"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.
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.