Chef Chat: Nick Liberato on Starting and Saving Restaurants
After helping restaurants around the world, Liberato plans to bring a taste of NYC to NJ with his new Stockton deli, The Borscht Belt.
He describes the deli’s order-at-the-counter menu and vibe as “a quick trip to New York.” The Borscht Belt will feature classics like Pastrami Sandwiches and Matzo Ball Soup, as well as creative eats sourced from local farms.
“Food is love, and food is medicine,” Liberato says. “Regardless of where you’re from, and who you are, food is a part of our lives and brings people together.”
Table Hopping: Tell me about your history in the kitchen.
Nick Liberato: I grew up in Yardley, Pennsylvania, and just settled back here with my family after working in Los Angeles for 21 years. From a very young age, growing up in an Italian family, I was always cooking with my mom, dad and grandparents. From where I started to where I am now was just a constant progression of bettering my craft and being as passionate as I possibly can about food, people and traveling. I’ve worked with some of the best chefs in the world, and it’s been a long, tough, hard road—but if it was easy, everyone would do it.
TH: What was it like working on Netflix’s Restaurants on the Edge?
NL: It was certainly a dream come true when the show got green-lit. You have to adjust and adapt everywhere you go with languages and ingredients, and everyone is dealing with different issues on how to better their business. You’re not only changing the space and the menu; you’re changing the people and their way of thinking because that’s really where it starts. It was challenging at times in different parts of the world, trying to get people to have a better understanding of what it takes to succeed. It was a fun process for me because I truly enjoy working with people, and seeing that transformation not only within the business, but even more with the owner. That’s really what’s going to keep it going.
TH: What’s something you learned working with restaurateurs around the world?
NL: Never in my life would I have imagined doing a show called Restaurants on the Edge, and literally that year everyone would be on the edge [laughs]. In the restaurant business, we’re on the same stage every day—consistency is everything. I also had a very close connection with most of the people that we worked with. It was really enjoyable helping someone out, feeling their feelings and doing everything I possibly can to help them. They were very appreciative, and a lot of them I keep in touch with to this day. I’m glad to see a lot of them have succeeded.
TH: What drew you back to this area after living on the West Coast for 20-plus years?
NL: I have three little girls and my wife is from Brooklyn. This place is my home, aside from Los Angeles, which is my other home. I’ve been planning to open a restaurant over here for a long time now—I didn’t plan to do it during a pandemic. It’s been anything but easy, and I can go on and on about those types of challenges, but the restaurant business has never been easy. I’m really excited to get this open because it’s going to be a real treat for the community.
TH: What sparked the idea to open an American Jewish–style deli?
NL: I’m Italian, so I could’ve come back here and opened up an Italian restaurant, but we have plenty of those, right? When you sit down and look at the demographic, you have a better understanding of what’s needed. My business partner (Michael Dalewitz) and I love our Jewish delis in New York City, and there’s been a number of them that have closed this year. We went on a number of deli tours, seeking out the best things each of them had. That’s more or less how we built our menu—by experiencing the best of what we could find in a lot of these different places.
TH: What’s behind the name, “The Borscht Belt?”
NL: The Borscht Belt was an area in the Catskill Mountains in the ’50s and ’60s. It was the retro area at that time. There were so many different hotels that comedians and entertainers would be going to, and families could afford a really nice weekend where they had their meals and shows paid for. It was all about hanging by the pool, relaxing, families getting together, food bringing people together. We wanted to emulate and revive that because the Borscht Belt today is rundown and more or less abandoned. My business partner actually visited quite often as a kid. When you come into our Borscht Belt, it’s going to have a lot of those classic dishes that you would experience out there at those times.
TH: Are you sourcing from anywhere local?
NL: We linked up with a great coffee company called Paper Plane Coffee Co., and they’re out of Montclair. They’ve been roasters for 150 years out of Columbia. We’re going to have all these amazing bagels that we’ll be bringing in from New York City and actually baking here. We’re going to be bringing them in parbaked through a company called Ess-a-Bagel, which is one of the most amazing bagels that I’ve ever had. I’m getting all our smoked fish from one vendor and meats from another, and as far as vegetables and dairy, we have such amazing farms in the NJ/PA area.
TH: What will be some items on the menu?
NL: The Pines sandwich will have pastrami, cured salmon, honey mustard, horseradish cream cheese and red onion on caraway seeded rye. It’s definitely one of my favorites. We’ll be offering a Smashburger; our Bungalow Club is our triple-decker sandwich; and we’ll be having homemade Matzo Ball Soup, which is my wife’s grandmother’s recipe. We’ll also be doing some modern classics like a Shrimp Roll, and you don’t get those at many Jewish delis. The possibilities are endless at The Borscht Belt.
TH: What are you most looking forward to once Borscht Belt opens?
NL: I had four restaurants on the West Coast, and the best part of my day was seeing people enjoy themselves and experiencing something on the menu that brings a smile to their face. I’m really excited to get back into the mix with people. I’m looking forward to talking to people and introducing them to items they may or may not have had. Getting them to experience that and create a culture—I’ve been missing that.
The Borscht Belt is set to open this spring at 19 Bridge St. in Stockton within the Stockton Market. The deli will be open from Tuesday to Sunday. Check out their Instagram for updates on the opening and menu items.
Photo by Mandee K. Hammerstein
Website: NJ Monthly