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In kindergarten, my love of eating fish earned me a trip to the principal’s office. I wasn’t sure why I had been called in or why my mom was there. “Do you realize your son has been eating live minnows on class trips?” the principal asked. My parents thought it was great that I (a) knew how to catch them and (b) knew how to eat them! My mom didn’t look fazed. She turned to the principal. “Yeah, he does that all the time. And I’m afraid we actually taught him how to do that.”
In my early years, one of my favorite places to hang out was my grandfather’s bait and tackle store, the Goose Hummock Shop, on Pleasant Bay on Cape Cod. There was a bedroom next to the shop and that became my room during the fishing season. I preferred it to the more “civilized” room in our family’s summer house next door. I loved the musty, briny, beachy, seaweed smell. The “decor” was a lobster shell my father found, a blowfish, and family sketches and seascapes that my grandmother drew when she wasn’t fishing and hunting.
My grandfather wasn’t a chef, but he understood cooking, like how to make a really nice fish broth or a proper chowdah. After a full day of fishing my grandfather, Pup, would always dig a few clams on the way back to the house. Then he’d rip through a flounder in one cut, like one of the mates on the charter boats. He’d miss some meat that way, but we caught enough fish back then that it didn’t matter. The heads and bones and tails went into the stockpot and became the soul of the chowder.
His chowders were perfect. Often, he would do a New England clam chowder. One giant quahog—the local name for a large hard-shell clam— then cream, potatoes, dill, and butter. He also did a seafood chowder, where he’d throw in razor clams, steamers, quahogs, conch, striper, and potatoes. Anything caught that day went in the chowder. His techniques inspired me. Now when I find an authentic New England clam chowder, I’ll say, “Yep, this is how Pup made it.” That’s the highest compliment I can give. Not too thick, and brimming with flavor.
Pup’s chowders were the best, but my true love of cooking came from my mom. She was a natural cook who didn’t worry all that much about following recipes. When I picture her, I see her behind the stove in an apron and ski boots. I get my love of heavy cream and butter from my mom. She could go through an entire box of breadsticks dipping each bite into a stick of butter. Modern health warnings were not at the top of my mom’s list of worries; she would eat raw hamburger meat right out of the package. She made the kitchen the center of our home, and she had an obsession with Italian food. Even though she was the daughter of two Jewish immigrants from Germany, I didn’t see a German or Jewish dish come out of her kitchen, aside from the occasional brisket or potato pancake. Everything else was Italian and all of it was amazing.
If Pup gave me my love of fishing and Mom passed on her sense of food, my true appreciation of the sea came from my dad, Bill Sargent. He is a naturalist in the great New England tradition. He notices every little thing in nature—from an ant crossing the path, to the Indian shells on the side of the bank, or a crab eating a minnow. On any given afternoon, he would give me a history lesson, taking me back a few million years just by pointing out the rocks, eroding bluffs, and a horseshoe crab scooting along the shallows. His endless notes about horseshoe crabs and salt marshes only begin to tell the tale of his fascination with sea life; he was utterly captivated from childhood, just as fishing captivated me.
Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I got my surfing practice on Cape Cod. We surfers look for hurricanes. I don’t mean that we go out in eighty-mile-an-hour winds. But when a hurricane forms farther south in the Atlantic, it sets up big waves, which make for good surfing by the time they hit the Cape. My friends and I constantly listened to the radio for weather updates, trying to figure out when the best waves would arrive. No sooner did we get news of waves than we’d grab our boards and paddle out. Often we’d take a real beating, but it was worth it! We were hopeful. So hopeful that I took the Internet handle Hurricane Hopeful. A few years later, when I moved to Brooklyn and opened a chowder bar, I called it Hurricane Hopeful. But this was before we knew about Katrina and Sandy.
While I was getting my surfing life together, I worked in an ice cream parlor in Wellfleet. Behind the parlor was a place called Mac’s Fish where locals worked. They were a bunch of hooligans, but they got the job that I wanted but couldn’t have because I wasn’t a local. It didn’t matter that I spent all summer, every summer on Cape Cod; the fact that our winter home was in Cambridge, Mass., made me an outsider. I envied the Wellfleet fish kids. I thought everything about them was cool: They carried knives, they called out chowder orders in real Cape Cod accents. I was jealous. They never let me near the fish, because handling fish was reserved for locals. The aroma filled up the pier and I couldn’t resist the food those kids cooked up. It was delicious, and it inspired me.
Big Apple, Big Waves
My next stop was in a seemingly unlikely place for a surfer and fisherman: Brooklyn. It didn’t start well. In 2001, as I went to get the keys for my first apartment, I met the broker on the sidewalk. She opened the door and there on the floor lay the previous tenant. He appeared to have passed out after rolling off his couch with a bottle of vodka in his hand. Being a friendly kind of guy, I went over to help him up off the floor. His hand was freezing cold. The broker asked, “Is he okay?” “No, I think he’s dead,” I said.
I took a late-night job delivering food in Bushwick. In 2001, this was not a good ’hood at four o’clock in the morning. I walked away from that job and signed on to look after a small gift shop that my friends, soap stars from As the World Turns, owned in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Then, one day, I saw a guy walk by the window with a surfboard. I couldn’t believe it and ran out and asked him where he could possibly be going with a surfboard. “To the Rockaways.”
I locked up the shop one day and jumped on the L train with a fellow surfer (named Luke), and we went out to the Rockaways, where he had a bungalow. We passed over salt flats and shallows and through beachside communities with shacks on stilts. I could hardly believe my eyes. All this was in New York City.
