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Dine around the world – Q&A with Nick Liberato from Restaurants on the Edge

If you haven’t watched both seasons of Restaurants on the Edge on Netflix, that what are you waiting for? Travel around the world from your own home and dream about where you want to jet post-pandemic. We can tell you Slovenia and Malta are now high on our list.

Filled with travel, food, and design inspiration, the team (consisting of Chef Dennis the Prescott, Interior Designer Karin Bohn, and LA’s own chef restauranteur Nick Liberato) takes you on a feel-good journey as they help transform struggling restaurants and the owners’ outlooks.

Both inspiring seasons of this docuseries aired during the COVID lockdown; the second season aired May 8, 2019. We binge-watched each season in 2 days. Nick Liberato aka Chef Nicky is the Executive Producer and host of Restaurants on the Edge. We met on a beach in Malibu one morning after paddling out for a surfer memorial after losing a mutual friend. As we wept and shared memories of our joyful positive friend Timo, Nick shared a funny guy story about making pizza with Timo and how Timo, who was a builder, schooled him “the chef” about where to cook the pie in the pizza oven and how to find the sweet spot. We laughed and cried over Timo’s exuberance of everything in life, especially his love Amber and baby girl Anouk.

Photo credit: Jean Pierre Provo

Formerly on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters” and Spike TV’s “Bar Rescue”, Nick Liberato is walking talking positive inspiration. In response to the world’s virus, Nick thinks like a true entrepreneur. He shared “You can’t think negatively. You have to think positively. What can come out of a time like this?” Liberato predicts food halls, pop-ups, and smaller concepts.

Quite literally, restaurants are on the “edge.” Everyone is on the edge right now. This is the time to turn crisis into opportunity. It is time to develop a concept and shift. – Nick Liberato

Originally from Philadelphia, Chef Nick Liberato began his career in food stands in the Italian market in South Philly. Surfing took him to the west coast where he began a thriving catering company and acquired and transformed the longstanding Venice fixture, The Venice Whaler. He made a similar move as the Executive Chef of The Pier House, another Venice, California hotspot. Now with 28 years of culinary experience and known for helping failing restaurants bloom in Los Angeles and beyond, be on the lookout for his new concept opening in Philadelphia.

Question and Answer with Chef/Restauranteur/TV Host and Producer Nick Liberato:

Q: Have you kept in touch with any restaurant owners from the show Restaurants on the Edge?

A: I have kept in touch with some of the restaurant owners. One in particular was Justin Hover from our Malta episode. He was the professional football player (soccer player). Him and I grew very close on set. There was a lot of things that we relate to as far as family in our careers and and someone not taking our kindness as a weakness. That was something I had to change in myself years ago. And that’s definitely when I started moving a lot quicker forward, in my career.

I keep in touch with him, actually through FaceTime. There’s been some business calls between him and I. What I can suggest to him and on how he can be better with his business, even in a time like this.

Q: How can restaurants survive during these unsettling times?

Everyone’s at risk at in a time like this. Restaurant owners need to stay as active as they possibly can with their guests. Not only with the takeaway business that they’re putting in place, but social media, because social media is an outlet that not only gets you out to your guests, but it’s what’s happening  – we’re talking on our phones. We are doing Zoom meetings. That’s how we’re all interacting. That’s how I’m interacting with news teams. That’s how I’m interacting with all the meetings that I have in place, both East Coast and West Coast. And it’s just what we have to adapt to. But social media is probably more important now than ever. And I truly believe after this, whether you were an influencer on social media or depending whether a high end or low end model of a restaurant, you have to stay active.

It’s one of the most valuable outlets you can possibly have. So that way the guests know what’s the scene like when they’re going to pick it up. What are the food and cocktail options that they’re going to pick up. And is the business staying active with all the precautions that they need to stay in line with so the guest feels that much more safe when they are going to pick it up.

