A few years back, if you were cool enough to have Ben Sargent’s digits in your phone, then chances are you were among the enviable few who could call to get handmade lobster rolls crafted by the chef/handyman extraordinaire, and delivered to your doorstep by his gangster alter ego, Dr. Klaw. The shellfish sammies, prepared inside Sargent’s Greenpoint basement apartment, were held in such high esteem that he garnered not just a cult following, but a media frenzy, and subsequently a Health Department party poop.
After successfully snapping his way out of several near-pinches with the food narcs, Sargent’s underground seafood sandwich ring met its tragically un-delicious end in 2010 when the chef returned home to find a letter from the Health Department ordering (as Brooklyn Paper reported) “Dr. Claw dba The Lostah Pushah,” to immediately “cease and desist” the illicit sandwich manufacturing or face jail time.
Despite declarations from the faithful that Dr. Klaw would float where others sank and carry on with his business nevertheless, Klaw knew where to cut his losses. And since then, we haven’t heard much more than a peep, or the squeal of steam escaping through the crevices of a lobster carcass.
Until now, y’all.
Non-locals probably better know Sargent as the loveably scraggly, outdoorsy host of the Cooking Channel’s Hook, Line, and Dinner, which premiered in 2011. Given that the Boston native can hold his own both on a fishing boat wrangling ornery sea creatures and chilling with the up-north diners at spots like Ruth & Wimpy’s, a down-home establishment in BFE, Maine, it’s sorta hard to believe that, despite all that hassle from the Health Department and whatnot, Sargent’s remained a loyal Brooklynite for many years. For a long time, when he wasn’t filming the Cooking Channel show, the culinary school dropout split his time between an apartment in Greenpoint and a beachier life out in the Rockaways.
“I always felt connected to the whole Cape Cod thing, so I kind of felt like in New York I was going to have to say goodbye to my fishing and surfing background and then strangely, that actually became my entire m.o.,” he explained. “That literally has defined who I am in New York City and how I am helpful to people– showing people the ridiculously close proximity of surfing and fishing in this town to the point where I shocked myself. It started out– ‘Oh, Montauk!’– and then it was like, ‘Oh, I can fish in the Rockaways,’ and then it became fishing, literally, outside my back door. I walk one block and I can land a bluefish or a striped bass. I can catch them right on India Street. And it’s the same thing with the surfing.”
Sargent said that it wasn’t so much that the city itself was far away from the water. “New York just needed to rethink itself in terms of the water, and that’s really, really happened in the past 10 years I’d say,” he explained. Just look at the Rockaways, the ex-lobster kingpin’s second neighborhood. Even if you’re not directly familiar with any of Sargent’s crustacean culinary feats, then you might know him by his grand presence in the beachside neighborhood, where Ben owns two massive house boats (built by his friend Phil) that he rents out on AirBnb. The stationary vessels James Franco and Ziggy Stardust are basically floating insanity palaces, and if you and a bunch of your friends can swing something between $450-$850 a night, those babies can be your very own stationary party yachts. Sargent hinted that a brand new culinary project on the horizon was partly inspired by these houseboats of his (we’ll update you on that story as it unfolds), but for now he’s fully invested in recovering Dr. Klaw.
“For, oh I dunno, a few years now I’ve been laying low after the whole shutdown of the underground lobster pound,” he explained. In that time he’d been searching for a way to bring back Dr. Klaw, maybe not in a cash-only, clandestine-operation kind of way, but as a more permanent outlet for what he genuinely felt was a hilarious character and a just cause– as Sargent told NPR in 2013, he offered an alternative to your typical New York City lobster rolls that were often “too chef-y.” (The perks of living a good chunk of your life as a playboy lobster dealer– in short: plenty of broads and cash out the butt– couldn’t have hurt the plan to bring back Dr. Klaw either.) “Everyone’s like, ‘Dude, you gotta open up a restaurant after that– the press was insane!’” Sargent recalled. “And it was super tempting, but I thought about it, and realized that just seems to go against everything that made the whole thing so fun. I really wanted to do it, but something told me, ‘Don’t blow this cool thing!'”
Finally, around 2014 things started to coalesce. Images and posts started appearing on the Ben Sargent/Dr. Klaw Facebook page, hinting toward a “crazy idea” involving a “giant crustacean” motorcycle. The photo that caught our attention shows a bright red, pimped-out shellfish lobster-motobile– a New Englander steampunk’s wet dream– propped up in a garage. “What started as a book of chowder two years ago has become something of a strange seafood challenge,” the caption read. “To ride a lobster as far as I possibly can? Yeah kinda.”
