Paul Liebrandt: Portrait of the chef as a young artist
June 13th, 2011
03:00 PM ET
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"I'm not a nutcase. I'm just an artist," says Paul Liebrandt at the beginning of A Matter of Taste, director Sally Rowe's film documenting the chef's turbulent, and eventually triumphant journey through the kitchens of New York.

Liebrandt, a onetime Food and Wine Best New Chef, winner of multiple Michelin stars and now chef at New York City's Corton allowed Rowe access to his restaurant kitchens and home life over the course of ten years - a development that surprised both of them. The film, which premieres on HBO tonight at 9 E.T. presents an intimate evolution of a driven, complicated, artful and often misunderstood chef in search of an appreciative audience.

Eatocracy sat down with Liebrandt and Rowe during the SXSW festival to discuss the role of discipline, artistry, fear and the redemptive power of a little Chihuahua named Spencer.

Watch the trailer for A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt.

Eatocracy: The film seems to frame Paul as an artist, even more than a chef, down to an opening image of him painting a plate. How did you arrive at that?

Sally Rowe: When I first ate Paul's food back in '99 or 2000, I hadn't eaten anything like it before and Paul was doing something in the States that no one else was doing. He was young, dynamic, and his food was absolutely beautiful - like art on a plate. And he's a character and he's driven. I thought it would be an interesting ride.

Eatocracy: There is a lot of beautifully, perfectly composed food out there in the world that just leaves me cold. How do you maintain that rigorous visual standard and maintain this emotional component that you say so important to you?

Paul Liebrandt: Food is the medium of all the senses - it's that cerebral aspect where you feel what I'm trying to convey. It could be that in spring, we do a dish based on color - the color green, for example. It's not just green items; it's a feeling of green, different shades of green, different levels of green.

And of course the execution of the food - properly cooked and seasoned - is very important, but it's more than that.

Sally Rowe: With Paul's food, you actually have to think about what you're eating. You can't just gobble it up and think, "Mmm! Now what's next?" You have to spend time with each dish. It's an enjoyable and cerebral experience.

Eatocracy: I interview a lot of chefs and ask them about who taught them to love food. The answer is almost always, "Oh, at my grandmother's knee." You have a rather different story.

Paul Liebrandt: I didn't come from a food background at all. I grew up in London in the early '80s and I went to boarding school from the age of seven. I didn't have much of a family life and I didn't pot peas with my mother or go on the family farm and pull carrots from the ground. I had no food culture and no food aspirations at all when I was a young man. It's just something I gravitated toward organically. I can't explain why - I just did. Some people just have something they like to do and if they're lucky enough, they get to do it for a living.

Eatocracy: What was the moment when you realized it actually was your destiny to become a chef?

Paul Liebrandt: When I was growing up in central London, we would walk down to Chinatown, and I remember there was a fishmonger and a butcher there, and ducks and steam kettles and something inside me knew that this was something exciting. I'm not just looking at it and going "Eh." Look at the beautiful shine on that Peking duck. Look at the steam and the wontons.

As I got older, I can't explain it. Food just spoke louder than other things.

Eatocracy: In the film, you're portrayed as working in the restaurant for 16, 20, 24 hours a day. How do you balance that with the rest of life?

Paul Liebrandt: There is no balance when you spend so many hours a day working. But as in any profession, when you aspire to be really good at what you do, that kind of work is what it takes. No one is going to hand it to you. When I'm away from the restaurant, I'm still thinking about the business and what I want to do with the future. It's a 24 hour a day blessing and curse.

Eatocracy: Are you ever allowed to be satisfied?

Paul Liebrandt: Not for me, no. I'm not someone who is easily pleased. I'm always striving to do better, to be better and to explore. I'm curious by nature.

Sally Rowe: Any artist is constantly learning and making their projects better, their films better, their food better. If you ever think, "That's great, I'm done." - that's a dangerous road to go down. I'm never satisfied. Paul's always out and eating all across the board - ethnic food, modern food, young chefs. I go out and see documentaries. It's inspiring. There's always something new going on.

