Keith Berkley wants to share his lobster with me. And by “share his lobster with me” I mean, he wants me to witness the bay-to-table journey of the spiny crustaceans that will take center stage at the Saturday-night feast he’ll throw at his South Park home.
Tonight, we’re on Pangüero, his 24-foot Mexican skiff, in the middle of San Diego Bay, on a mild, moonlit Monday night, three days into lobster season. While we float quietly by a large buoy near the Navy research center, Berkley’s friend Howard Blackson untangles the trap lines and Berkley hacks up the bait. When Blackson has each trap ready, he opens the bait canisters and stuffs them with the skipjack tuna, giant squid, and sardines that Berkley hands him. Then, as Berkley steers us in a wide circle around the buoy, Blackson tosses three traps out one at a time.
To me (squeamish, fearful, land-centric) it looks like hard, stinky work, but these guys are out here for fun. The lobsters we catch tonight will live in the salt-water pond in Berkley’s backyard until the Saturday-night shindig.
“Think about how expensive lobster is,” Berkley says, as if our presence here tonight is part of a money-saving scheme. Then he dismisses that thought and says, “Well, if you factor in your effort and all the costs associated with [getting the lobster yourself], the boat, the bait, and everything, you should just go buy it. But that’s not the point.”
He pauses and squints his eyes, searching, apparently, for right words. Then he finds them and says, “It’s like, harvesting from the ocean, which is kind of cool.”
Berkley, a 6-foot-3, 255-pound construction contractor with sun-pinked skin, a well-fed belly, and a handful of dreadlocks on his head, is a go-with-the-flow kind of guy for whom good things just...happen. In the short week of our acquaintance, two last-minute invitations land him with field passes at a Chargers game one night and at a Lakers game on another night — all unplanned. Earlier tonight, he showed me videos of himself in the Chargers hallway beneath the stadium, fist-bumping the players as they passed. When I asked if it was before or after the game, he said, “Before. If it was after, I’d have been hugging them.” (Tomorrow evening, he’ll send me a text that says, “Ended up at Laker game. Just hung out with [owner] Janie Buss. Turns out Howard knows her.”)
Even his million-dollar company just happened.
Granted, he was ready with his double master’s degree in business and Latin American studies, but getting involved in the construction trade wasn’t part of his plan. He had imagined he’d end up in international development or something similar that would use his degrees. The restaurant he’d been managing in La Jolla through graduate school closed down, and he turned down other restaurant offers because he knew they’d want a commitment and he believed the big post-graduate grown-up job was right around the corner.
“One of the bussers at the restaurant that closed worked for a contractor doing construction, so I called them up and asked them, ‘Hey, do you guys need any labor? I’ll do whatever,’” he says.
He got the job.
“I was making $15 an hour, doing labor at 30 years old. I did painting, tile, whatever,” he says. “They’d ask, ‘Can you install tile?’ and I’m, like, ‘Sure!’ And then I’d go read a bunch of books and try to figure out how to do it.”
Between jobs, he’d go to interviews, though not as many as he’d assumed he’d get. Eventually, he was offered a job selling wood in Riverside. He turned it down.
“After a few months, Chuck, the guy I was working for, said, ‘You know, you’re really good at this. If you want, go get your business license, and I will give you your first two years of clients because I’m going to remodel my own house. I’m out, but I don’t want to leave my clients hanging,’” he says.
So Berkley got his business license and took on two of his former employer’s clients. Those clients kept him busy for two years, installing floors, painting walls, building fences, and referring him to others who hired him on as well.
“I had a handyman license,” he says, “but people were calling left and right, and I knew I needed to get a contractor’s license. So I studied for the test, went in and took the test, and passed.”
He received his contractor’s license in 2002, just under a year after he finished graduate school.
“We grew really fast. We got Small Business of the Year in 2008 from the State Assembly in our district,” he says. “Right after that, we got really, really big. We had 28 guys out in the field. We had, like, $2 million on the books, but then in a period of four months, all the capital for these jobs was gone.”
He scaled back and stayed small to keep things from “getting out of hand” again. Today he has seven employees and works with four to five subcontractors. Occasionally, they work with larger contractors on bigger projects at hotels and spas.