Let’s hope this never happens again, but it certainly will at some point. I hate even thinking like that, but the capacity of what’s allowed in the restaurant will probably be cut in half. Restaurants are probably going to have to work at 50 percent capacity. It’s just crazy to even think that we would move forward with something like that but these are all things that we really need to think about – of how we are going to be able to interact with our guests and what’s going to be the safest and most comfortable thing for them.

So, we’re not going to dig ourselves out of this immediately. There’s going to be some restrictions that are going to have to be put in place. Are masks going to have to be worn walking in the restaurants? Paperless menus, cashless transactions, 50 percent capacity. These are all valid points that will have to be taken into consideration when going back into this.

I think we’re going to start seeing more of the food hall type thing developing a lot more where there’s multiple concepts in smaller spaces that don’t have as much overhead. There’s not so much of a congregation of a lot of people in one place. You know, they’re talking about concerts and plays and sports and sporting events that aren’t going to have people at. When’s the next time we think we’ll be at a concert or sitting at a play on Broadway or just gathering at a festival? It’s going be a long time before something like that happens.

But to think about a food hall, where you’re able to stand six feet apart from people in line and picking something up and possibly spaced out tables or just taking it from there to whatever destination you’re going to be going to, seems that much more efficient, not only for the guests, but for the restaurant owner. People (restaurants) aren’t going to be able to afford the high rents in the bigger areas.

So I think a lot of the people that may be losing out on their big restaurant built-out concept may be adapting to a smaller venue that has a number of different food concepts in the same area that doesn’t have as much overhead, a lower rent with a smaller kitchen and just less expectations of what the businesses needs to provide as far as an experience.

And that’s something that I’m currently working on as we speak – in the Philadelphia area. That’s actually where I’m at at the moment. I’ve been bi-coastal for the past year and a half now and I’m always looking for new ventures and opportunities and I can’t sit still and I certainly can’t go without working.

Even though I’m kind of been stuck here, my wheels have been turning and I’m seeing a lot of opportunity. And I think that’s really what restauranteurs or anyone that’s involved with the restaurant business needs to see the low hanging fruit, needs to see with within a crisis, there’s going be that much more opportunity for the people that stay positive and know how to develop an idea, a concept, or are just building some sort of a mood board or deck of what they ultimately are trying to pitch, because there’s going to be a lot of spaces that are going to be empty that were once full, and we need to be able to be creative with those particular spaces and how to develop them. So where one person is losing, another person is going to be winning.

Q: How did you transform the Venice Whaler?

A: I’ve spent the past 10 years of my life working within my own consulting for restaurants and bars across the country. I’ve always done a great job taking businesses that are underperforming – the space, turnkey type spots and then elevating them to the next level. When I came into The Venice Whaler in 2014, I was already two years in with Bar Rescue. And a lot of things that I learned on that show was that you don’t necessarily need the nicest, or you don’t need to put the million dollars into the build-out for the concept. Topical finishes, SOPS (meaning the systems that are put in place), the brand, and just how you’re executing the service is really what makes your business.

It’s very clear when someone’s shooting from the hip versus something that’s properly orchestrated. That’s something that’s evident to the guests when they walk in to a business. But when we first came into The Venice Whaler, I’ll be honest, I came on as a consultant and it was a place that I went to to drink and usually at the end of the night. And it wasn’t necessarily something that we always talked about. So when I first went in there, it wasn’t a place that I wanted to associate my name with because it was kind of a dive bar that was sitting on the beach that smelled. I had been going to The Venice Whaler since I moved to California in 1998. I shied away from it because it wasn’t necessarily something I wanted to be associated with because it was a dive bar that smells. It wasn’t inviting.

When I first came part of the place it was just a disaster when I first walked in. And I remember there was a certain situation where there was like a big fight at the place. And I remember coming back the next morning and sitting in the kitchen by myself. And I had walked outside for a moment for a breather and TMZ was there. And they said, what happened here last night? And I just shut the door because I was so like, Oh my God, what just happened here. But I remember sitting in the kitchen. It was July of 2014. And I said, well, you can either walk away from this, which you never do, or you can put your head down and you can turn something from ass to class.

