Submitted by Melissa Howsam — Correspondent
From sprightly Long Island busboy to J. Betskis culinary star, John Korzekwinski names his family, along with a cauldron of top toques and some hard-knocks schooling, as that which transcended that long-shot childhood dream of owning a resto into reality.
But seven years in, that reality remains kind of dreamy. Of late, a handful of nationally recognized area chefs weve covered in our Behind the Line Q&A series when asked where they like to dine about town have cited owner and Executive Chef Korzekwinskis sup spot as their go-to. Said 2013 James Beard Award semifinalist (for best new restaurant) Matt Kelly of Mateo and Vin Rouge fame: I love J. Betskis. Sonos Mike Lee, who says he goes with his gut when dining out, agrees: It all depends what I'm in the mood for... [I like to dine] at a restaurant that does few things in specific. [And its] J. Betski's for German.
But its not just his food. Its his attitude. Said much-touted toque Regan Stachler of Little Hen in his recent interview: John Korzekwinski is a talented chef and a great guy,
Talented and humble. I honestly don't even know what to say to that, said Korzekwinski when reminded of how many local chefs had thrown him a nod as their go-to. ... It is just an honor to me to be considered one of their peers.
Maybe its that family focus that has him so groundedand has so many of his peers (and patrons) taking note. Despite a seasoned list of chefs under whose watch hes learned and worked (think: James Beard-winner chef-owner Andrea Reusing of Lantern, Chapel Hill also a 2013 finalist; Jean Paul Fontaine of now-closed EVOO, Raleigh; and Todd Whitney of J. Betskis (original chef) and now Vin Rouge fame), Korzekwinski, at his core, has remained modest and true to his roots designing a spot in J. Betskis that speaks of his fam, from the Central and Eastern Euro fare (a nod to his German and Polish heritage) to its name. My grandparents and parents were the ideal picture of people who were faithful, generous, loving, honest and extremely hardworking people, not to mention iron-willed, he says. My restaurant is named in their honor ... [and] everything I do now is a representation of [family].
And those roots are legit. Reared in a family of green thumbs and devoted cooks, Korzekwinski came of age with a rooted fancy for growing and preparing food. With youthful summer vacays spent in the Adirondack Mountains where his fam tended to a large diverse garden, raised chicks and pigs, and canned various veggies and jams his love of fare really is borne of a family affair.
As is his baby, J. Betskis. Now, with a booming resto, and a budding chef at home daughter Eve (age 4) dreams of donning the toque, too it looks like it really is all in the family.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be either a car designer or professional baseball player, and I even dreamed of being a restaurant owner. To this day, I am amazed that I have achieved one of those long-shot dreams.
The moment you knew the kitchen was your destination station?
I can't really pinpoint an exact moment, but there were many experiences in life that led me down this path. Working with my grandmother in the kitchen, cooking for my family in my youth, and working with talented people and learning tricks of the trade through the school of hard knocks, so to speak, are all experiences that have had great impact on my choice of career.
First foodie job?
I'd say the first place I worked at that was a serious restaurant was a place called Merrick Marlin on Long Island. ... I was 18 and wanted to be a waiter, but could only get hired as a busboy. It was one of the busiest and better seafood restaurants in the area. All of the waiters were a bit older than I and quite competitive. The sometimes-hectic environment was something I enjoyed being a part of.
After working front of house in some famed sup spots about town (Capital City Club, the now-defunct Wicked Smile, Nana's [Durham], Enoteca Vin), you met chef Andrea Reusing and assisted her as opening manager of Lantern, before your three years as manager/wine director led you to pursue your dream of opening your own restaurant. You worked the next several years in the kitchen under chef Jean Paul Fontaine (EVOO) in Raleigh. How did that relationship segue into realizing your dream?
It is a great privilege to have been given the opportunity by those people to work in such great places. All the owners I worked for were very generous in their sharing of knowledge. ... Every bit of time that I spent in each place, however long or short, was like being in a Restaurant University, so to speak. My time spent with chef Jean Paul Fontaine was what enabled me to have the confidence to go forward and be capable to handle kitchen duties. He is a wonderful teacher (not to mention a gifted and generous man). He has a great palate and a vast knowledge of technique. Additionally, he is very encouraging and knows just which tools you need to achieve your goals.