Eatocracy: Who do you see out there doing food akin to yours? Ferran Adria? Grant Achatz?

Paul Liebrandt: People loosely use the term "molecular gastronomy" and it's not a bad thing, but I don't cook in a scientific way. I don't stand in the kitchen and think, "Well, if I add that molecule to that..." It's food. It's hot, cold, knife, cut, cook - anywhere in the world.

What I like to do is take modern technique and ideas and apply them in a very natural way to beautiful ingredients and create a style which is rooted in the past, cognizant of the present, but thinking of the future. It's modern French food along the lines of Pierre Gagnaire, Michel Bras, Noma-esque. When I was younger, I was very influenced by El Bulli and modernity, but now the creativity has to have a function and it has to be food.

Eatocracy: The film takes place over the course of ten years. Did you have any idea when you were starting out that it would have such a long span?

Paul Liebrandt: Not at all. Watching yourself from ten years ago is horrifying - did I really say that? Why would I think that? But we are the sum of our parts and there's been a metamorphosis, a maturing, a focus.

Eatocracy: One of the most gratifying things about the film is watching you go from getting calls from girls in the kitchen asking if you're single, to falling in love and getting Spencer the Chihuahua. It humanizes you, when frankly, you could have come off as a robot.

Paul Liebrandt: With chefs and cooking and kitchens, that's always a risky thing. It's laborious and chefs by nature are...well, they're chefs. Sally captured the human element. And my dog makes me a better person. He runs my household.

Eatocracy: But when you go into your restaurant, you're the alpha dog, but you're not just bossing. You're also mentoring.

Paul Liebrandt: I'm the governor; that's the way we term it in our kitchen. It's a British thing. But I'm not just ruling with a rod of iron. It's about nurturing these guys who come to work for me and putting their career in my hands. It's your responsibility to take that and mold it with the trust that they're giving you, and make them not just a better cook, or front of house, but a better person. It's my duty.

I was worried how it would come off in the film - the typical chef, shouting, egomaniacal. I'm very direct and don't beat around the bush but I think Sally edited it beautifully. I'm tough, but I'm not an ass in the kitchen.

Eatocracy: Do you see this time spent mentoring as a responsibility?

Paul Liebrandt: This is the next generation of people to become chefs and owners and keep the business going. With all the distractions these days, it's important to keep that rigor and sense of discipline - not just entertain the fantasies of fame and money. That can't be the reason; they'll be disappointed.

Sally Rowe: I think it's important for the young guys in culinary school to see. They think, "I'm going to be on Top Chef and be a big star!" You have to work to have longevity.

Paul Liebrandt: I did an address at the Culinary Institute of America where I got up in front of 600 students and told them that 95 perecent of them won't be in the business in five years. It's too hard. Once they enter the workplace, it gets harder. The TV shows are not real and they shouldn't think like that. I had all the parents come up to me and thank me after.

Eatocracy: When you are blazing new territory, is there a fear factor?

Paul Liebrandt: It's risky. People may not like the food, but life is risk. And how the diners feel is tremendously important. If someone's thowing a great party and no one shows up for it, it's pointless.

To be creative with food is a much more difficult thing than to do it with a visual or an audible art form - because you have to eat food. It's something that nourishes you and you use all your senses. Just because you play with it doesn't mean that it's good. If you're a visual or musical artist, you made art yesterday - but you don't have to today.

If you're a chef, you have to come in every day and it's hard to be creative. It doesn't always go hand-in-hand with being productive. And it's more subjective than art of music or film - everybody has such small nuances of what they like and don't like. We can all look at the Mona Lisa and say it's transcendent and iconic.

The payoff is when I see people enjoying what we do in the kitchen. We had a lady come in last week and eat a terrine that we're doing right now. She started crying at the table. I was horrified - "What did you do? What did you say to her?" I ran up, "Uh, madam? Is everything okay? I am extremely sorry if we have offended you in any way..."

