The Legal Sea Foods Heritage
Fish is my life. When I was growing up, everyone in our family worked at Legal Sea Foods. My parents, George and Harriet, ran the business. Harriet's mother, Anna, bussed tables. My grandfather Max was the cashier. My brother, Marc, and I helped out after school and on weekends. I swept the floor, stocked the fish cases, sold takeout, scaled and filleted fish, and spent endless hours peeling shrimp. I even met my wife, Lynne, when she was working at Legal Sea Foods, when I was cooking in the kitchen and she was a waitress.
Although I knew every aspect of the business, I planned to work in broadcasting, not at Legal Sea Foods. However, when I graduated from college in 1974 with a broadcast journalism degree, my father asked if I'd be willing to manage our original location in Cambridge, Massachusetts, so he'd be free to open a second restaurant. I expected to do this for a year or two, and move on--but twenty-nine years later, I am still here. I found that no matter how much I tried to deny it, once the food business was in my blood, it became addictive. Very few businesses allow the opportunity to do as many different things as this one, whether it's developing new restaurants, working with people, problem solving, or marketing. Nothing is routine. Every day brings new challenges.
I realized early on that there are no days off in the restaurant world. I logged eighteen-hour days, stretching from dawn, when I bought fish down at the pier, to almost midnight, when I locked up the business. Often I was the first person to arrive and the last person to leave. It was exhausting, hard work, but I can tell you there's no better way to learn the fish business than the way I was trained.
Looking back, it's difficult to believe that our multimillion-dollar business started more than fifty years ago as one tiny fish market in a working-class neighborhood in Cambridge. My father, George Berkowitz, opened Legal Sea Foods in Inman Square, next door to my grandfather's meat and grocery store, which was called Legal Cash Market after the Legal trading stamps that he passed out with the groceries. (In those days, customers saved these stamps to redeem for products; now, stores offer double coupons and other promotions.)
My grandfather, Harry, had a wonderful reputation for stocking only the highest-quality meat and produce. To point up his connection with the Legal Cash Market, my father named his new fish store Legal Sea Foods, and used the same exacting requirements for the selection and handling of fish that my grandfather had for meat.
From the beginning, my father was willing to pay top price to garner the best fish. Very quickly, Legal gained a reputation as the place to go in Boston to find the finest selection and quality of fish. My father knew, and taught me, that there were no bargains in the fish business. Top-quality fish always commands top prices. And, if the suppliers know you're their prime customer, they save the "top of the catch" for you. (My motto might be a sign I've hung on my office wall that says, "If you refuse to accept anything but the very best, you will very often get it.")
When my grandfather retired, my parents expanded Legal Sea Foods into the grocery store location, which had so much extra space that they decided to open a restaurant. Their first restaurant venture in Inman Square, Cambridge, was put together for $2,400--and that included buying Frialators, a broiler, and the long tables and benches where people sat and ate family style. I take pride in the handsome table settings Legal now features, but in the beginning we served our food on paper plates with plastic utensils. (There was no money for a dishwasher.) There were also no recipes. We served fish two ways--fried and broiled. In 1967, haddock, our customers' favorite selection, was about fifteen cents a pound wholesale, so we could keep the prices low.
From those humble beginnings as a family fish business, Legal Sea Foods has grown into what I like to call "a family of restaurants." When I took over as CEO and president of Legal Sea Foods in 1992, all of our restaurants were in greater Boston. Now, Legal Sea Foods has expanded along the eastern seaboard to areas such as Washington, D.C., suburban New York City, and south Florida. We've opened nontraditional airport restaurants in Boston and Washington, D.C., and our chowder is served at other airport restaurants nationally. Our locations have quadrupled; we have a staff of nearly 3,000, including executive chefs who offer fish specialties inspired by ethnic as well as regional foods. Thanks to our mail-order division (800-EAT FISH), you can savor a New England clambake and other fish specialties even if you live thousands of miles from Legal Sea Foods.
With all this expansion, our goal has stayed the same. Our customers receive fairly priced, top-quality fish, stored under our famous sanitary conditions, presented with an attention to detail consistent with those of the country's finest restaurants. We've received kudos and awards for the quality of our seafood and our innovative sanitation practices, including Food Arts' Silver Spoon Award for our contributions in educating Americans about seafood, and a selection by Bon Appetit as one of ten American restaurants that have stood the test of time.