During your time with chef Fontaine, you met and befriended talented toque Todd Whitney and parlayed the pairing (and your mutual passion for Eastern and Central Euro fare) into a recipe for success. Determined to cook up your dream and pursue your own resto, what was the significance of meeting Whitney (who served as J. Betskis original executive chef) in terms of opening your own restaurant?
It was of great significance, as he is obviously a great talent. I liked his approach with regard to tweaking (read: updating) classic preparations and creating dishes that echo the flavors commonly found in the cuisines of East and Central Europe. To eat some of his food, you would think he grew up in Austria, Hungary or Germany. He also happens to be a great and patient teacher. Without the things I learned working with him over the course of J. Betski's first four years of existence, I would not be able to do what I am able to do today nearly as well. His hard work, dedication and expertise significantly helped to build the strong culinary foundation we continue to build upon. He is also a wonderful person to work with. I'm grateful he remained with us for such a long period of time.
In its seventh year, what does it feel like to have that dream come to fruition with J. Betski's?
It's great!! When you work very hard for many years to finally get your own business, you sometimes feel you are still dreaming when you come to work (although any owner will be sure to tell you the days when everything seems to go wrong make you realize it's reality). It's truly a great honor and joy to prepare food that people love to eat in what we feel is a warm and inviting environment.
You lend your menu to local produce. How does that help you blend your vision for the "Old World" with the "New South"?
When you are able to get more access to unique, quality local ingredients, nothing is more "Old World" than that. "Old World" eating is always fresh and local, searching out the best ingredients, those brought to market with respect for the environment (sustainable agriculture). The "New South" is much more in tune with this way of eating than ever, due to the fact that people realize the environmental, nutritional and flavor benefits of locally grown food.
You're ordering me a meal at J. Betski's. What am I getting?
Maybe a salad of house smoked fish of some type, definitely a sampling of the various sausages and pierogies we make here, certainly any game dish we have as either a special or menu item. Really, I would ask you what you normally like to eat, then maybe serve something completely different. For instance, if you normally eat pork or beef when you go out, order fish at our restaurant, or game, or some duck, pheasant or quail. First-time diners here are often pleasantly surprised at how different our cuisine is from the preconceived notion they have prior to their arrival. With that being said, I feel that whatever you get will more than likely have you coming back again.
You only get one ingredient. It's...
It's ... a difficult answer! I would imagine everyone really has at least a minimum three or four things they find almost a necessity for use on a daily basis. I would say honey is one of the more important ingredients in our kitchen.
Your greatest muse?
I've been blessed by God to have had great grandparents, parents and, now, a beautiful wife and children of my own. That is my greatest muse. Had I more youthful wisdom, I'd have tapped those sources of knowledge and inspiration (parents and grandparents) and would have avoided lots of pitfalls. I always feel that everything I do now is also a representation of all mentioned above and, that, to me, is a big responsibility. My grandparents and parents were the ideal picture of people who were faithful, generous, loving, honest and extremely hardworking people, not to mention iron-willed. My restaurant is named in their honor. They really are all a source of inspiration to try and make things better every day, to never be satisfied. The J. Betski's name means when people come in, they should know it stands for the very best effort we have to give.
You've got the day off. Where can we find you?
Relaxing and spending time with my wife and children.
You have two young children (4-year-old Eve and 1-year-old Harrison Joseph), and Eve is showing signs of being a budding chef. What's one thing you want her to know?
Humility. People are much more generous with sharing their knowledge if you are willing to work hard and listen. It will help her to be respectful and kind in her dealings with others.
Now you're out to eat around town. Favorite sup spots?
Another tough one because there are many. I know I can't list them all, and if I forget to list one, I'll feel bad when someone needles me. One major problem is that I don't get out much because of my work schedule (fortunately, I love being here at J. Betski's). There are so many new places I also would love to try. I will say this ... support the locally owned restaurants of good reputation!
What's next for John Korzekwinski? Give us a preview.
Does anyone really want to know what I'm thinking of? Actually, there are several projects I am tinkering with, but I hate revealing things until they are firm. My main project is still J. Betski's. I love this restaurant and all the people associated with it. I see it continually getting better day by day, week to week, month to month. We are now starting to really tap into our potential as a restaurant. I am excited about the various things we have going on here and the goals I've set and hope to attain. ... There is much more for me to accomplish here, and I am confident the best is yet to come.