Orcas in Bahia de Los Angeles
Berkley shows me a video he took this past spring during a boat ride with his wife and two sons, when three orcas joined them, swimming alongside the boat and occasionally leaping out of the water in front of it.
Luck? He says no.
“When you’re out on the water enough, you see all kinds of things.”
Tonight, out on the water means lobster fishing with his buddy Howard, whom Berkley urges me to help him prank by giving him one of two surnames: Pointdexternerdlestein or Blacksonmeow. Blackson’s an urban planner with a taste for Fat Tire beer. The way the story goes is that Berkley and Blackson met a decade ago, when both of their wives were pregnant. One of Blackson’s drinking buddies had just left town, and he was on the lookout for a new one. The two couples went out together one night, and the two men decided to go back out after they dropped their wives at home.
“Keith’s wife said, ‘Keith, no whiskey!’” Blackson recalls. “So, Keith and I go to the Whistle Stop and Keith goes in and looks around and goes, ‘Whiskey!’”
Berkley jumps in and says, “And Howard looks at me and goes, ‘You’re in!’ I’m, like, ‘You were auditioning me as your drinking buddy, weren’t you?!’”
They guffaw over that one. They’re getting such a kick out of their own backslapping stories tonight that they might as well be in a man cave with the door shut. Or maybe out on a no-women-allowed hunting trip. I’d bet my presence has toned things down a bit, but still, they tell stories and laugh often — loud raucous laughter that joins the bark of distant sea lions and the rumble of the boat’s motor to interrupt an otherwise quiet night.
From my little perch at the back of the boat, I listen, laugh along with them occasionally, and turn my attentions elsewhere when Blackson urinates over the side of the boat.
Although Berkley once lived in Ecuador for four months and in Santa Barbara (which he calls “San Diego Junior”) for five years, he has no intention to leave San Diego for longer than a few weeks at a time.
“This is it. My bones are here. San Diego is the best place on Earth,” he says. “The only knock I have is that the water isn’t crystal-clear. If we had water like Hawaii, it would be amazing.”
After dropping the traps at the buoy, they drop three more near the Navy pier, where a guard warns them to maintain a distance of at least 50 yards. Lobsters, Berkley explains, tend to gather near structures, hence the proximity to the buoy and the pier. Regulations allow for five traps per person or ten per boat. We’re four away from our max of ten, so we head about a mile or so toward Point Loma to drop the final four traps.
On the way, we pass the bait dock, where two boats around 75 feet long, and three smaller ones, float while the fishermen load up on bait.
“Man,” Berkley says. “I used to love going to the bait dock because it meant we were heading out.”
Berkley, 43, grew up with two brothers in Bay Park and went to Mission Bay High School. He went to college at UC Santa Barbara but came home every summer to work on the fishing boats with his younger brother, Neil. They ran day-and-a-half trips on the Pacific Queen, a sportfishing boat. They’d start work at 8:00 in the evening, loading the supplies, “all the junk food that fishermen need for some reason,” cleaning the boat, helping clients with their gear, and so on. And then at around 10:00 p.m., they’d go out to the bait docks and load up with sardines or anchovies. After another boat cleaning, they’d give the clients a safety talk and then head out anywhere from 60 to 90 miles out into the Pacific to fish through the next day.
“For a day-and-a-half trip, I’d get $75, but you might get $150 in tips,” he says. “It’s not much, but you’re not on land, so you can’t spend it. I had checks piling up in my wallet.”
Berkley and Neil worked the charters almost seven days a week for whole summers between college. Today, Neil is also an avid fisherman.
Berkley cuts in and says, “You can’t print this, but,” and then he goes on to pay Neil a generous compliment.
He is serious about not letting me print it.
“There’s no way in the world that Keith will ever let his younger brother be better than him at anything,” Blackson says now. “Neil has made him more focused. Just like fuckin’ Ahab."
We’re now floating somewhere near Ralph’s, the surf break near the Cabrillo monument, where lobsters hide in underwater beds of rocks. We’re not far from “outside” as Berkley calls the open ocean. It’s much darker out here than back by the buoy and the naval pier. Clearly, though, it’s a popular spot for lobster fishing. Every few yards, it seems, we can see the red, green, and blue lights of buoys that mark the lobster traps beneath. We can’t see the waves through the dark but we can hear them crashing somewhere in the distance.
