A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt
Dir. Sally Rowe
8pm Monday, June 13, HBO
Documentary Films Summer Series
In Sally Rowe’s HBO film A Matter of Taste, Paul Liebrandt’s creds as the romantic poet of the pots and pans are established early on. He bends over a counter, intent upon arranging a plate just so; long, dark hair falls forward, framing a face that’s both boyish and a touch tormented. That he can also be spontaneous is suggested by a scene shot from beneath a sheet of glass on top of which Liebrandt is deftly daubing and dripping colorful sauces a la Jackson Pollock.
That this British enfant terrible is no poseur, that he can actually cook, is determined for us throughout the film via testimony offered by celebrity chefs such as Thomas Keller and critics at the level of the New York Times’ William Grimes. We must then take on faith the gustatory charms of espuma of calf brains and foie gras. Regardless, his early celebrity was enough to inspire Rowe to follow him for 10 years in his quest to become recognized as a top-tier chef in New York, his adopted home.
His rise was initially meteoric: In 2001, at age 24, he became the youngest chef ever to have received three stars from the Times, for his work at Atlas, a previously forgettable restaurant on Central Park South. “Mr. Liebrandt makes you use taste buds other chefs ignore … he takes appalling risks with flavor combinations,” said Grimes in his New York Times review.
Almost as quickly as he soars he quits “due to disputes over the menu” and lands at Papillon, a restaurant Grimes calls “a dump,” nevertheless now awarding it two stars under Liebrandt. Falling stars are only poetic in Alabama, and demotion, coupled with a management’s hard-times switch to a burger-based menu, induces Liebrandt to decamp once again.
A title card, in silent film fashion, informs us that three years later, in December 2005, he finally lands a position as chef-director at the opulent, hotel-based Gilt. Liebrandt insists that he’ll get it this time around, but the aware viewer will take a clue from the fact that he also mentions that it’s a challenge working with hotel people. The Times’ new restaurant reviewer, Frank Bruni, complains about origami-like fussiness. This time the Chef doesn’t walk out in a funk, management fires him.
This time, do we care? He acquires a tiny chihuahua and a girlfriend, tattoos appear on upper arms … and, just in the nick of time, he gets hooked up with Drew Nieporent, a highly successful restaurateur of Orson Welles’ stature and ambition. Together, they turn Nieporent’s former Montrachet into Corton, a totally new creature. This is where things could really get good and, to be sure, there’s more action here at last. Bristly interaction with staff is recorded in the run-up to the much-delayed opening, and plates are described as “fucking garbage.” But “he doesn’t throw stuff, he doesn’t hit you,” says one chastened chef.
And maybe this is part of the problem with A Matter of Taste (besides the lame name): We’ve been conditioned by the likes of Iron Chef, Chopped, and the rants of abusive, bad-boy Brit, Gordon Ramsay. Yes, they’re contrived, but there is at least drama. Here, we are merely amused by the obsession with getting three stars from the Times and speculation over how Bruni will camouflage his arrival. We come to think that Nieporent might have made an equally good subject … then the day comes, and the stars are awarded under a title that reads “Imagination, Say Hello to Discipline.” Yup, three.
Whereupon the quest for two Michelin stars begins. Here’s a recent Yelp-out progress report: “Corton is definitely a great place for you to begin your journey in gastronomy as you work your way up to the holy grail that is French Laundry/Per Se.”
Damn, still not there.