We got off at the Eighty-eighth Street stop in Queens. Luke showed me his surf shack, and the next thing I knew, I was suited up in his hand-me-down gear and we were surfing. Walking over the boardwalk with the sun low in the sky and seeing a peeling barreling left—that is, a really good surfing wave—was something my Cape Cod brain could not wrap itself around. I was forty-five minutes from Brooklyn. It seemed impossible. But there it was.
That night, I asked my friends if I could take the shop off their hands. They were happy to get nine hundred dollars, which was all I could scrape up. Within a month, I opened my own surf shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, home to hipster espresso bars, farm-to-table restaurants, Polish delis, Orthodox synagogues, and now, its first surf shop.
Business was slow, so I served chowder to attract clientele. It was Sarge’s Chowder, based on my grandfather’s recipe. I made it right there on the candle-making stove from the former gift shop!
I had earned some chowder cred and was soon cooking on the line at a chain called Daily Soup developing chowders for them. It was the first time I’d ever been taken seriously as a chowder man. We produced five hundred gallons of chowder at a time in that place.
Brooklyn’s Bountiful waves
Perhaps the most surprising thing about my life in New York City wasn’t the surfing, or the way I could re-create a version of Pup’s fishing garage and my little Cape Cod bedroom as a New York apartment and business. It was that I could fish in the East River, which was out my back door!
There are lots of fish here! And they’re not radioactive. I discovered this when I wandered to the water just a few blocks from my house to test out a new rod. I was going to Cape Cod for the weekend and decided to try a cast while standing on a graffiti-covered concrete slab. No sooner did I start retrieving my first cast than BAM! A bluefish nailed the little rubber shad and leapt clear of the water! I now fish the East River consistently for stripers and blues with views of the Manhattan skyline right smack in front of me.
One day, I got the idea to start a Brooklyn fishing competition: an East River Derby. I didn’t think many people would sign up, and I was sure the few who did would only be in it for the cool T-shirt. But people signed up left and right: There were all types of fishermen representing Brooklyn! We had graphic designers and fashion stylists who had grown up fishing farm ponds in the Midwest. We got Polish guys who worked on the high-rises going up on the waterfront, Italian guys who’d fished there their whole lives, Jamaican guys, Dominican guys. They all took the derby seriously. And to this day, we fish all of October and we fish hard! The biggest fish that first year was caught by Jan Gorz, and it was forty-six inches! For those of you not in the know about striped bass fishing, that is one big urban fish!
I then came up with the idea of making and selling lobster rolls in my apartment. I had been out of restaurants for a while and I felt that New York lobster-roll makers were pretty clueless. They spent their efforts decorating, garnishing, fancifying, and—in my mind—messing up a good lobster roll.
Pretty soon, I couldn’t keep up with the lobster roll demand. I’d make a hundred fifty lobsters rolls on a good day, which made my suppliers in Maine very happy, but there were times when I was on the verge of tears because I couldn’t make them fast enough. By then, the New York City Fire Department had caught wind of the operation and come by to check out my setup, which was absolutely and completely illegal because I had enough propane in my apartment to blow up the entire building. Hmm . . . what to do?
“Do you guys like lobster?” I asked.
“Yeah, we do. We like lobstah,” a chorus of them agreed, in their Brooklyn accents.
“Let’s strike a deal. I’ll get this place cleaned up as fast as I know how, and you don’t tell your fire chief how bad it was when you first got down here, and you can feel free to stop by for lobster rolls any time you want.” By the time the chief got there, the place was cleaned up and the propane was one hundred yards from the house in the neighbors’ garden.
Nevertheless, the chief walked me around the block and gave me a few words of advice: “Mr. Sargent, do me a fayvah. Get a real f*****g job.”
I thought for sure I was finished when the fire department notified my landlord, Frank. But Frank was cool enough to let me keep cooking down there. He just didn’t want me selling out of my apartment, now known as the “Underground Lobster Pound.” So people would call in their orders and I would deliver the lobster rolls on the street. Then one night, a strange, and for me, lucky, thing happened. A kid came by to pick up an order that he had phoned in. I went out to meet him carrying his order in a brown paper bag. He had his money rolled up in his hand and gave me a quick handshake along with the money. I handed him the bag, and off he went into the night. We never spoke a word.
A lightbulb went off in my head. Where had I seen this movie before? The anonymous phone call. The handshake, the handover. I got the nickname of Dr. Klaw from my friend Michael and that became my low-tech superhero persona. He was an outlaw, a lobster-dealing guy from South Boston. He wore a red jumpsuit with a huge gold claw when making exchanges on the street. I would look in the mirror and even surprise myself because I didn’t look like me; I was both terrifying and hilarious at the same time. At fourteen dollars a pop, everyone would tip six dollars because Dr. Klaw wasn’t gonna make change for them in the street!
When I took my rolls of cash to the bank, the teller asked, “Is it appropriate for me to ask you what you do for a living?”
“It’s not what you think.”
I told her my story and pretty soon I had the bank employees stopping by for lobster rolls. I had the Ninety-fifth Precinct coming for lobster rolls; I had a list of celebrities coming for lobster rolls (to this day, I’ve kept my promise that I wouldn’t reveal their names). People loved the adventure. Even better, I was making real money for the first time in my life.
One day I received an official notice: “To Benjamin F. W. Sargent, DBA the Lobstah Pusherman/Dr. Klaw. By order of the Commissioner of the Board of Health: Cease and desist!” It was three pages of citations, then the commissioner’s signature, and a final note: “You will be sent to prison.”
I had it framed, and it hangs in my apartment.
Dr. Klaw was forced into retirement, but next thing you know, I had gained enough notoriety that I was hosting my own Cooking Channel show, Hook, Line & Dinner. So I guess my short-term lobster dealing paid off. Long live Dr. Klaw!