Mr Berkowitz, who originally founded Legal Sea Foods as a fish business next to his father’s grocery store in Cambridge, died last Sunday in his sleep at his NewBridge home on the Charles retirement community in Dedham . He was 97 years old, his health was failing. He had previously lived for many years in Lexington.
“As a father, he really sacrificed himself for the family,” said his eldest son, Roger Berkowitz, who succeeded him as head of Legal Sea Foods until agreeing to sell the restaurants at the end of 2020.
“When he opened this fledgling fish market,” Roger said, “he was at work all the time, but it was about family and being able to support the family.”
In Mr. Berkowitz’s hands, Legal Sea Foods became part of Greater Boston’s culinary tradition, and he played a part in the careers of others as well.
The iconic Julia Child, whose 1961 book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” popularized French cuisine in the United States, was among the customers at her Inman Square fish market.
“When Julia and Paul Child returned to Cambridge after their years abroad, Julia asked her hairdresser for the best place to buy fish,” Mr Berkowitz wrote. “His hairdresser recommended us. From then on, Julia bought all her fish from Legal Sea Foods.
They sealed their friendship with a serrated knife. After Child launched her popular TV show “The French Chef,” she devoted an episode to cooking up a dish of swordfish. Mr. Berkowitz brought a 200-pound swordfish to the studio and kept it heavily iced for Child’s use until she sliced it with what he later recalled was “a magnificent serrated knife that was over a foot and a half long”.
“I asked where she got it,” he told the Globe in 1997. “She said, ‘If you like it, George, I’ll find you one. Six months later, she walked into Legal with a French knife as a gift, and I never forgot her for it.
Born in Cambridge on December 30, 1924, George H. Berkowitz was the fifth of six children. Her father, Harry Berkowitz, was a Russian immigrant who ran Legal Cash Market in Inman Square. His mother, Frances Cohen Berkowitz, also worked at the market while raising their children.
Legal Cash Market, a meat market and grocery store that Harry opened in 1904, accepted stamps issued by the government at the time for families to buy food – the ‘legal money’ that led to the market name. Harry “was one of the hardest workers I know, and one of the fairest and most respected businessmen in Cambridge,” he wrote in his memoir.
While attending Roxbury Memorial High School, “I delivered orders for my dad after school,” he wrote.
Then World War II began. Aspiring to become a military officer, Mr. Berkowitz enlisted in the Marine Corps the day before he turned 18 and was sent to Dartmouth College for an officer training program.
He studied Chinese languages and occasionally hitchhiked back to Boston, but he remained focused on upholding marine discipline and completing the program.
“If we couldn’t do that, we weren’t going home, we were going to fight,” he wrote. “Believe me, it was a great incentive to study.”
Upon completion, he was posted to China immediately after the war ended and assisted in the repatriation of Japanese and Korean troops and civilians.
The experience “was irreplaceable,” he recalls. Serving in the Marine Corps “taught me resilience, self-sufficiency” and laid the foundation for how he would supervise employees.
“If they don’t respect you,” he said of his subordinate troops and, later, his employees, “they won’t want to follow your command”
In 1951 he married Harriet Wiskind, whom he first met when he dated his older sister.
Having first worked for his father as a meat buyer when he returned from World War II, Mr. Berkowitz opened the fish market Legal Sea Foods in 1950, just before he was called up for military service during the Korean War. .
He said he called his fish business Legal Sea Foods “to build on the great reputation my father’s market had.” The restaurant followed 18 years later.
“Harriet was my solace,” he wrote of those first 100-hour work weeks, when they opened a restaurant as part of the fish business.
“I could never have done it without Harriet. From the start, Legal Sea Foods was a family business,” he added.
“Harriet ran the cash register and worked with me behind the counter,” Mr. Berkowitz wrote. “Harriet’s father, Max, also worked occasionally at the cash register and was paid in fish. For a time, Harriet’s mother, Annie, wrapped plastic utensils in napkins.
The Berkowitz’s three sons “peeled the shrimp, swept the floors, and did other necessary chores.”
In 1980 the family opened a restaurant at the Park Plaza Hotel which was the flagship of the business.
Mr. Berkowitz rose to national prominence, particularly after NBC’s “Today Show” named Legal Sea Foods the nation’s best seafood restaurant in 1986.
For several years in a row, Legal Sea Foods has been voted Boston’s most popular restaurant by the Zagat Guide and it’s even been listed in the “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” book.
In late 2020, with the restaurant industry being hit hard nationwide by the pandemic, Roger, who was Managing Director and President of Legal Sea Foods, sold the restaurants to PPX Hospitality Brands. He retained Legal’s marketplace online business, part of the Cfood Brands online and retail business he founded.
In retirement, George and Harriet Berkowitz stuck to legal dinner parties.
“Frequently we only eat two meals a day,” he wrote five years ago, aged 92, “but lunch or dinner always includes fish, usually at one of the Legal restaurants. Sea Foods nearby.”
The family will arrange a private service for Mr. Berkowitz, who is survived by his wife, Harriet; their sons, Roger de Nahant, Marc de Boston and Richard de Sherborn; eight grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
In addition to having more time to play golf in retirement, Mr. Berkowitz taught ethics courses at Brandeis and Regis universities.
“A moral code is essential, I think, for a good life,” he wrote.
“Many mornings I wake up, put on Louis Armstrong, listen to him play ‘What a Wonderful World,’ and think to myself how appropriate the words are in my life.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at [email protected]