Blackson has already untangled the remaining traps, but Berkley, who has been driving, doesn’t have the bait ready because he can’t find his knife.
“I have two great Keith career moments,” Blackson says, waving his beer can in the air, readying himself to tell another story about Berkley and his brother.
“Find a knife, dude. I want to fish,” Berkley says.
Blackson reaches into one of the boat’s side compartments and hands Berkley the white-handled knife he needs to hack up the bait.
“The radio was on, and Keith goes, ‘Oh, listen, I bought an ad.’ I hear it, and it says, ‘Berkley Construction. We are your construction specialists. We do decks. We do this. We do that. And we are proud members of the Help Neil Catch Fish Foundation.’”
“Sponsors,” Berkley says.
“‘Sponsors. We are proud sponsors of the Help Neil Catch Fish Foundation,’” Blackson repeats. “He paid thousands of dollars to punk his little brother!”
“It was awesome,” Berkley says.
“It made Neil so mad,” Blackson says. Then, in the angry but pouting voice of the victim, he said, “I don’t need any help catching fish!”
Blackson puts down his beer to stuff the bait canisters, and then for another few minutes we drive in a small circle, dropping traps and taking care not to drop them too close to any of the other traps. Berkley has set his purple buoy lights on blink mode to distinguish them from the other lights floating in the area.
When that’s done, Blackson begins his second story.
“You know, Keith’s kind of a foodie guy,” he says. “Well, I knew this really great sushi place that no way he knew about. A hole in the wall. He loves sushi. I’m going to take him there. And he’s, like, ‘All right. Cool.’ We go, and we’re sitting in there, and I go, ‘Isn’t this place cool,’ and he’s, like, ‘Yeah, pretty cool.’ I said, ‘Well, what do you want?’ And he was, like, ‘Why don’t you look on the menu and find the Keith roll.’ Fuckin’ Keith had worked there, he knew everybody, and they named a roll after him.”
Blackson pauses to take a swig of beer, then holds it up as if in a toast, and says, “All right, buddy, you win.”
Food. That’s the other thing Berkley is known for among his friends and in his family. Holly, his wife, will later tell me that she has her “go-to” recipes such as pasta or tacos, but when her husband cooks, it’s always no-recipe dishes, never to be repeated again.
“People ask me for recipes all the time,” Berkley says. “I don’t think I can make the same thing twice. It would be like trying to force a shooting star back into the sky.”
For tonight, he has made and brought sandwiches on grilled buns. Some have honey turkey, some have ham, others have grilled pepperoni. And there’s mustard, arugula, fresh thyme and raspberry vinaigrette. I eat two but only because I’m being polite and a little dainty. Honestly, I want four. We stay out on the water until after 11, and Berkley will be disappointed to go home with only three lobsters. But on Friday morning, he sends me a text that says, “Got 9 last night!” And then another that says, “4 am.”
On Friday afternoon, I wander up and down the aisles with him at HMart, an Asian market in Mira Mesa. He goes in with no plan for the Saturday-night menu. Nothing beyond lobster, anyway. Instead, he browses the produce aisle, picking out what’s fresh, and tossing it into his cart. When I ask what he’s going to do with the Clementine oranges, he’ll say, “I’m not sure yet. Maybe a citrus-habanero salsa. In fact, can you go get me a pineapple?”
And on Saturday night, he makes a grilled tomatillo pineapple habanero salsa; bay-scallop ceviche with apple, carrot, cilantro, tomato, and red onion served on crispy corn tortillas with Kewpie mayo and hot sauce; sea scallops wrapped in razor-thin-sliced Kobe beef (salted, peppered, and seared); minced fish with grilled garlic, mint, and ginger inside crispy wontons and served with a spicy ponzu sauce; and lots of fried lobster, served with fresh flour tortillas, rice, refried beans, and garlic butter.
While his friends fill up his South Park home, spill into the yard, and drink beer, wine, and margaritas, he spends most of the evening in the kitchen, over the stove, singing along to U2’s new album. (Berkley gave one of his kids the middle name Hewson, original last name of lead singer Bono.) The evening will end with a pile of lobster carcasses on the table, football on the television, and a house full of well-fed and happy drunken people.