George & Roger Berkowitz

John Mariani - March 1994

Food Arts presents the March 1994 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to George and Roger Berkowitz, owners of the Boston-based Legal Sea Foods, who, more than any other native restaurateurs, have raised Americans' consciousness about seafood over the past three decades.

Jonathan Swift once observed, "He was a brave man who first ate an oyster," but it took almost as much chutzpah for George Berkowitz and his son Roger to get Americans to eat fresh fish back in the 1960s. Mishandled, usually frozen, and almost always overcooked, seafood in this country was far down the list of Americans' favorite foods. "It was a struggle to get people to eat seafood back then, and no wonder," says Roger, the company's CEO. "It usually smelled like ammonia and tasted very strong."

But slowly and deliberately, the Berkowitzes began changing Americans' attitudes toward seafood. In 1968, George began Legal Sea Foods by serving fish and chips on paper plates at a Boston fish market he had opened in 1950. (The name Legal goes back to an earlier Legal Cash Market that George's father, Harry, opened in 1904.) The Berkowitzes credit Julia Child's Boston PBS-TV show and an increasing concern for nutrition and food safety in the '60s and '70s as crucial to Americans' acceptance of seafood as a regular part of the diet, and the Berkowitzes set to work learning all they could about improving the quality and safety of fresh seafood. At the Cambridge location, they not only set the standards for simple, modern seafood cookery but also a style of no-frills service that fit well within the changing, more casual lifestyle of a new generation of Americans who came to regard seafood as a healthful, delicious change from their daily meat and potatoes.

Now, nearly three decades later, Legal Sea Foods is still in the forefront of the public-spirited effort to improve the quality, safety, and healthfulness of America's seafood. At their ten Legal Sea Food restaurants and five retail seafood markets, the Berkowitzes have pioneered culinary methods that have influenced the way seafood is cooked across the country, while introducing an enormous array of neglected species into American gastronomy. "We've got to work on changing some of the nomenclature for fish," says Roger. "The first time I saw monkfish in the Boston market, they were calling it 'monkey tails.' And after they changed the name of 'slimefish' to 'orange roughy,' it became popular here."

Legal's motto, "If it's not fresh, it's not legal," is more than an ad slogan: the company's commitment to unstinting freshness via a seven-step process to monitor food safety (called the Hazard Analysis and Critical Point system) is endorsed by the FDA and has become a model for the industry. In 1981 the Berkowitzes set up a state-of-the-art 75,000-square-foot Quality -Control Center in Allston, Massachusetts, with a full-time sanitarian to monitor seafood safety.

Today, Legal has upscaled its restaurants' image, offering more elegant decor and more refined service, while building both an impressive mail-order business that ships lobsters, Angus steaks, clambakes, chowder, and fresh seafood throughout the United States, as well as offering its products through supermarkets. This year, Legal will establish its first restaurants outside the Boston area—in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington D.C.

Despite current concerns about seafood availability, safety, and price, the Berkowitzes are extremely optimistic about the future of seafood in restaurants. "We're going to have to do a better job selling underutilized, unfamiliar species," says Roger, "and pay more attention to farm-raised seafood. And we've got to tighten our belts and heed moratorium on some nearly depleted species. But five years of self-discipline will give us 20 years of consistent supply."