Best chef: BJ Lieberman's collaborative approach shines at Chapman's Eat Market
On the heels of a New York Times stamp of approval, the lauded chef talks about moving to Columbus, opening in German Village amid a pandemic and letting his staff lead the way
A couple of weeks ago, someone from the New York Times contacted Chapman’s Eat Market with a few fact-checking questions and a request for photos related to a forthcoming article in the paper. “We thought it was going to be a 24-hours-in-Columbus type of thing,” said BJ Lieberman, chef-owner of the German Village restaurant that opened amid the pandemic last year.
Then, a week ago, the Times published a rundown of “the 50 places in America we’re most excited about right now,” which included Chapman’s Eat Market, the only Ohio entry on the list of 2021 restaurants. “You don’t have to have grown up in Columbus ... to be enthused by Mr. Lieberman’s deft, globally inspired comfort food,” Brett Anderson wrote.
"I was sitting there with the baby on my chest, just doom-scrolling Twitter mindlessly on my phone, and I got a text from my friend,” said Lieberman, who welcomed his son into the world six weeks ago with wife and Central Ohio native Bronwyn Haines. “He sent me a picture of the list, and I was like, ‘What? What is that?’ … I sent it to my family and said, ‘This is pretty cool.’ And then I went to bed.”
The next morning, Lieberman’s phone blew up with “a gazillion messages.” Other media outlets started calling, and pretty soon Chapman’s was booked solid for the next three weeks. “We had a manager meeting yesterday where I was like, ‘What does everyone need? What can I do to help us get through this? Should we hire a daytime reservationist for the next month?’” Lieberman said late last week, sitting in the restaurant’s dining room. “It's changed the business completely, at least in the short term. It's turned everything on its head.”
While the publicity and the ensuing surge of reservations were unexpected, Lieberman is also uniquely prepared to handle it. When the celebrated chef worked at Husk in Charleston, South Carolina, the eatery won Best New Restaurant for Bon Appetit. The same thing happened at Rose's Luxury in Washington, D.C., for both Bon Appetit and GQ, plus a 2016 James Beard Award for Rose’s chef Aaron Silverman, who remains Lieberman's close friend.
Once Lieberman knew he wanted to strike out on his own, he and his wife narrowed the list of cities to Chicago and Columbus. “I really did fall in love with the city, and specifically German Village,” said Lieberman, who signed his lease on the Third Street space, which once housed the original Max & Erma’s, just weeks before Ohio issued stay-at-home orders in March of 2020.
At first, Lieberman and others thought the coronavirus-induced closures would be short-lived. “We just moved along with construction here as if nothing was different, and as it started to become more apparent that we weren't going to be opening in a normal environment, we pivoted to to-go only,” he said of Chapman’s August 2020 opening. That fall, the restaurant began offering a tasting menu to four socially distanced tables, serving about 20 guests per night.
“It's crazy to look back and realize we lost $100,000 in six months in 2020. We've slowed that bleeding down considerably, but we're still not making money, and the government doesn't have any assistance for us. We weren't eligible for PPP because we couldn't show that we had losses year over year. Everyone acted like we chose to open in the middle of a pandemic,” he said. “What was I going to do? Send my managers who moved here back home, even though they just quit their job and sold their homes?”
“When we got to finally open in May as the restaurant you see now, with a proper host stand and the flow of a restaurant, that was pretty amazing,” Lieberman continued. “We've grown month over month since then, close to a point of profitability. We only lost four grand last month.”
Chapman’s comfy space is well-appointed, homey and unfussy — “fancy, not formal,” Lieberman said, borrowing a phrase from Silverman. “In the front of house, we don't have a uniform. People can be their unique selves, whether it's their dyed hair or their tattoos. … We don't have language that we tailor for the dishes. The servers come up with that on their own. Everyone tastes all the food, and we all talk about the food, but they come up with descriptions that I never would have thought to say.”
On the menu, you’ll find approachable mainstays like the perfectly crisp, mouthwatering french fries, which have a dedicated deep fryer and require multiple steps over three days, and the less-familiar Maple Hazelnut Budino, a moan-inducing, custard-like Italian dessert.
Lately, the entree list has included Com Tam, a Vietnamese dish of lemongrass- and ginger-glazed pork shoulder over broken rice that made its way to the menu thanks to a former sous chef who spent six years in Vietnam and pitched Lieberman on a tasting menu of his travels through the southeast Asian country.
“Everyone has input on the menu. As I've gotten older and more into my career, I've found that learning about what other people like and what other people view as their childhood fixtures — what their grandma made, things like that — are way more interesting to me than the food that I've known my entire life,” he said, noting the problem of cultural appropriation in the restaurant industry. “It's not me as a white Jewish person being like, ‘Hey, we're going to do Vietnamese food.’ It's us as a staff with those shared experiences.”
Every afternoon, a different cook makes the Chapman’s staff a “family meal,” which often serves as a proving ground for dishes. “It's collaborative, and it's the way that I wish restaurants ran, where it's almost like holding a mirror up to the kitchen staff: Who are you as individuals?” Lieberman said. “And as the staff grows or changes, the vibe of the restaurant should change along with it.”
Recently, Chapman’s cook Nicholas Say, who worked with Lieberman in D.C. and whose family is from Cambodia and Thailand, pitched the chef on a Cambodian tasting menu, which the restaurant will feature for more than a week in November. “That's been on our docket for a month now,” Lieberman said. “I don't think that's what people were expecting from us when they read about us in the New York Times.”
Amid all the accolades and “best” designations, not to mention the trail of Michelin stars on Lieberman’s resume, he wonders about the expectations of diners. “‘Best’ means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I never said that we were the best. We just set out to be the best versions of ourselves. We didn't set out to be the best restaurant in Columbus or America or anything. We just do what makes us happy and what we think makes the guests happy,” he said. “I'm not a better chef than anyone else. Most people can sear meat and fish as good, if not better, than me. My staff is much better on the line than I am at this point. So what is it? It's the staff. It's everyone buying into what we're doing.”
Since arriving in Columbus, Lieberman has continued to fall in love with the city, and he’s eager for more people to know about local restaurants like Comune, Service Bar and Veritas. “I don't think that Columbus’ [food scene] is taken as seriously, and I think it should be,” he said. “I'm really proud of this city, and I hope that the city's proud of us.”
And while he’s incredibly grateful for the New York Times shout-out, there’s some discomfort there, too. “We're extremely lucky that it happened. But it also makes me feel really weird about all the restaurants that aren't getting help, and all the people who are in our position who opened, stuck to their guns, took care of their staff, did all the right things, and who are still screwed right now. That duality has always messed with me through this pandemic,” he said. “It really sucks because I know the people down the street are working just as hard as we are, and I know that Comune's food is just as good as our food is. And for us to be the ones to get it... I'm not turning it down, that's for sure, but it’s a weird feeling.
“Ultimately, what we're doing is treating ingredients with respect and making sure that we have systems in place to make sure that we get a consistent product out to the table. But we're not sitting here dying over every grain of salt or anything. We're just putting good food on a plate. And I hope people like it.”