Whether you view Paul Liebrandt as an avant-garde visionary or a flamboyant hack, he is undoubtedly one of the most original and creative chefs to have made his imprint on New York’s dining scene during the last decade. In 2000, while cooking at Atlas, the chef, who was 24 at the time, earned a three-star review from The New York Times, making him the youngest chef to ever receive that honor.
Despite the acclaim, Liebrandt’s unapologetically high-end cooking fell out of favor in the months following September 11, when Atlas’s owners decided their customers would prefer comfort food instead of eel-and-violet pairings. Not content to sling burgers and fries — albeit expertly prepared ones — the chef soon found himself unemployed, save for some consulting work. Eventually he was hired at Gilt, where he returned to the sort of haute creations that had so endeared him to William Grimes. But Grimes’s successor, Frank Bruni, was not nearly as impressed. Liebrandt soon parted ways with Gilt and went through another period of semi-unemployment before making the fortuitous acquaintance of Drew Nieporent. Together, they opened Corton in 2008, and Liebrandt’s cooking subsequently enjoyed almost universal critical acclaim — and earned three stars from Bruni.
Filmmaker Sally Rowe was along for the ride during much of Liebrandt’s almost decade-long rise and fall and rise, and turned her footage into A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt, a documentary that premieres on HBO tonight at 9. We sat down with Rowe, a New Zealander who has lived in New York for 17 years, to learn more about her experience filming what was essentially a chef’s very painstaking tale of redemption.
When did you meet Paul Liebrandt, and how did you start filming him?
I met Paul at Atlas in 2000. I ate at the restaurant, and it was such avant-garde, interesting food. Nobody was doing what he was doing — the flavor combinations, the way the food looked on the plate. I asked him if could start shooting him. He was really young, 24, and thought it was kind of a lark, so said, “Oh yeah, sure.”
And then you ended up filming him for longer than I’m guessing both of you ever imagined.
It took so long to shoot because we needed a strong finish to the story. When he met Drew, we got that nice, strong finish. Sometimes it was difficult, and he didn’t realize what he was getting into. There was a lot of stress, and having the cameras was sometimes tough. There were times when he said no because it was too difficult.
How did your relationship to him change over the course of filming?
The first five years it took him a while to warm up, but after that he was, like, “Oh yeah, that’s my shadow.” We became friends, and formed a mutual respect. He knew I wasn’t doing some kind of hatchet job.
You really get a sense of him changing over the years — at the beginning, he seems almost more like a cocky British schoolboy than a seasoned chef.
He matured. At the beginning, he was pretty funny and carefree, and then the reality of the business set in. Those guys work so hard, and it’s a big strain over time; all those years of hard work have an effect.
Getting a girlfriend [Arleene Ocontrillo, who is Corton’s director] also seemed to have a positive influence on him.
He’s got a goodie there. She’s a happy person, and brings him up when he’s feeling low.
What did Paul think when he saw the finished film?
He likes the film. There are moments that embarrass him, where he’ll say, “Did I really say that?” More generally, I’ve had several chefs say, “You really get what it’s like.” That’s always nice.
What have reactions been like among the audiences who have seen the film on the festival circuit?
We premiered the film at South by Southwest and then went to Cleveland. No one knew who Paul was there, but they really liked the film. It’s got a universal theme, the struggle for redemption and respect. During the Q&As people would always ask, “How long does it take to get a reservation at your restaurant?”
In a way, it’s good that it took so long to finish the film, because now people are so obsessed with food.
When I started the film, the whole food business wasn’t happening. It was, “Oh, that little film you’re working on?”
Do you feel like being a filmmaker gave you a better appreciation for the struggles Paul went through to find an appreciative audience for his work?
I do understand from Paul’s side: He’s working in a closed environment and knows from his gut that he’s doing something worthwhile and needs to stick to it and finish it. It’s really hard and costly, and you have to get someone to believe in you. And like a restaurant, when you put a film out into the world, you don’t know what will happen to it or what people will think of it. Again, it’s a matter of taste.