But I saw the potential for for what was in place at that point. But all the hard work that needed to be done and I knew it wouldn’t turn around overnight, of course, but it was something that if we put our minds to it between the menu, the cocktails, the apparel, the service and just how the place looks and is perceived by the guests that we would be able to turn it around because it’s a winning location.

It’s an underperforming restaurant with a great view. And this leads me to how restaurants on the edge was created. To be honest with you, the bar cuisine wasn’t something that I had worked with much. I had always worked in Michelin Star and high-end restaurants before then.

And where Bar Rescue really helped me at that point was because I had already been working with the show about two and half years at that point. And I had learned how to dumb down my food for what would be accepted in a bar environment. And that was something that I had kind of trained myself working on camera and traveling around the country to all these different bars. And, you know, over time, there were people that were pushing back and didn’t like this food item, then wanted the old food item back.

And I was just like, listen, this is just normal stuff that people are going to reject. But I promise you, people will start coming around. At that point when we first started the business, it was a 3 million dollar business that was doing $300,000 in food sales and the rest was all liquor. Today, we are a 10 million dollar business doing 4.5 million in food sales. So that was after, I think, incorporating a little bit of the celebrity as far as the chefs into the place and the creativity, changing the menus and specials and events, and being consistent with it.

The place was always an institution, but after time, after I’d say a good year and a half almost, the place became a food destination. It wasn’t a place you just came for shitty calamari and your warm beer. It became a place that you went to for a craft style cocktail and some really great food that was sourced from farmer’s markets and well orchestrated vendors, not just ordering through Cisco that gives you your fruits, your vegetables, your dairy and your meat without any love being put into it. When you go to one stop shop, you’re limited to that.

And then I expanded what vendors we were ordering from – the bakeries, the places that we are getting all our things. I had custom cedar planks for a cedar planked salmon. I incorporated The whaler Burger, our Whaler Fish Tacos. And these were all kind of developed not only from my experiences in bars, but really my experiences from traveling the world and taking things that I love from a lot of these different areas.

Chicharrones were on the opening menu. I had gotten that from Colombia. The burger was something that I cooked with my family, the fish tacos I had gathered through my research on surf trips and just being passionate and having a lot of integrity and everyone started to follow that. It was it was a really, really tough trying thing. And it’s even tougher to swallow it seeing what’s going on today.

You know, our business has grown not only from The Venice Whaler, but we’ve had Ma’Kai in Santa Monica, which I haven’t really been involved with too much. But The Pier House, which is new and it’s across the street and now Baja Cantina. So there’s been a lot of money that’s been made through The Whaler and then spread out through the other venues, to show how the company has been growing. And it’s also given me other outlets to do different food, like at The Pier House we were able to a West Coast spin on East Coast seafood and in a little bit of a higher-end dining environment, but still offering that laid-back kind of beach vibe. And, you know, I think that both businesses complement each other and don’t compete because developing both the menus, I had to make sure that everything was very different. We had a clam chowder across the street. I had to make sure that it wasn’t one we were doing at Pier House. You know, it was like with Manilla clams and plated differently where we were mass producing our clam chowder three to three times a week, constantly ripping through it because it’s a faster business model as opposed to people sitting and dining. We are turning tables much quicker at The Whaler than we are at The Pier House. So every business is going to have to change a little bit differently.

Q: What brought you to California? How did you get into cooking and TV?

A: I’ve been pitching shows since 2004, along with being a chef, working every other position there is to work in the business. You know, I’ve always had a big love for TV and the people I’ve personally been inspired by growing up watching on TV, even like the Emerils and the Bobby Flays and the Rachael Rays. And, you know, all through the years, I’d like to work on TV. I like to inspire people. And I like to spread positivity, whether it’s through food, cocktails or anything within the business. I kind of found my niche and I was trying to figure out a way.

