The Interview: Roger Berkowitz

The legendary head of Legal Sea Foods talks Old Boston versus New Boston and finally reveals the real story behind President Donald Trump’s near snub of his world-famous clam chowder.

Courtesy photo

“Let me tell you about that,” Roger Berkowitz says as he grabs a seat in his expansive Seaport District office, glancing toward a bobblehead of Celtics legend Red Auerbach on his desk. Wearing a dark blazer and khakis, he’s excited to walk me down memory lane, but don’t think for a moment that his head isn’t firmly fixed on the future. At 66, the Legal Sea Foods head honcho is celebrating the relocation of his Chestnut Hill restaurant and remains one of Boston’s most successful business titans, despite ever-increasing competition and the scores of customers offended by his controversial marketing stunts involving Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. But first, back to the matter of the Auerbach bobblehead.

You don’t see many Red Auerbach bobbleheads around town these days. What’s the story?

Red was an old friend, and he’d come in for meals. In the 1980s, when pipe smoking and cigar smoking were very controversial in restaurants, I had a menu at the Park Square location that at the bottom said something like “No Pipe or Cigar Smoking Unless Your Name Is Red Auerbach.” Red loved to jab people, and so inevitably he’d light up a cigar and people would rush over and say, “Oh, oh, excuse me, sir,” and Red would pick up the menu and point at it and say, “Hey, it says right here on the menu I can do it.” [Laughs.]

When did the bobblehead come into play?

Red gave it to me at one of the last lunches we had together before he passed away 12 years ago. He was like a brother to me, especially when I took my restaurants to Washington, DC. He took me around and introduced me to his friends, many of whom were in development and real estate there. So we’d meet for lunch, and at this one he said, “I’ve got some tchotchkes for you,” and he gave me a cigar and a bobblehead. And I said, “Red, can you do me a favor and sign it right across the top of your [bald] head?” He said, “Fuck you,” laughed, and signed it at the bottom. He was unbelievable. He was a great guy.

People often talk about the notion of Old Boston giving way to New Boston. You’ve been in the Seaport a long time, so I’m wondering how you see these competing versions of the city.

Boston was sort of status quo for a long time. It just didn’t change. It was stuck, and I think the Seaport area was emblematic of that. We’d be in and out of recessions, and every time there was the promise that something was going to happen, it just never quite happened. And you would wait for the next time.

Why was it that way?

Part of the issue, I think, was that politics is a sport here, and part of the land down here in the Seaport is owned by the state and another part is owned by the city. Fifteen or 20 years ago, there wasn’t a lot of dialogue between them and people weren’t agreeing and coming to a consensus. One of the things that probably held Boston back over time is the fact that there wasn’t great communication between different parties and different politicians. And that is one of the things that’s changed. Now there’s a sort of “can-do” movement here. I think when Tom Menino got elected mayor, he said he wanted to make Boston a world-class city, and a lot of people said, “Eh.” It was sort of like a pipe dream. But he set things in motion and people started taking note of Boston. It wasn’t a second-tier city anymore, and you saw different industries, especially biotech, grow and people started taking Boston more seriously. Now the city is in the running—perhaps in the top five, maybe the top two—to become Amazon’s second world headquarters.

Do you think Boston will win the Amazon sweepstakes?

If I’m handicapping it, I’m looking at Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos spending $23 million on a house in the DC market and owning the Washington Post. So, as much as I would like Boston to get it, I’m thinking maybe it’s not going to happen. I think it might go to DC. Then again, sometimes things are counterintuitive.

Speaking of big names, is it true that you were once the only person in Boston who could get Julia Child a monkfish?

Not exactly. This is what happened: I would go down and buy fish in the morning for our market and I was down there one day and one of the stalls had a box with “monkey tails” written on the side. I asked the guy what monkey tails were, and he said, “Oh, you don’t want any of this shit, but we send it to France for big bucks.” So I bought 10 pounds, figuring I would take it and put it in the fish case. Julia came in about once a week back then, and by luck she came in the next day. And I said, “Julia, have you ever seen this?” and she got very excited. She took what I had and then asked me to get her a whole one. I didn’t know what a whole one looked like—I mean, they look prehistoric, just teeth and cartilage. It took two weeks to get a whole one, and we ended up having to pay a fisherman not to cut it up on the boat. I wound up getting her about a 25-pound monkfish. And Time magazine took photographs of it and then she put it on TV and then into her cookbook, and all of a sudden monkfish went from a trash fish to an overnight success. Julia had that type of power.

You’re certainly no stranger to success, either. Now, I know you hate the word…

You’re going to say the C-word, aren’t you?

Yes. What’s the difference between a chain and a group, and why don’t you consider Legal a chain?

Because we’re an anomaly. We are in the fish business. The restaurants are the most visible part of what we do, but we are also in retail, and the heart of what we do is source product. So what we do is different than anyone else. We have a laboratory downstairs that gets inspected by the FDA. No one else who is direct to the consumer has this type of infrastructure in place, and we don’t do cookie-cutter restaurants. Restaurant chains are one-size-fits-all. We don’t look at it that way. We know neighborhoods are different. There are different demographics, young and old, in different neighborhoods. As a result, we’ll have things like Legal Harborside, which attract locals and businesses and people attending conventions, and then we will have something like Legal Oysteria in Charlestown, which is a true neighborhood restaurant.

