Running an illegal lobster roll business from a basement apartment

Gabriela Herman

Tired of fancy New York City lobster rolls, Ben Sargent started his own lobster roll business -- from his basement apartment. When the fire department and his landlord found out, he took to the streets. The author of The Catch explains what makes a great lobster roll.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: You had a real restaurant and essentially you walked away and ended up in a basement. What in heaven's name was that about?

Ben Sargent
Ben Sargent (Sharon Bradley)

Ben Sargent: When I moved to Williamsburg in Brooklyn, N.Y., it was not as nice as it is now. I had this idea that I wanted to sell surfboards, my grandfather's chowders and essentially have a very fishy menu, which is not a problem nowadays. Back then it was expensive to make chowders and people weren't ready to pay that price, nor were they ready for lobster rolls.

Ultimately after doing two restaurants, I came back to just doing it out of my apartment. I was so frustrated with the lobster rolls that were being talked about in New York City. They were just wrong. They were too fancy. So I started making them in my basement apartment. [Ed. note: Find Sargent's recipe, Dr. Klaw's Lobstah Rolls, here.

Word got out and suddenly I had all these lobster-craving fanatics. It was all through cell phones that people would get ahold of me. I would see their number come through. I had a nickname too, it was Doktor Klaw. They would say, "Doktor Klaw, hook it up. I'm on the corner of Mormer and whatever." I would see a 508 area code come through so I knew it was a New Englander. I'd be like, "Oh, here we go. This guy knows his lobster rolls."

LRK: Did they come to you or did you go to them?

BS: At first they came to me. I was having these small little servings in my basement apartment. But then I actually got busted by the fire department because I had so much propane that I could probably have blown up the building times two.

My landlord actually didn't know what was going on and he lives above me. We had a very awkward conversation where I told him I was running this illegal lobster roll business out of his basement. He actually didn't say to stop. He didn't want people coming down to dine there, but he was happy enough to have me continue cooking illegally.

I had to move the operation out onto the street. That's actually where the whole drug dealing persona came from. People would hit me in the street with a $20 bill rolled up, a secret handshake and off they would go.

LRK: You gained quite a name in New York City. These lobster rolls were knocking people out. We're in this lobster roll period where across the country, not just on the coast, lobster roll joints are opening up. You're from New England, you're obsessed -- what is a great lobster roll?

BS: Do you really want to get me going on this one? Is this a two-hour interview? I hope so.

Simplicity is key. I will also say some not so popular things like high-fructose corn syrup is also key. Your bun has to be very sweet -- I go with buns from Pepperidge Farm over J.J. Nissen. I'm a believer of toasting on the inside, not on the outside. I use just a little bit of garlic and a splash of wine in my butter concoction.

I am a huge believer in not ringing out your lobster. After you've steamed your lobster, you have to hold on -- preserve -- all those juices because you're going to later build up almost a little bit of a sauce with the mayonnaise. But the trick is that the mayonnaise is not going to be the overpowering ingredient, the lobster and its juices, its extract, are what is going to really flavor it.

The other thing is proportion because it has to dissolve in your mouth in that crunchy, amazing bite. If you overload your lobster roll you might impress people, but you're not getting the proportions that are right because you have to be able to lift it in your hand and take that bite. But I see them in the city spilling over with all these horrific garnishes, lettuce, and bits and pieces. That's wrong because you have to eat it with a fork. If you put celery anywhere near a lobster roll, you've automatically destroyed it because now it tastes like celery and not lobster.

I also am a believer in you have to steam your lobster. I've built up a little concoction so it tastes like the sea when I dip my finger in: an inch of salt water with some seaweed in there -- if you don't have seaweed, I'd throw in an onion -- garlic, salt, and a little bit of pepper.

LRK: Then you steam over that?

BS: I steam it. Then I take the lobster out a little bit on the raw side because I like to throw it for just a minute on the skillet. Not to bring it up to piping hot, but to a medium so that it's just above room temperature. That's really when the flavor is released.

I think most people are actually bummed out when they first see what a lobster roll is because they think it's going to be this high-cuisine Asian something. Then they see that it's in this nasty New England hot dog bun and it's just all stuffed in there. They have a whole different idea of what they're about to get. But everyone will agree with me who likes lobster that it is one of the most unbelievable bites on earth -- something you will remember for the rest of your life.

LRK: I have to agree. I've been there, done that and I will do it again as often as I can.

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