We've also received awards for our sensitivity toward persons with disabilities. We train our employees to be aware of the needs of the disabled, including providing menus in Braille to the blind. We're particularly responsive to persons with allergies. When a customer mentions an allergy--or starts to ask which ingredients are in a dish--it's mandatory that the kitchen pay special attention.
Either the manager or the chef comes to the customer's table and goes over the ingredients included in the dishes the diner has selected. We then take extra steps to insure that there's no cross-contamination with other foods in the kitchen that also might cause an allergic reaction.
A while ago, I went back to school to take the Owner/President Management course for entrepreneurs at Harvard Business School. The program was run by Marty Marshall, a tough curmudgeon similar to the John Houseman character in The Paper Chase. At one point in the first session, I was trying to keep my head buried. Unfortunately, I didn't escape. "Berkowitz," he bellowed. "What business are you in?"
My mind started to race. "The restaurant business," I replied.
"You think so," he said. "I want you to do an environmental analysis of your business and turn it in next semester." I spent several weeks doing the research, studying the industry--past, present, and future--and passed in a forty-two-page report complete with graphs and statistics. In front of the class (without opening the report), he waved it in my face and said, "So, Berkowitz, what business are you in now?"
I said, "I'm in the fish business."
He replied, "Good, you did your homework."
I have never forgotten this incident--and it has been the driving force of my life at Legal Sea Foods ever since 1986, when I completed the course. After all, I realized, the key to our success will always be the fish. We're not a restaurant chain that sells seafood. We're a fish company that just happens to run restaurants.
People ask me why we bother to expand. My answer is that each new restaurant gives us yet another opportunity to build on the best of the past even as we head in new directions. Our restaurant menu offerings are a prime example. As always, the core of our menu is simply prepared fresh fish. Now, however, our customers have more options. They still can savor fish simply prepared--or try regional specialties, such as New England Clam Chowder, Baltimore Crab Cakes, or Louisiana Catfish Matrimony. But every Legal Sea Foods restaurant continues to offer the old favorites that customers have been eating for years, such as Smoked Bluefish Pate or Onion Strings.
We have always had an excellent, fairly priced wine list--and at one time we even had a wine business (see page 178). Our purchasing power allows us to improve the quality of the grapes used to make the wine, while keeping the price down to virtually that charged by a retail wine merchant. We offer flights of fine wine--or even martinis or ports--for the price of one drink. A while ago we added a tea service (including authentic metal Japanese teapots) to the menu.
Ultimately, our challenge is to leverage the buying power we possess as a multimillion-dollar operation to improve what we offer continuously. As I see it, businesses have two choices. Some choose to streamline operations, squeezing efficiencies to make as much money as possible. At Legal Sea Foods, we strive to improve our operations each year. We have the advantage of being a private, family-held business, not a public company that has to give the maximum profit to its stockholders. Thus, we can afford to take a long-term approach that we hope will benefit the consumer.
That includes learning from our employees. As someone who has toiled in every aspect of the restaurant business (no matter how menial), I like to keep in touch with what's happening at each level. We have two advisory councils of employees--one of managers, and another composed of hourly employees, such as our cooks or waiters. They write me a letter on why they'd like to serve on the council, get recommendations from their managers, and then meet with me as a group several times a year to discuss Legal Sea Foods' operations from their perspectives. Each person serves for a year. Some great ideas have come from these sessions. In Baltimore, for example, we opened a seasonal "Crab Joint" in an underutilized area of the restaurant. The Crab Joint is almost a return to our Inman Square roots. It's very informal. Our customers get some mallets and paper napkins, and they dig into steamed crabs, Maryland style, spread out on newspapers on the tables. The guests enjoy the low-key atmosphere, and so do we. I particularly like the fact that the inspiration sprung from our Baltimore employees.
I remind my staff we all share the same job: the return of the guest, what we call R.O.G. My responsibility is to set the tone so that the managers make their decisions around insuring that this happens. We have succeeded when our guests say, "This meal was great. I can't wait to come back." When this occurs, I tell my staff, then we have all done our jobs.