When I originally came out to California, I came out to California as a cook. I was working as a cook back here in Philadelphia, but I was spinning my wheels back here. I wasn’t growing. And to be honest with you, I wasn’t getting into big colleges that my friends were getting into. I knew I was great at one thing and that was cooking and that was creating experiences for people. And I was also great at surfing and snowboarding and skateboarding. I was kind of the weird one back here. You know, I dress a little bit different. I was already in California, but I was already back here.

But going out to California at that time, I went in 1998. I kind of ran away from this area (Philadelphia), to be honest, because I just wasn’t growing. I had so much creativity inside of me that I needed to release. And I just kind of like Jim Morrison said, “where’s your will to be weird” kind of thing. I wanted to just express myself. I wanted to be in an environment where I could surf in the morning. I could go to the farmer’s markets and I could skateboard to work and I can have the sunshine on me, all at the same time. And I found that in California, not to say that every day was a success and always a great day, but it was an environment that I put myself in where I was able to be creative and be who I want to be. And that wasn’t a time when L.A. was known as a great food city.

Q: How was the Netflix show Restaurants on the Edge born?

I worked for Patina and then I had actually started my own catering business called Caladelphia while working at a surf shop called Z.J. Boarding House in Santa Monica. And Z.J.’s was also a huge platform for me because I was able to meet so many people within the Venice and Santa Monica communities and really established myself on the west side. But it built my clientele as a private chef and cooking in Malibu and Point Dume and cooking in Beverly Hills, Bel Air. I started where I was like a chef to the stars cooking for Cher, Barbra Streisand, Anthony Kiedis, the Beastie Boys, Tom Hanks, Will Smith. Not to name drop it, but it opened up a lot of doors for me.

And at that same time was kind of when I started trying to get myself a little bit more involved with food and TV. And when I first actually met Curtis was when I was working on Top Chef Masters. And then that bounced into some other Food Network appearances and then eventually Bar Rescue. But during that time, I was trying to figure out how can I develop a show of my own. There were so many different concepts that I had for shows and sitting inside of The Venice Whaler I saw, wow, look at this. Look at the beautiful view and look at how underperforming this space is. Could I possibly imagine about creating a job for myself where I traveled to some of the most beautiful locations in the world? Originally, it was just waterfront locations and I was envisioning there’s thousands of miles of coastline with businesses because usually the closest you get to the water, the shittier the food it because it’s a tourist trap, because you’re selling real estate, because people don’t care what they’re eating or drinking as long as they have that view, they’re going to eat their seafood salad and their tacos or whatever it might be. But I wanted to do the reverse at The Whaler.

I wanted to create great food, a great experience. And I wanted to match the view. You have to cook the way you look. I’ve always said that to my team and that’s something that they’ve always followed. And when I initially pitched the concept of the show, it was a different name of the show. And I had connected with some guests that I met at The Whaler that happened to be working with scripted content.

And I told them about an idea about a show that goes to underperforming businesses around the world that have great views that are uplifted in a positive way. I couldn’t lead the show the way we led Bar Rescue with screaming at people or necessarily the way I was raised in this business. Times have changed, people have changed, and they don’t want to be screamed at. Nor do I want to scream at people. I would never treat people the way I was raised in this business, but I certainly wouldn’t change it because it’s built who I am today.

But initially the concept was like, all right, I’ll take a look at it. And then it turned into it. Nick, I think you’ve got something here. You’ve got a nice little nugget, but it needs to be kind of grown upon. And then it turned into just me being on the show, all of a sudden wanting to kind of develop it the way Queer Eye is. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and building a team – that everyone can kind of relate to a certain personality and then having it being shot very high in content like Chef’s Table and then having the travel aspect of like Bourdain.

And that was all the things that we were kind of trying to fire off of until eventually they came back into the restaurant and they told me they were downstairs eating as they always have. And they turned around. They had a bottle of Dom Perignon and glasses and said, we got greenlit by Netflix. And I was like, Oh, my God. I immediately went into tears. And I think that was in July of 2018.

