At the Table with J. Betski’s

Reliable Polish and German flavors at J.Betski’s

by Laura White
photographs by Trey Thomas

Family can look like a lot of things. For John F. Korzekwinski, kin, colleagues, and community all comprise an important portion of that definition. The owner and chef at J. Betski’s restaurant spins family recipes for Eastern European dishes into modern takes made with local ingredients. Originally from Merrick, New York, both of his great-grandmothers were German and both of his great-grandfathers were Polish. “I grew up in a family where my grandmothers, particularly, cooked a lot,” he says. “I just felt the need to bring a little bit of that to the public.”

Today, he does so in Seaboard Station, where Raleighites can feast on kielbasa sausage—the family recipe from an uncle who was a butcher—right alongside seafood dishes featuring seasonal local produce.

When Korzekwinski first opened his restaurant more than a decade ago, countless friends and colleagues warned him against using the terms “German” or “Polish” to describe his dishes, concerned it might scare people away with visions of bland, cheese-and-potato-heavy offerings. He’s found the opposite to be true, however; many of his customers are devoted regulars. “Fortunately people have continued to come and help it grow. It shatters the stereotype.” Good hearty food, as it turns out, is just good hearty food.

Relationship based
No stranger to service, Korzekwinski has always worked in restaurants, both in front and back of house—from Italian joints in the Bronx to ritzy seafood houses along the south shore of Long Island. “I think that’s how a lot of people start out up in New York,” Korzekwinski says. “So you get a little taste of it all. And the people, you know, I always enjoyed the people. I enjoyed the camaraderie.”

That camaraderie is what draws people to service, Korzekwinski says, and he suspects is part of what keeps them in it. “You know you’re a glutton for punishment to a degree if you enjoy doing this,” he says, meaning the restaurant industry. “It’s an adrenaline rush.”

It was kin that first brought him to Raleigh 25 years ago: His sisters were in school here, so he moved down. His first job was at Capital City Club. He worked in a number of other establishments over the years, and would later go on to help Andrea Reusing with the opening of Lantern. He credits much of his success to the many opportunities offered to him by the area’s other talented chefs and restaurateurs, and all the things he learned while working with them. It was the camaraderie that kept him here.
Korzekwinski is bolstered by the Triangle’s food community. Here, he says, support supersedes competition between establishments. He cites 18 Seaboard executive chef Jason Smith as an example. Smith was an early tenant in the Seaboard Station shopping center, where J. Betski’s has always been located since the restaurant’s opening. The success and stability of Smith’s seafood restaurant encouraged Korzekwinski, he says, and he wasn’t alone. Now, Seaboard Station has a diverse culinary scene, ranging from American,  European, and Chinese fare to coffee and beer.

Approaching year 12, J. Betski’s shows no sign of slowing down. “Restaurant years, they go by fast—like dog years, you know?”
Along the way, Korzekwinski has fostered a familial relationship with his staff, teaching in the way he was taught. The restaurant employs about 16 employees, both full and part time, and several of them have been with him since opening. According to Korzekwinski, you can’t put a price on the continuity of a long-term staff. “That’s the reason we’ve been here 11 years: people are a lot smarter than me and it makes me look good and it keeps me going,” he says. “Our men and women are really good people. They get the whole picture.”

The whole picture
Korzekwinski knows his family members are the ones who have sacrificed the most for J. Betski’s success. He gives credit to his wife, Katherine, for most of the family legwork while he’s at the restaurant. “I was always a restaurant person, so she knew what the hours entailed,” he says, but adding kids to the mix makes the long hours that much harder. “She’s done most of the work at home.”

The Korzekwinskis integrate home and restaurant as much as possible. Katherine Korzekwinski and 2-year-old Rose can be found at J. Betski’s most mornings for a cup of coffee and some quality time before the day gets rolling. The name itself is mash-up of family names: J for Korzekwinski’s grandfather John, who he is named for; Bet for his grandmother Elizabeth, who friends called Betty; and ski to wrap it all up in Korzekwinski style. And Korzekwinski is already planning where his children will fit into the restaurant one day. His oldest daughter, Eve, 10, loves baking; his son Harrison, at 6, is outgoing and would likely be front-of-the-house. Perhaps Rose will fill his shoes as chef. 

Korzekwinski also has plans for a bit of renovation, modernization, and possibly expansion at J. Betski’s. The restaurant’s interior is intimate, homey, and inviting, with dark woodwork offset by black accents and neutral tones. The seating is almost doubled by the outdoor dining area, where tables are framed by planters bursting with greenery and seasonal blooms. It’s all cozy and classic, but has remained unchanged since J. Betski’s’ start. So, too, has Korzekwinski’s involvement, and he’s coaxing himself to step back from parts of daily operation. After all, it’s what his close-knit staff is for. J. Betski’s is practically part of his family, though, and so he knows this will be easier said than done. “Something you’ve worked, grown with your own hands, and sacrificed a lot for, you don’t want to let go of it. Maybe I’m a little bit worse that way, but I try.”