As if enduring a pandemic wasn’t enough of a challenge for a restaurant owner, news broke last month that the future of the Stockton Market is in jeopardy. But the co-owner of the market’s newest and, arguably, most popular tenant is quick to separate his restaurant from the fray.
“We are following the guidelines of our lease, which are allowing us to be able to continue,” says Nick Liberato, chef and co-owner of The Borscht Belt Delicatessen, which opened at the front of the market nearly a year ago.
More accurately, Nick Liberato is not just continuing with business as usual; he’s preparing to expand. (More on that in a moment.)
The Borscht Belt is Liberato’s take on the traditional Jewish deli. He’s handpicked everything from the mustard (Gold’s) to the chips (Charles Chips) to the sodas that populate the fridge, many of them for nostalgic reasons. But while you’ll find displays with pastrami cured in house and a tub of just-mixed white fish salad, the menu is more representative of Liberato’s extensive career as an accomplished chef and restaurateur.
Although, you might recognize his name from elsewhere since, until recently, he spent just about all of his career cooking in and around Los Angeles. That other place would be TV. He got his big break on “Top Chef Masters,” gained a following on “Bar Rescue,” and kinda sorta became a household name of the Netflix hit, “Restaurants on the Edge.”
“I had a really great upbringing,” he says. “But, like any young kid, I started trying to figure out what else was out there, and California always called to me in a big way.”
So he made a break for it in the late nineties. He returned more than 20 years later, a celebrity chef and a family man.
What follows is an edited account of our conversation about where he’s been and where he’d like to go.
What brought you back to Bucks County?
NL: I think it’s really important for a chef to be able to travel, experience lots of different cultures, and kind of be out on your own. All of my travels cultured me and really made me who I am today. There were a lot of struggles, as well, which instilled in me the drive and work ethic that are necessary to pursue excellence.
With “Restaurants on the Edge,” being co-creator, executive producer, and host, it was a big thing for me that was years in the making. It was the right time to bow out of California when it was picked up because I’d kind of ridden my experience there until the wheels fell off. I got in my car March 12, 2020 to move back here. I also had left there thinking I was opening a Sicilian seafood restaurant in New Hope or Newtown.
Which brings us to your TV career. Was that by chance? Or was that always part of your plan?
NL: There’s part of me that wanted to have some sort of a TV career because I really enjoyed being in front of the camera. I also enjoy talking with people. I’m not an introvert, like a lot of chefs are. I envisioned myself out in the dining room, talking with customers, during lulls in the kitchen. Watching chefs like Emeril and Martin Yan – who’s a friend now – helped me realize that cooking could be the vehicle that got me on TV.
Almost as soon as I moved to California, I got random little parts, but none of them had anything to do with cooking. And none of it stuck anyway. That changed in 2009, when I was on “Top Chef Masters.” And then, a couple of years later, I started appearing on “Bar Rescue.”
I lived in Italy for a couple of months because I was planning on opening an Italian restaurant on the East Coast. This was around 2012. Even then I was fantasizing about leaving LA and finding a quieter life somewhere else. I was doing a truffle dinner in LA when one of the guests started talking me up. I mentioned that I was pitching a cooking show, to no avail. He turned out to be the vice president of Spike TV. We got together after the dinner, and I formally pitched him. And then he asked me if I’d heard about “Bar Rescue,” which had only been around for six or seven months at that point.
He goes, “Do you have any interest in maybe coming on the show as a chef?” I was like, “Sure.” Within a week, I was flying to Vegas to shoot my first episode. Over the next four years, I was able to travel the country and really elevate my presence on TV because of that show. More importantly, I learned how to act and improvise on camera. It was something I wanted to expand on, but I didn’t want to become known as the guy who screams at everyone all the time.
The cooking show that I had been pitching all those years eventually evolved to become “Restaurants on the Edge,” which Netflix greenlit in 2019. I had just sent my pregnant wife and two young kids back east and was preparing to follow them when I got the call. I cried my eyes out because, you know, this was something I’d been trying to do for so long.
You mentioned you had your eye on creating an entirely different restaurant initially. How did the concept for The Borscht Belt come about?
NL: Mike [Dalewitz, Liberato’s business partner] and I met just before the pandemic. He said, “I think what’s most important is that we create something that’s scalable.” From there, we started talking about foods that have endured, like Chinese takeout and pizza. He’s like, “What about bagels?” I said, “I love bagels. I’ve made them a few times.” And then we started talking about Jewish delis.
I always had an interest and love for the food. Every month, my mom and dad would take me up to New York to see a new play, and in the process of that, we’d check out some cool delis. After taking a deli tour with Mike and seeing some cool places, we knew that this was something we could do. But I needed help to pull it off. So I started working at a Jewish deli in Brooklyn a month before we opened. I’ve broken down many fish and whole animals before, but slicing a fish just so in that setting, with people watching you – I better be able to read the paper through that – is a totally different skill. Everything I do, I put 150% into it, especially if it’s harnessing a genre of food that I personally wasn’t raised with.
Aside from that, it was also a matter of how can we create a destination? Mike told me the story of The Borscht Belt, and I found it fascinating. I thought the deli could be a great way to revive the name. I never expected, though, for so many people to come in and tell us that we’ve rekindled some long-forgotten memory for them.
As you said, you wanted to do something that was scalable. Any plans yet to grow The Borscht Belt?
NL: This is the first time we’re mentioning it publicly, but, yes, we’re planning to open another location in Newtown this summer. We’re aiming for August or September, but it’s too far out to say for sure just yet. I love the space we have there. And eventually, I’d like to expand to Miami and New York. Selfishly, I’d like to get a foot back in California, too.