Why Renowned Chef BJ Lieberman Chose Columbus
One morning in February, a chef who has claimed one of dining’s highest honors—a Michelin star—was at his new job as interim executive chef at a nonprofit that serves women who have been victims of sex trafficking, bopping his head along to music and using stickers to seal boxed lunches.
The previous week, he’d hosted his first pop-up in Columbus, an eight-course affair that was unpretentious yet refined. The menu: his take on his grandma’s matzo ball soup. Tiny panda bears made from sushi rice and smoked salmon. Pork shank with collards and Carolina gold rice, a nod to one of the first kitchens that ever welcomed him as a chef, the renowned Husk in Charleston, South Carolina.
But on that February morning, the chef, BJ Lieberman, showed as much care assembling the boxed lunches at the nonprofit, Freedom a la Cart, as he did plating the pork during his multicourse dinner.
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“My life has really been a series of fortuitous bounces, and Freedom is one of those,” he says. “These women—they’re my friends now. No matter what comes next, I will be a part of helping them if I can.”
If you care about food in Columbus, you’re probably acquainted with Freedom a la Cart, a nonprofit that started about 10 years ago as a way to help women who had worked as prostitutes or been forced into sex trafficking. Freedom sustains itself through its catering business and through its annual fundraiser, Eat Up! Columbus. (The fundraiser, scheduled for April 25, has been changed to a virtual event.)
And if you care about food in Columbus, you might already know about BJ Lieberman. But if you don’t, a bit of background: While a student at the Culinary Institute of America, Lieberman was trying to find his way to Charleston, South Carolina, where the woman he loved was attending nursing school. (They ended up getting married. Bronwyn is truly a partner in his professional life as well as his personal one: At his pop-up here in Columbus, she poured wine, greeted guests and explained dishes, all with a giant smile on her face.)
Lieberman ended up working at McCrady’s Restaurant, a 20-seat, tasting-menu-only restaurant that helped turn Charleston from a sleepy beach-and-Navy town into one of the best culinary destinations in the United States. From McCrady’s, he went on to help Sean Brock (now a famous chef based in Nashville) open Husk, a James Beard Award-winning restaurant that focuses on sustainability and Southern cuisine in an old Victorian house in historic Charleston.
Lieberman was chef tournant at Husk—a fancy title that essentially means he helped run the kitchen and worked every job—when his friend Aaron Silverman called and asked him to come to Washington, D.C., to be part of a new restaurant Silverman was planning. That restaurant eventually became an entire restaurant group that included Rose’s Luxury, which won its first star when the Michelin Guide arrived in D.C. in 2016—and which has kept it ever since. Lieberman was head chef at Rose’s Luxury—he ran the kitchen, set the culture, established the menu and made the place what it is: laid-back fine dining, with excellent food, that takes care of its employees. “We made sure everyone had insurance,” Lieberman says. “We pushed for a work-life balance. We paid people for every hour they were there—which you’re supposed to do, but which basically no restaurant was doing at that time. We figured if we wanted things to change, we had to be a part of changing them. It’s putting your money where your mouth is.”
Lieberman and his wife planned to stay in D.C. a year. They ended up staying seven.
And as time ticked by, Lieberman realized he was ready to try opening his own restaurant—and maybe his own restaurant group. But he didn’t want to do it in D.C., where he had already been a part of starting Rose’s and other restaurants, including Pineapple and Pearls and Little Pearl, both also Michelin-star winners.
So, he and Bronwyn started looking elsewhere—Chicago, San Diego, Columbus.
They were familiar with Central Ohio—Bronwyn grew up here and still has family nearby. (Her great-grandparents ran a meat shop in the Clintonville area in the early 1900s, Chapman’s Poultry Market.) And every time they came to Central Ohio, the couple saw potential.
Lieberman started working with a restaurant real estate agent in both Chicago and Columbus, and, last summer, he and his wife settled on Ohio. Then, in August, the executive chef at Freedom a la Cart told executive director Paula Haines—who happens to be Bronwyn’s stepmother—that she was leaving for another opportunity. The chef gave five weeks’ notice. It was a generous thing, but it’s a tough vacancy to fill because the needs of the women at Freedom are specific.
“I immediately called BJ to ask him what I should do,” Haines says. “And he was like, ‘Well, how about if I step in?’”
The timing was perfect: The executive chef’s last day at Freedom was Sept. 11, 2019. The Liebermans moved to Columbus on Sept. 12.
There were uncertainties when he started at Freedom, Haines says: Some of the women, burned by the men who’d harmed them, didn’t trust men at all. But Lieberman is a warm, charming, kind person, and he worked hard, revamping Freedom’s processes to make the catering business operate more smoothly, reviewing plans for Freedom’s new café—which is scheduled to open Downtown sometime this fall—and making recommendations for a more efficient space.
Over the last seven months, Lieberman has quietly made himself part of the Columbus food scene, too, becoming friends with the chefs behind The Lox Bagel Shop, Comune, and Ambrose and Eve—the last of which is influenced in part by Rose’s Luxury.
“I’m pretty deliriously happy over having BJ here,” says Matthew Heaggans, co-owner and chef at Ambrose and Eve. Heaggans trained as a chef in Washington, D.C.; Rose’s remains his favorite restaurant.
That happiness comes from a respect for Lieberman’s work, which is technically exacting, creative and inherently collaborative. But it also comes from an understanding that Columbus already is the kind of place where a Michelin-star chef might want to open a restaurant.
Lieberman is quick to point to other chefs in Columbus: “The bagels at The Lox are the best I’ve ever had,” he says. “And I am a Jew who lived in New York.”
“I’m not here to change or save the Columbus food scene—the scene doesn’t need me,” Lieberman says. “What’s happening here is exciting—there are a lot of chefs pushing the envelope. I saw that happen in Charleston, when the city went from not having much to having these incredible restaurants. And I think that could happen here, and I want to be a part of that.”
Lieberman also brings a spirit of collaboration. He’s already working on a few ideas with multiple chefs around town as he moves toward opening his first restaurant, likely in German Village. (The restaurant will be named Chapman’s Eat Market, a nod to Bronwyn’s family’s history here.) That spirit, of challenging yourself and challenging your community—to be more creative, warmer, kinder, to demand better food that is prepared thoughtfully, that is more technically sound, that creates something that people haven’t experienced before—that’s something special, Heaggans says.
It’s an idea that people outside this city miss when they read top 10 lists and quick-hit tour guides to Columbus: that someone like Lieberman being here doesn’t mean the scene is about to change, but that it already has. That as many things as we can mourn about the growth of this city—skyrocketing apartment costs, the shortage of homes for sale, gentrification, the ever-growing gap between people with money and people without it, that growth can come with some perks, too.