A Fish Tale

Unless you make friends with a chef, food writers rarely get to see what’s going on in the kitchen. We guess at what’s happening behind the scenes, taking our cues from what’s on our plates. Unsurprisingly, then, I jumped at the chance to get an insider’s look at Legal Sea Foods.

Yes, it’s a chain. And yes, it’s where you take your parents when they come to town. But, the sheer magnitude of this Boston-based operation—30-plus restaurants, plus more in the queue—made it impossible for me to ignore. So last Friday, I gladly donned a fleece and followed CEO Roger Berkowitz into the innards of Legal’s local operations: the Quality Control Center, on the South Boston waterfront. (The address? One Seafood Way.)

In the giant receiving warehouse, which opens at the god-awful hour of 3:30 a.m, I was greeted by a waist-high pile of giant swordfish piled on a dolly with their tails removed for mercury testing. Every massive tuna and swordfish is checked, explained Berkowitz, and the tails are where the pollutant levels are highest. As we now know, that’s not the case with every seafood joint in town.

I thanked God I am not with child, as food editor Amy Traverso is (Congrats, A!), or else the sight of fish in all states of dismemberment might have put me over the edge. But the place actually smelled… clean. As in no fishiness whatsoever. That, combined with the fact that many of the specimens still showed signs of rigor mortis, was enough to convince me that this stuff was really, really fresh.

Moving from room to progressively colder room, I watched workers cleaning grey sole, snapper, scallops, and shrimp (my first food morsel of the day, though not exactly by choice). My favorite part of the tour, however, had to be the Lobster Roller Coaster—my moniker, not theirs—which takes the little guys down a conveyor belt and drops them into baskets of like-sized lobsters. I also loved the Wonton Master—a diminutive woman who hand-forms 3,000 wontons a day, and who refuses to let anyone but her daughter do it for her. (“She gets lobster for lunch every day. It keeps her happy,” Berkowitz quipped.) And then there was the giant steam room which, I was told, “would cook you in 20 seconds.”

Yowtch. Here’s to eating a super-fresh lobster, and not being one. And be on the lookout for some Legal news; we hear two more spinoff restaurants—ones that will hopefully fare better than LTK, which has garnered mixed reviews—are slated to open in the old Jimmy’s space.