She said, "No. This reminds me of when I was a child, with my grandfather in France. We'd go to the market and buy these charcuterie terrines and this reminds me of that. It's a good thing."

It touched her in such an emotional way - the smell, the taste, the texture, the feeling. It transcends the visual aspect and that is really special when you can bring out emotion for people. When they leave, they feel complete and nourished in their soul as well as their stomach.



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soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. Stewart Wadden

    Hats off to Sally Rowe and Amy Foote for an intelligent film. My own brief review – Fall and Rise of a Chef – is at http://stewartwadden.com

    June 20, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Reply
  2. MMHHHH...

    Doesn't he have to wear a hair net in the kitchen???

    June 14, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Reply
  3. willie

    Nothing is more upsetting to me than when I go to a restaurant and my food comes arranged in pretty patterns in an attempt to fool you into thinking you're getting your moneys worth. Give me a full plate of food with stuff hanging over the edge and a tall cool ale and I am beyond happy. You should only be able too see the plate after you have eaten. Yuppy chefs should learn that we eat for survival and pleasure, not to make an artistic statement.

    June 14, 2011 at 12:06 am | Reply
    • ZRS

      More food doesn't necessarily mean good food, and it sure doesn't always mean better value. There are many different ways to evaluate money well spent. For some people, that means a full stomach. For others, it means an aesthetic experience. It is a matter of personal taste and one isn't inherently better than the other.

      Some people spend their money on concerts when they could just as well sit home and listen to the radio. They like it when the pros do their thing live. Dinner is the same thing - and often costs less.

      June 14, 2011 at 12:20 am | Reply
    • Worldwalker

      You've just exemplified what Mike above was talking about. You eat to get stuffed. The "rampant obesity" he spoke of doesn't come from people enjoying the artistry of a celebrity chef - it comes from people eating "a full plate of food with stuff hanging over the edge."

      I should mention, by the way, that I don't buy fancy meals; I don't get enough enjoyment out of them to make it worth the money for me. I don't go to live professional sporting events, either; the cost of a couple of tickets to a baseball game, parking, etc., just isn't worth what I get from that, either. And I don't even watch cooking shows. On the other hand, I own thousands of books, and read more as fast as I can. So I don't have a problem with other people doing what makes *them* happy - fancy meals, season tickets to the Sox, or whatever else trips their trigger. I don't expect them to be exactly like me, and enjoy exactly what I do. I'm pretty sure that every one of you, unless you live like a monk, enjoys something that another one of you would respond to with "how can you spend money on THAT?" Cable TV? Fancy clothes? A nice car? Going to concerts? Sporting events? Bars? Casinos? For some people, it's food.

      June 14, 2011 at 8:56 am | Reply
  4. Liberty Queen

    Liebrandt obviously knows very little about the process of music. Music is not, "If you're a visual or musical artist, you made art yesterday – but you don't have to today." and shows his vast ignorance of living sound. I'll live longer on music than food any day of the week.

    June 13, 2011 at 11:51 pm | Reply
    • ZRS

      That's poetic and all, but you will actually die if you don't eat. You may not be nearly as fulfilled if you live without music, but you certainly will survive.

      June 14, 2011 at 12:02 am | Reply
  5. Jinx

    @Michelle You're obviously just jealous of a successful man. Anyone that puts that much time and effort into something they are passionate about deserves all the accolades that come their way. The only way you will ever realize this is to walk in their shoes. Accept who you are and what you've become Michelle. Try and be happy for those who achieve.

    June 13, 2011 at 11:36 pm | Reply
  6. Jinx

    However, there has never been a better time to be a chef. Celebrity or otherwise :)

    June 13, 2011 at 9:30 pm | Reply
  7. hamza

    sorry, but it is just a little bit pretentious. i am so over chefs as the new celebrity.