As you can see, the Legal Sea Foods of the twenty-first century is a constantly evolving business. It seemed only natural after the enormous success of our first cookbook, written by my father, to follow it up with a sequel that explores the new flavors and tastes that our guests have come to enjoy in recent years.
Fourteen years ago, when the first Legal Sea Foods cookbook was published, all of our restaurants offered the same choices. We had kitchen managers rather than chefs. This philosophy changed dramatically in the mid-1990s, when Jasper White joined our staff as Vice President and Executive Chef, a position he held for three years. Jasper White is an exceedingly talented chef, and we were pleased to have him on board. His greatest contribution was to convince me to put chefs and sous-chefs in each restaurant's kitchen, rather than relying upon kitchen managers. This has made a tremendous difference in the choices offered on our menus. With the pooling of all this talent, our customers can now taste the best of the past along with new, creative recipes developed by Executive Chef Rich Vellante and his team of chefs. I encourage each restaurant's executive chef to develop original recipes, usually offered as "specials of the day," many of which are included in this book.
I hope that you enjoy using The New Legal Sea Foods Cookbook, and that it becomes a staple in your kitchen.
Selecting and Storing Fish
Our slogan has always been, "If it isn't fresh, it isn't Legal." Our buyers select the finest fish and shellfish for our restaurants, and we treat it well. It's important that you follow the same standards. Sometimes, that's hard to do because there's no government grading of fish as there is for meat. Meat has to measure up to specific standards, but the only standard for fish is whether or not it is fresh.
In turn, the freshness of fish totally depends upon how skillfully it is handled and how far along in the aging process it has progressed. A fish passes through many hands from the moment it is caught and the time you buy it. Many people don't realize that fish has to age slightly--just like meat. When a fish dies, its muscles tighten up and it goes into rigor mortis, which we call "rigor." By putting their catch on ice as soon as possible, commercial fishermen use this process to their advantage. The longer the fish stays in rigor, the better it keeps. (Rigor is essentially a holding action.) Some large fish stay in rigor between two and four days, while small fish come out of rigor quickly, often in a matter of hours. Many sports fishermen might deny the existence of rigor because they don't ice down their fish immediately after they are caught. Instead, the fishermen either allow the fish to stay in the sun, which prematurely ages them, or troll the fish on lines behind their boats, which also ages them because the water is too warm. Or they don't understand the process and end up eating tough fish, just assuming that the species of fish has a tough texture.
Once a fish comes out of rigor, its muscles relax, and it is ready to cook. At this point, the fish is at its optimum point of flavor, but also is highly perishable. Unlike meat, fish have cold-tolerant bacteria that can continue growing even under refrigerated conditions. That's why once the fish gets into your hands you should cook it as soon as possible. Storing fish in the refrigerator can stave off spoilage only for a short while. Fish must be fresh to taste good. Although this statement sounds obvious, you'd be surprised how many people ignore it. They buy fish for dinner, then decide to eat out. A day or two later when they get around to cooking the fish, they grumble that the fish has a mushy texture and ammonia-like flavor. Not surprising. The first rule of cooking fish is to buy fresh fish and cook it the same day.
As a consumer, how can you tell if a fish is fresh or on the verge of spoiling? When I was buying fish for our restaurants, I was always checking the big three: the look, the feel, and the smell. A fresh fish looks bright: The skin is moist and bright; the eyes are clear and bright; and the gills are a bright red. As the fish ages, the flesh dulls and dehydrates, the eyes turn cloudy, and gills darken, eventually becoming a brownish color. If you're buying a whole fish, it should have a shine--almost a slimy look. (In the fish industry, this is called the "butter.") The cavity of a fresh fish has the fresh smell of the ocean; only a fish that is spoiling smells bad. If a fish has a pungent or repulsive odor, it is long past the point of eating. When you press down on the flesh, it springs back. Should the indentations from your fingers remain, the fish is old and you should not buy it.
Excerpted from The New Legal Sea Foods Cookbook by Roger Berkowitz and Jane Doerfer. Copyright © 2003 by Roger Berkowitz and Jane Doerfer. Excerpted by permission of Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.