You’ve been working in the seafood business for more than 50 years, and over that time there have been booms and busts and major problems with fisheries. What are the big challenges now?

I have to look at it with the eye of a conservationist. If I want to stay in business in the future, I have to look at what we are doing at the state level and at the federal level to ensure that fisheries are going to be around. It becomes more challenging when there are things thrown at us that I can’t control, like global warming. Look, I think the fisheries in Massachusetts were probably guilty of overfishing in the 1980s, and I think if you ask fishermen about that they will agree that there weren’t enough appropriate regulations in place. But now the waters are warming up and the fish are migrating into colder waters, and global warming is actually having a bigger impact.

What would you like to see lawmakers do about climate change and our fisheries?

One of the things Massachusetts and hopefully the federal government can do is to use a better methodology for assessing fish stocks. There is great science now that allows you to look at what’s under the water and see if there’s been a shift. That is something I’m working on now that is close to my heart. We need to be using the best available science. The reality, though, is that the water temperatures in Massachusetts are warming up faster than we ever anticipated, and we’re starting to see some southern species of fish creeping into our waters, such as mahi-mahi and black sea bass. We never saw these fish before.

Does it worry you that the president of the United States is a climate-change skeptic?

[Laughs.] You know, it’s interesting. I think at the end of the day, the facts come out whether someone believes them or not. When you have scientists showing you the differences in water temperature on a year-over-year basis, I don’t care how skeptical you are, you can’t ignore it.

There are more than 30 different Legal restaurants now. Which is your favorite?

They are like children. You like different ones for different reasons at different times. Sometimes those children piss you off and sometimes you just want to embrace them. Metaphorically, it really is like raising a family. It is always a work in progress, and you’re never quite satisfied with where you are. That’s how I look at it: Where are the opportunities and how can we get better?

Do you have a go-to order when you’re eating at one of your restaurants?

I have three or four. I like Anna’s Baked Scrod. It was the second item we put on our menu in Inman Square. Anna McAllister was our first manager. She was from Ireland, and she came to us and said, “You know, people might want something more than fried fish.” That was her mother’s recipe. It was scrod with buttered crumbs—a bread-crumb topping—with a tomato on top and a little melted butter, and it has endured from that time. And then there is an item that I came up with in 1980, when we had just opened in Park Square. I got tired of eating some of the things that were on the menu, so I said, “I just want some shrimp on rice with a little bit of an herb marinade over the top. I want some broccoli around it and a little bit of cheese.” So that’s sort of our Jasmine Special, and I have to have that at least four times a month.

Do you like cooking?

I do, actually. I’m not going to say I’m a chef, but I know flavors and tastes, and I think I got this from my grandmother on my mother’s side. My grandmother was just an incredible cook. I would say “chef,” but she was really a cook. She cooked from memory, and I swear almost every meal she made, she kept raising the level of quality. It was amazing. She knew flavors and tastes, and maybe that rubbed off on me.

One of the things you are best known for are the provocative ad campaigns you’ve done over the years. Do you have a favorite, or one that still makes you chuckle?

I really love some of the early radio campaigns. There was one that said something like, “If your mother couldn’t take the time to check your fish for purity, then you shouldn’t mind when you check her into the nursing home.” I got a call from my mother for that one, and I had to explain to her with all due respect that she’s part of a dying demographic. The ads that have to do with death I think are probably my funniest ones.

Do you get worried when you are about to launch a new campaign—especially like the ones involving Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during last election season?

Of course. Look, at a certain point, we really want to connect with people, and at the end of the day we think smart people eat fish, so they are going to know it’s all tongue-in-cheek. You have to scratch your head at people who takes advertisements too seriously.

I know it was ultimately resolved, but did you feel slighted when it was reported that Trump wasn’t going to serve Legal’s clam chowder at his inauguration?

That was a no-win situation. Our chowder gets into every inaugural event at the 11th hour.

Hold on a moment. Tell me how this story started.

It started with Ronald Reagan and something called the Taste of America. He had two people from every state in America showcase foods from the state during his inauguration. And we did it for both terms of the Reagan administration and it was nonpolitical and we had great fun. Afterward we thought, Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if we could do that again? And we’ve ended up doing it at every inauguration since, but it is always a last-minute deal. So the fact that I was asked a question about it two weeks before President Trump’s inauguration was kind of like the kiss of death. I didn’t want to bring any attention to the [tradition], and I was kind of thinking, Well, is this the year it doesn’t go on the menu? And of course, the Trump people said they didn’t know about it, which they probably didn’t, and we got the chowder in. But it was tough. I was wondering, if the chowder doesn’t go in, are people going to be pissed off? Or if it does go in, are people going to be pissed off? We’re so polarized in Massachusetts. How does chowder become a political issue?

We’re so polarized, yet you had no hesitations over doing mock Trump and Clinton ads laced with sexual innuendo?

Right, right. I learned my lesson in terms of touching the third rail. I really was not anticipating that much pushback.

From the Hillary ad?

From either one of them. I wasn’t anticipating anything like that. A little bit of pushback on the Trump, but on the Hillary one, I was in shock. To this day, I’m still in shock. I didn’t fully appreciate how polarized we are. By the way, for the record, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool independent.

You’re 66 years old. What’s next? Do you find yourself thinking more frequently about retirement?

No. I feel great. I like what I do. Retirement is not a goal. Being able to leverage previous knowledge in a better way is a goal. I don’t feel any desire to give this up anytime soon.