    June 13, 2011 at 8:29 pm | Reply
    • Michelle

      Yes, very pretentious. The interviewer, "Eatocracy", was name dropping.
      Paul Liebrandt is in love with himself and is more concerned with celebrity than cooking.
      The documentary is scripted nonsense, such as "the downfall".

      I'm with Eric Ripert, he was polite and said "no comment", but I will say what I think: Pretentious faux chef celebrity.

      June 13, 2011 at 10:44 pm | Reply
      • Kat Kinsman

        I'd argue that he's touting the exact opposite - lauding the power of hard, grueling, dues-paying work over laurel resting and fame gathering, but we all have our own interpretation.

        June 13, 2011 at 11:50 pm | Reply
  8. Alex

    Anyone else notice the f-bomb at around the 1 minute mark? It was sweet when my grandmother heard that coming from my laptop in the kitchen. Thanks CNN.

    June 13, 2011 at 8:25 pm | Reply
  9. Worldwalker

    @mike,

    This raises the interesting question of why, then, so few Americans are particularly interested in food. Aside from a few foodies, most Americans eat things out of boxes and freezer cases, or eat out at chain restaurants, and don't actually have much of an infatuation with food at all, even if they happen to watch cooking shows. Elsewhere in the world, where people are more focused on their food and more involved in what they create in the kitchen, obesity rates are significantly lower. There may, indeed, be a connection - but if there is, it's the exact opposite of the one you think there is.

    tl;dr version: people get fat from stuffing multiple Big Macs in their faces, not from creating and eating healthy, delicious, and special food.

    June 13, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Reply
  10. mike from Iowa and Wilton Manors, FL

    Isn't it ironic that a nation suffering from rampant obesity is infatuated with chefs and food? Or is it symptomatic?

    It's just food people. Shakespeare would say "much ado about nothing".

    By and large, Americans are spoiled, self-important consumers. The majority of American do nothing except consume.

    June 13, 2011 at 7:49 pm | Reply
  11. mike fro mIowa and Wilton Manors, FL

    The title of this article "Portrait of the Chef as a young artist" pays homage to James Joyce's book "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man", which is about Leopold Bloom, the protagonist in Joyce's famous book "Ulysses".

    June 13, 2011 at 7:46 pm | Reply
  12. Worldwalker

    Anyone can cook. Also, anyone can paint. And anyone can sing. There are reasons why da Vinci wasn't a famous singer, why Escoffier isn't remembered for his painting, and Pavarotti wasn't a celebrated cook (and why nobody is beating a path to my door for my singing, painting, OR cooking). I'll leave it up to you to figure out why.

    June 13, 2011 at 7:36 pm | Reply
  13. ht

    anyone can cook, that doesn't make you special in any form

    June 13, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Reply
    • Lola

      @ ht........yes it does......it all depends how you cook and what you cook. And he is not talking about regular "shoemakers" in the kitchen.....in a professional one. As he said, Culinary School is not enough to prepare you for the reality of a professional Kitchen World....I would say that,m among other things, Common Sense is a major requirement.

      June 13, 2011 at 8:11 pm | Reply
  14. greg

    nutcase

    June 13, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Reply
  15. signsoftheend

    what would be a clearer sign of the end of the world as we know it do you need? not the 'rapture' kind of end, but a revolution kind.

    June 13, 2011 at 4:47 pm | Reply
  16. good eats

    When I got to the part about food having a "feeling of green," I was like, "puh-leeeze!" Just what we need, another artsy-fartsy chef making thousand-dollar salads. But as the article went on he sounded more, well, human. I like the way he emphasizes being a great chef is a LOT of hard work, and he seems to take a genuine interest in his staff. Glad I read the whole article.

    June 13, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Reply
    • Kat Kinsman

      I hope you get to see the documentary as well. It's a really thoughtful film and I think goes a long way toward showing just what goes into being a successful chef in NYC. Thank you for sticking with the article!

      June 13, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Reply

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