Q&A: Roger Berkowitz, Legal Sea Foods


Steven Hedlund

Published on
January 24, 2011

On Monday night, Legal Sea Foods and the New England Culinary Guild hosted a four-course dinner at Legal’s Park Plaza restaurant in Boston, which was billed as featuring black-listed seafood including fritters with black tiger shrimp, cod cheeks and prosciutto-wrapped hake. The event’s purpose was to ignite a dialog on sustainable seafood among a mix of 62 attendees, including fishermen, marine scientists, chefs and food writers.

It did just that. In fact, Roger Berkowitz, president and CEO of Legal Sea Foods, was surprised by the amount of press — good and bad — that the event garnered. But, in the end, he was quite pleased with event, calling it a success.

SeafoodSource caught up with Berkowitz on Tuesday to talk about the event, the dialog it created and what the future holds for the sustainable seafood movement.

Were you pleased with how the dinner turned out? 

I was. I didn’t have any preconceived notions. I didn’t know what was going to happen. But people were [respectful] of one another. Good questions were asked, and good explanations were forthcoming.

Were you surprised by the attention the dinner received? It took on a life of its own, didn’t it? 

I truly felt that it was just going out to the list of [New England Culinary Guild] members. Five years ago, that’s exactly what would have happened. But now it’s possible for everything to go out into the much larger public domain. But I’m not unhappy that it did go out like it did. Surprised, but not unhappy.

Were you impressed by the diversity of the crowd? And, if so, what does that say about each contingency’s willingness to advance the sustainable seafood movement? 

It’s interesting. A portion of the audience was there purely to learn. A portion of the audience had preconceived notions about the industry. And a portion of the crowd had preconceived notions about what the [food writers] thought. In the beginning, some people were on the defense and some were on the offensive. But in the end it was a learning experience for everyone. The questions were respectful. And when you get guys like [marine scientist] Brian Rothschild [sharing their knowledge] — that’s information that people normally don’t get. I think that’s important. It’s not listening to lobbyists or PR people go back and forth. This is the source. This can’t be made up. I think that when [the food writers] heard stories of what the fishermen are going through and how difficult it is with all the regulations — it’s an eye opener. People assume that fishermen go out, fish and make a ton of money. Then when you hear what they’re up against, you have to appreciate how a piece of fish gets on the plate.

Last night you said it’s time to “balance out” the sustainable seafood debate. What do you mean by that? And was a dinner like last night’s a step in that direction? 

It’s really about education and balancing out the debate. We’ve become a country that reacts to the people who yell the loudest, and sometimes that means whoever has the most money to get a particular point across. Who has the ability to drown out the other side? And so a lot of that gets lost in rhetoric. True debate, to some degree, is a lost art. If you take a look at some of the NGOs [non-governmental organizations] out there, I think that they … look at the fishermen as being defenseless, because they really don’t have the money or resources to fight back adequately. They’re out fishing. I think the NGOs understand that. Look, it’s always easier to pick on someone who’s defenseless. And that’s where the debate has been one-sided. When you have people picking up a [seafood-buying] guide and saying, “I can’t eat this because of this,” they don’t hear the other side because the other side can’t afford to get their point across.

If we bring [the debate] back to the middle so both sides are heard, then reasonable people will come to reasonable conclusions. But we’re not getting enough information about the fishermen out there.

What percentage of your customers care about the origin of the fish they’re eating and what it took to get that fish on the plate? 

A fair percentage are interested. The more that we can give them in terms of information, the happier they are. People have come to trust us over the years — that we’re going to do the right thing in terms of sourcing. We’re going to be thoughtful about the fish that we choose to put on the menu. And hopefully they realize that we’re not exploiting [the resource]. It’s just the opposite. We’re trying to preserve the industry.

What’s next? Do you hope to host an event similar to last night’s dinner in the near future? 

I was left at the end of the dinner thinking, “A little education can go a long way.” So if we can ever get that mix of people — the fishermen, the scientists, the press — together in one room to ask questions and do some honest and thought-provoking debate, I think that the industry can’t help but win.

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