The shock value of a young man with blood smeared on his chef’s coat and a pig’s head can’t be underestimated. Does it make you think “Godfather” or chef, or, possibly nutcase. The young man, Paul Liebrandt, wryly acknowledges the absurdity of the photo shoot, saying, “I’m not a nutcase; I’m just an artist.” In Sally Rowe’s 2010 documentary, “A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt,” we witness the travails of an artist who just happens to be a chef.
Liedbrandt is the kind of chef who combines ingredients freely, making dishes like chocolate covered scallops or a beer and truffle soup or a bacon sorbet. He was so innovative that three-star chef Thomas Keller of Per Se comments that you can’t tell whether the dish is good or bad because it’s the first time it’s ever done.
Liebrandt is from the U.K. and makes his home in New York City. You might not know who he is, but at 24 he was working at a restaurant called Atlas and earned a three-star rating from the then-New York Times restaurant critic, William Grimes. That was in 200o and he remains the youngest chef to ever earn a three-star review from the four-point New York Times.
Liebrandt was on the move and took a job at a smaller restaurant called Papillon. Grimes felt Liebrandt was totally out of context and awarded Liebrandt two stars which was, he explains in an interview was the upper limits for such a “dump.”
For those of us who like small, quaint out of the way places who can cook up culinary surprises, such an attitude might come as a snarky slap on the face. Liebrandt had downscaled his food, according to the limitations of economics, but not his imagination, saying that after 9/11, people wanted comfort food, but now people are tired of it. But according to this documentary, chefs aren’t always understood by management or critics.
A decline in customer traffic during the summer forces the management to make a decision. From a charming haute cuisine hole-in-the-wall to an anywhere bistro offering hamburger and French fries–and not in the manner of our beloved Umami Burgers or even The Counter. You wouldn’t expect Liebrandt to survive too long in the land of French fries, even with French fries tasting events.
This isn’t the only time we see how non-restaurant people strangle the creativity of a chef. As Liebrandt comments “The most important thing is to cook the food I want…People know who you are…you build a clientele.”
After his departure from Papillon, Liebrandt becomes a “culinary mercenary” and even does a bit of consulting because “a chef that doesn’t cook is a very miserable chef; I don’t want to go down that path.” His personal life isn’t much better because with a chef’s long hours and few free nights to date, it’s hard to meet people and he usually ends up in “the friends zone instead of the end zone.”
Liebrandt does survive and continues to cook, even after the Grimes, who began with the NY Times in 1998 is replaced by William Grimes NYTimes food critic 1998 until 2003 is replaced by Frank Bruni (2003-2009) who displays a preference for comfort food. Still, there is a happy ending on all fronts. As New Yorkers know, Liebrandt went on to earn another three-star review from the NY Times as well as two Michelin stars. Liebrandt is currently the chef-owner of Corton.
Born in what was once Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1976, Liebrandt was an only child of an officer in the British military police. His parents divorced and Liebrandt was enrolled in a large boarding school, St. George’s in Hertfordshire. The military discipline he learned at home and the regimented schedule and impersonal nature of boarding school life, was good preparation for becoming a chef. Yet Liebrandt also grew up eating cafeteria slop. He wasn’t raised in a food culture. His father hoped for a military career, but now Liebrandt keeps orderly armies in his kitchen–without tantrums.
Liebrandt began working in a kitchen at the tender age of 14 and at 19 he was in the kitchen of Marco Pierre White when White received three-stars from Michelin. White was the youngest chef to receive that honor at 33. White also trained the reality TV star of “Hell’s Kitchen,” Gordon Ramsay.
This documentary was a decade in the making. Rowe was enchanted by the food she tasted at Atlas, befriended and followed Liebrandt’s career trajectory. That all makes this an intimate portrait of a boy-chef maturing into a secure artist who develops his style and finds a situation best suited for his goals.
Both Rowe and Liebrand followed their passions and there’s a lesson to be learned there.
“A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt” is available on Netflix for instant streaming and is part of a DVD set, “Culinary Masterpieces: Four Great Foodie Films” from First Run Features along with “Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven,” “Kings of Pastry” and “Guy Martin: Portrait of a Grand Chef.”