And then in January of 2019 we started, we shot our first of 13 episodes. We literally just announced this week that we are going to be premiering Season 2 of Restaurants on the Edge May 8th. No, no. So that’s exciting. We have 7 more episodes that will be going live. We’ll be showing Slovenia, Finland, Vernon, which is in British Columbia, Muskoka, which is in Ontario, Arizona, Hawaii, and St Croix.

So that combined with everything that we have shown in Season 1, really encompasses the entire world. A number of different cultures that struggle in their own little ways, but amazing stories that are uplifted in the most positive way through the eyes of a chef, a restauranteur, and a designer. And my co-hosts are amazing people. We didn’t even know each other when we first started our first episode, but we immediately molded into one. And by the end of it, we were in tears because we had to leave each other.

Q: How are you dealing with the pandemic? Where are you now?

A: Restaurants on the Edge is really my diary of 2019. I’ve had to sacrifice and adjust my life dramatically in order to be able to do that show. I was working remotely with my businesses. My wife and I were expecting our third baby girl and we don’t have any family in California and wanted to do this one a little bit differently. So that’s when I relocated my wife, my kids to the Philadelphia area and which is hence why I’m back here right now.

I’ve actually gone back to my personal chef days because I’m cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner for my kids. And there are restrictions, there’s modifications, and there’s definitely not Yelp reviews, but reviews of what people thought of the meal – from my kids. My one year old, for instance, she’ll just throw the food on the floor if she doesn’t like it and my 3 year old is probably the best eater of all of them. She doesn’t like to hurt my feelings. But the oldest, Bella, is very vocal. And she’s like, Dad, there’s too much salt in this. I don’t like the color of this; the texture is off. Not what it was the last time you cooked it. So I’m still getting negative reviews. I’m getting some positive reviews. But I’m learning a lot about myself. I’m making my own mistakes with food at the house.

Q: Do you have any advice for humans?

A: People have to understand. I don’t care who you are, where you’re at, what caliber of a chef or restauranteur or person in whatever business you’re in. Mistakes are the most important things that we can make in our life. Because mistakes turn into a new recipe, not only in your kitchen but in your life and how you change up the ingredients and how you go forward with things.

You know, it’s like I know I can make banana bread 100 different times, but I guarantee you every time that I’m making it, I’m probably questioning myself. Should I use more bananas that are brown because they caramelized and the sugars come out a little bit more. Should I start the oven at that time? You’re constantly tweaking things. And that’s what we have to do as human beings. We have to constantly tweak things. We have to constantly not take things personal. We can’t make assumptions.

I don’t know if you’ve ever read the book The Four Agreements. That’s another thing I’ve always kind of led my career behind. The four agreements is never make an assumption. Don’t take anything personal. Always do your best and you’re only as good as your word. And those are all, I think, very important things. Not only is it how you’re perceived, not only in business, but by people and building relationships and really how you feel about yourself. So those four things have always helped me out a lot in how I carry myself in this business.

Q: And since Tim Bailly (aka Timo) is the reason we know each other, would you like to share anything about him?

A: Timo instilled so many things into me as a business man. I think I’ve instilled a lot of things into him about being a father. And more than anything, he really taught me how to laugh. Timo is most definitely one of the people that I think about every single day and he was so happy for me the last time I saw him. I had picked up some pizzas and we hung out at Kenny’s house and he looked at me and I’ll just never forget looking at him. And he had his arms out.

He goes “DUDE! So happy for you, man, your show and the sacrifice you’ve taken with your business and your family, brother come here,” and just this long hug and kiss and “just, dude, I love you. I’m so proud of you.” And I just keep rerunning that my head when I think of him. I think there’s not a day I don’t think about Timo. And like I said, I did this (the show) for him and every single other person out there, you know, that needs positivity in their life because that’s just the way I was raised to make people feel good.

I’m not there to bring people down. I’m there to spread positivity, good vibes. And we’re not asking for anything back. I just want people to treat each other right. And spread good things around. And I think that message been put across really good on the show.

To learn more about Nick Liberato and his thoughts on the future of the restaurant industry, read our latest “as told to” article on Zagat Stories.

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