market, but he has little patience for the posturing that is the knife-and-fork version of winespeak. “I love to fish,” he said. “I read your book about striper fishing.”
And with that, we talked fishing. At one point, his son, Irv, broke in. “I guess I’d have to say that the Clouser is my go-to fly,” he offered, by way of demonstrating he could take a seat at the grown-up table. He had the offhand manner of a lifelong angler with more than the 10 years of fishing I estimated he had under his belt. “Trout, bass, blues, stripers — they all like it.”
I agreed. And so began a friendship.
As for the food at Houseman, I was won over and have spent much of the last year working on a cookbook with Baldwin. But this story is not an advertisement for the book or the restaurant; I’ll stick with the fishing.
Like me, Baldwin came to fishing relatively late in life, and, like me, he embraced it with the fervor of a religious convert: It is the perfect antidote to big-city nuttiness. Although Baldwin’s dad was a fisherman and hunter, he died when Baldwin was 5. Aside from a few childhood outings with his grandfather and his uncle, it wasn’t until Baldwin’s father-in-law, Jay Moskowitz, took him bluewater fishing in Jamaica that angling hooked him big time.
“For five or six years,” he recalls, “every time I visited we’d fish for marlin, mahi, wahoo, yellowfin.”
In Jamaica, Baldwin and Moskowitz were often 20 miles out with no one in sight. “We had to be self-sufficient if something went wrong,” he recalls. His Eastern is well suited for the sometimes massive rips in his home waters of New York’s Plum Gut and out in The Race (between Fishers Island and Little Gull Island). Baldwin handles his boat like someone who has spent a lifetime backing 18-wheelers into tight quarters, as I experienced the first time we fished together. We were after black sea bass, a delicious fish that I rarely pursue, as I am primarily a striper-bluefish-false albacore fly fisherman. It’s a nice change to occasionally fish for the table. The primal connection between fishing and food is something we catch-and-release guys lose sight of (often quite sanctimoniously).
With the knowledge born of hundreds of trips on these waters — and aided by GPS, sonar and a network of similarly crazed fishing obsessives texting non-stop — Baldwin would pull up-tide of some likely structure. In one smooth, rapid and continuous motion, he’d ease the engine into neutral, grab a rod, drop a baited hook and sinker, and wait for the tick-tick of a fish. We’d give each spot one or two drifts before moving on. We didn’t talk much, other than an occasional comment about what was showing on the fishfinder. “A good bunch on the screen there,” he’d say, at which point we’d go to work. In that manner, we caught enough black sea bass to feed 10 people that evening.
And then there is Irv. As fishermen go, he’s a natural. When he was 8 years old, he outfished a charter boat full of seasoned cod anglers, after which a well-known Times editor in the group declared, “Irv is a fishy motherf---er.”
Irv made this point on a gray, blustery November day. There hadn’t been much striper action, but albies had shown up in force. We pounded through Plum Gut, a raucous stretch of water east of Orient Point off Long Island’s north fork and west of Plum Island, New York, where the rip can be significant even on a calm day. A writhing knot of gulls wheeled and dove into the rain bait that had massed on the rip set up by the pouring tide. Seductive as hell. But a few drifts through a heavy chop and fast-moving water was tough to handle, so Baldwin cruised west a few miles.
We found feeding birds there, too, working in war parties along a half-mile stretch. They were particularly thick around a rock that jutted 6 feet out of the water about 100 yards offshore. Baldwin positioned us. My fly rod was not the right weapon for a windy, choppy day, but Irv, who is 15, hopped up on the bow with a spinning rod and soon was fast to his first-ever albie. Then another. And another. He looked about as non-plussed as NBA star Stephen Curry after draining a three-pointer, his body language saying, Hey, it’s what I do.
A week later, there were still few — make that no — reports of bass, but Baldwin and some fellow anglers had a longstanding plan to fish, eat and drink through a long weekend. It didn’t matter that the weather forecast called for a gale out of the Northwest; we had come to fish. There were six of us: Baldwin, me, Mike Ventura and Jesse Gordon (Baldwin’s closest fishing buddies), along with two of Ventura’s pals from out of town, drawn by the lure of the legendary autumn blitzes of Long Island’s East End.
Wind and tide joined to drive the baitfish close to shore, where they tumbled in the crazed water looking like kernels of popcorn in mid-pop. Pursuing them were battalions of hungry albacore and then, finally, stripers. Our group texted each other throughout the day as big bodies of fish moved along the coast.
Eventually, our entire gang, plus 20 or 30 other fishhawks, gathered at a point that locals call The Reef. (That’s as specific as angling courtesy will allow me to identify it.) The wind blew a ton, but the fish were so close to shore that we barely had to cast. Ventura and his crew stood hardly more than ankle-deep, hooking up with every 10-foot cast. Baldwin clambered down from the rocky point to the shoal. From my vantage, I watched the spray catch the sunlight as it leapt up around him and the other surfcasters, every rod bent into albacore hell-bent on escaping.
It was one of those days for which the word epic is not an overstatement. We concluded the day, appropriately, with stiff Manhattans, good wine and perfectly cooked fish, compliments of the chef.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Anglers Journal.