Sargent built the “very, very underpowered, small dirt bike” with the help of a guy named Tim who– wait for it– as Ben came to find out later on, is otherwise known as Timothée “Timo” Valentin Jésus Richard, a former member of Radio Radio, the Canadian Acadian-French-speaking early-aughts “electro hip-hop” group. “He lives in the middle of nowhere and he kept getting visits by all these guys, they weren’t your typical bikers, they were a cross between hipster and hip-hop people,” Sargent laughed. “I was cooking with his wife, and she tells me, ‘He probably didn’t want me to tell you this– but he was a really big deal in Canada at one point.’ Of course we got him really drunk and made him rap. He said he hadn’t rapped in seven years or something.”
As for the bike, which happens to have been the same model that Sargent first rode as a kid, “it can literally go anywhere, even though you’re only going 40 mph.” He said that “it just felt like it was the right bike because you meet the coolest people when you drive 40 mph. Like seriously, when you’re driving 80 or 90 mph, you’ll never meet anybody that way.”
So far, Sargent’s kept this crazy Dr. Klaw plan under wraps. “I’ve never worked on something so hard,” he said. But the new project’s so close to launching that he was cool with revealing something of where he’s at with The Hunt for Dr. Klaw– an interactive, live action cooking show built just for streaming via Periscope. “It’s pretty much based on choose-your-own-adventure books– that was all I would read as a kid, I was unwilling and unable to read anything else,” Sargent laughed. “I built that little lobster bike basically to go in search of Dr. Klaw, and along the way throw these underground seafood events. The only way that you’ll know about them is through the app.”
The roadtrip’s route, though loosely planned out, is mostly left up to the app users whose whims will dictate Sargent’s path along the shortcuts, back alleys, and dirt roads up and down the East Coast. “I basically had this idea to hug the coast and thought it would be cool to really not know where I was going and ask for help and advice from the Periscope fans,” he explained. Though Sargent has a pretty clear vision of the types of pitstops he’ll be making. “A fishing village, a dock, a marina, those salty kinds of places,” he said. “I don’t see myself pulling into any super fancy marinas, like, what’s that town in Rhode Island with all the mansions? I see myself visiting a little more salt-of-the-earth places– but anywhere there’s fish, basically.”
Even though Dr. Klaw is the interactive show’s namesake, the trip won’t just be about Sargent slanging back lobster tails, claws, and innards till he turns into a giant shellfish riding a giant shellfish (wouldn’t that be something?). He’ll be focusing on other kinds of regional fish foods, too. “All I can tell you on this one is that it’s basically all going to be raw,” he said. “Except for the lobster– that would be nasty, that would be really, really gross.”
And yes, Dr. Klaw will also be making appearances, as the ultimate goal will be, well, to find Dr. Klaw. “So if you can imagine, you’ll just be watching from the handlebars of my bike and I’ll be talking to you the whole way,” Sargent explained. “And the characters that I meet will be woven into the story– they’ll know something about Dr. Klaw, they’ll have clues. Everything’s sort of half reality, half real-life.”
So how’s this whole thing going to work, exactly? Well, for one, Sargent and his team are launching a Kickstarter “pretty soon,” to raise money for the project but also to help garner a loyal gaggle of Periscope followers. In keeping with the underground aspect of the original Dr. Klaw sandwich operation, people who help out with the fundraising campaign will be able to participate in “exclusive” cooking events. “My idea was if you get everyone in at $20, they’ll be privy to all the underground Dr. Klaw events,” Sargent explained. “I know that there are enough foodie-fish people out there, that when I’m on the road, if I give a few days notice of where I am, and if I tag-team with a fisherman, I can throw like an impromptu, dockside, underground pop-up. I won’t have a million people, but I know I’ll have enough people for that.”
If this whole journey sounds a little too open-ended to really grasp at the moment, trust that Sargent (and Dr. Klaw too) always seems to land on his feet. “That’s just my way of working. I’d love to tell you that, No, this is the first time I’ve done something like this. When I started the underground lobster pound, I literally woke up one day and said, ‘I am now running an underground lobster business’– that was the whole plan, right there. For me, those ideas usually work better than the ones I really plan out. You have some flexibility when things start to unravel, and the result might be slightly different from what you originally planned, but that’s OK, you just go with it.”
Follow Ben Sargent and Dr. Klaw on Instagram @benanddrklaw for updates on The Hunt for Dr. Klaw.