The Legal Sea Food chain began in 1950, when George Berkowitz established a fish market next door to his father's grocery in Inman Square in Cambridge, Mass. Current CEO Roger Berkowitz, George's son, got his start working as a fish fryer there. Now he oversees a $200 million business with 31 restaurants. He recently spoke with BW correspondent Aaron Pressman at Legal headquarters on the Boston waterfront.
You've been active on conservation issues, and your trucks have the logo of the conservation group Ocean Trust. How does that fit into the business of running restaurants?
People assume that because we're in the business of selling fish, we're not interested in conserving fish—but that couldn't be further from the truth.
Most people in the restaurant business are not in the fish business, so they're relying on their purveyor. Look at what happened with swordfish. People's responses were all over the ballpark. Some boycotted [swordfish entirely], but a lot [of restaurants] were getting [their swordfish] from Chile or the West Coast and other places where it wasn't in danger. There's not an abundance of sophistication when it comes to seafood or sourcing in the restaurant business. I go into many restaurants and see Chilean sea bass. They should know better.
In the U.S., we haven't done much with fish farming. Do you think there's a role for farmed fish?
Farmed is necessary. It will supply much of the protein needs, it's extraordinarily healthy, and it takes the pressure off of wild.
Do you serve farmed products at Legal?
Salmon is a big part of what we do, but I look at farmed salmon as a commodity. Any restaurant can carry it. You can't tell a farmed salmon from one region to another—it's pretty much the same variety. Wild salmon in Alaska comes in five different varieties. We got very, very excited about wild salmon. We had a promotional partnership with the state of Alaska a couple of years ago. But I do love farmed product in that it takes the pressure off of wild product.
Farmed rainbow trout is very good, and I do carry it. I carry farmed shrimp, and I think it's actually better than wild shrimp, much more consistent, and I can really control the flavor and texture of it. Farmed mussels are very good, too.
Do you see any interesting new fish that might be coming soon to our tables?
They are always making new discoveries. The problem is we can't overexploit them. There was a great fish, a fish off of Australia, caught way down deep. It was ugly as all hell—it looked prehistoric with cracks and crevices. The pressure kept some oils in its skeletal frame, and as soon as you pulled it up, the oils oozed out. It was called slime head in Australia.
Someone said, "Let's fillet it because the meat is damn good. Don't ever show anybody the frame, and let's give it a pleasant name." And that became Orange Roughy.
There are different crabs we can find that are not bad. Shark I'm not crazy about. In farming, there's an Australian fish, barramundi, that's getting very popular.
What do you think about the current system of overseeing fisheries?
We have to be smart about what we take—and back off of areas that might be in danger. We're trying to get as much product as we can off of day boats. Otherwise, we've become so sophisticated with fishing gear and electronics that we're really decimating the ocean bottom.
If one fishery is in danger, all of them suffer as a result. It's bizarre. It's stupid. Amendment 42 [a recent regulation curbing fishing in New England] will drive roughly 200 day boats out of business—and those are the boats you want to keep fishing.
What we don't want to end up with is three or four draggers [which drag nets along the bottom of the ocean, collecting tons of fish] that start to think of fish as a commodity. You want to get as much money for those fish as you can, even taking fewer of them and letting the stocks rebuild. It's a real conundrum.
Edited by Rebecca Reisner