Where in the world is Roger? It’s about 7:10 p.m. and Mr. Berkowitz was supposed to meet us for dinner at Boston’s Legal Harborside at 7. We’re not worried or anything. After all, Berkowitz is the president and CEO of Boston-based Legal Sea Foods, so he’s certainly earned the right to be a little tardy.
After a few more minutes pass, he finally pulls up a chair. Legal’s leader since 1992, the charismatic Berkowitz apologizes to the table before explaining that his delay was caused because, naturally, he was entertaining a local politician in another part of the restaurant.
Along the East Coast, Legal Sea Foods is beloved by congressmen, celebrities — we hear a few New England Patriots are regulars — and everyday folks who appreciate freshly caught, simply prepared lobster and fish. In fact, in the middle of our dinner, Jim Koch, co-founder of the Boston Beer Company (the home of Samuel Adams), walks over to say hello. Berkowitz, who was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America earlier this year, is just that popular around town.
That said, we couldn’t think of a better person to sit down with to talk about the restaurant business, Boston, Bose speakers and bucket-list travel destinations.
The other day at dinner you told me, “If you like routine, the restaurant business isn’t for you.” Talk to me about some of the ways that the industry has changed over the past two decades.
We’re laser focused on fish, but the way that people consume — whether it’s the [concerns for the] environment or the dishes — continues to change.
Every generation is different. Millennials, Gen-X and Yers and baby boomers to a lesser degree have had such a vast array of experiences in term of travel. They like their foods with flavors from different parts of the world these days.
You not only have restaurants in Massachusetts, but you have them in Washington D.C., Atlanta and other places, too. How do you keep standards high with so many establishments spread out?
It’s certainly a challenge. You have to be on your toes. We’re dealing with fresh fish, so it’s perishable. You don’t have leeway in mishandling this at all. It’s not like a piece of meat that ages well.
It’s really incumbent on us to really focus and make sure that the training is in place and that our own people are sensitive to how to handle fish and understand the perishability of it. I believe that’s what distinguishes us. There are a lot of places that serve frozen fish and, I guess, that takes away some of the risk out of handling it, but it also takes away some of the flavoring as well.
Boston is the home of Legal Sea Foods. What makes the city so special?
Boston is a huge melting pot and it always has been — primarily because of the higher education. You have Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Brandeis and Boston University. You have a large number of universities.
That brings in people from all over the world. That brings students that change every four years but also their families and friends. That’s what adds a unique flavor to Boston as opposed to other cities.
Of course, those families and friends might come to see the harbor or attend a Red Sox game. What are a few aspects of Boston that you find underrated?
We take for granted the history. [This is] the birthplace of the American Revolution. The history in Boston proper is all around us. You have sights along the Freedom Trail where you have famous figures. You go past cemeteries where these names pop out of you.
I won’t say it’s a completely hidden gem, but I think more people would get an appreciation out of visiting Charlestown. Whether it’s John Harvard Square or Winthrop Square, for the first governor of Massachusetts. There’s a lot of history in Charlestown.
Bunker Hill monument is one of the sights [to see]. Old Ironsides is the oldest commissioned Navy vessel in the United States. That was just recently refurbished, and it’s now open to the public. There’s an area where Mother Goose is buried.
It just gives you a great flavor of Boston. Walking through some of the streets, you get a feel of what it might have been like in the mid- to late 1600s and 1700s.
I’m sure you’re away from Boston a lot on business. What are a few essentials that have to travel in your carry-on bag with you?
Actually, I’m a little bit of a nut for Bose products. I bring two different kinds of Bose noise-cancellation headphones — one I use for sleeping and one I use for listening to music. They’re an absolute essential.
I absolutely have a recharged Kindle. Before I get on a plane, I have to have a minimum of four books on it. Sometimes I have a short attention span, and I need to go back and forth amongst them.
Those two items will definitely carry me through a flight.
Have you read anything interesting of late?
I like Richard Russo books. It’s engrossing. They push you back in these sort of obscure towns in upstate New York. I kind of lose myself in the characters and the setting.
A few days ago, you mentioned that you liked visiting New York City. What is it about the city that you love?
A lot of people like to go there to escape and relax. I think there are different ways of relaxing. For me, I look at New York like sticking your finger in a socket and getting a great shock of energy.
We love to walk. I think New York is one of the great walking cities of the world. You can cover three, four, five different neighborhoods in a relatively short period of time. You can take public transportation, but you certainly don’t need a car.
I like the architecture in particular neighborhoods. I like the museums in particular neighborhoods. And certainly the restaurants in a particular neighborhood are what I find fascinating.
I like going from neighborhood to neighborhood and look at styles and menus and, maybe, have a couple of bites in different restaurants. To me, it’s like a kid in a candy store. New York has the densest number of restaurants in the smallest footprint possible. If you’re interested in trying things you haven’t seen, that’s the place to go.
What are some of your favorite places around the globe?
I am a huge Asia fan. I just enjoy my trips to Asia. I’ve been to Japan a few times. I think the people and the culture there are unlike anywhere I’ve ever experienced.
When you’re going to the airport and you’re going through the booths, the attendants bow and thank you for visiting their country. As soon as you get back to the States, they scream at you to go to another line. There are certain cities in Japan, like Kyoto and Nara, that are just so serene and special places to visit.
I’ve done business and enjoy traveling to Thailand. Chiang Mai is just a very, very special place.
Two places in Asia I have not gone that are on my bucket list are Cambodia and Laos. I’d like to visit there.
I suppose, if I had a reach on my bucket list, it might be Antarctica. I’m just sort of wondering if I could stomach going through the Drake Passage. I suppose that’s on my bucket list. I’m not sure I’ll get to it, but at least I think about it.
I’m guessing it’s not coincidental that most of the places you named have great seafood.
When you’re in the fish business, you tend to go to places that are known for either their culinary expertise or their seafood. Japan certainly has some great culinary talent when it comes to the preparation of fish.
There are some great shrimp to be found in Thailand and Vietnam. And I suppose, to some degree, that kind of influences some of the menu choices that we have back at Legal.