Among the great food cities of the world, New York City stands near the top. Home to some of the finest restaurants and most interesting, challenging cusine anywhere, it’s a foodies delight. However, for those working in the industry in the Big Apple, the restaurant business can eat you alive. With restaurants making it or breaking it on the word of a handful of highly influential critics, with customers that are savvier than ever, building a career as a chef is a endeavor that only the most deliriously passionate can survive. A combination of long grueling hours, little to no recognition during those all important, but taxing years as a sous chef or apprentice, and the high wire act of finally striking out your own and opening your own restaurant can defeat even the most inspired and talented chefs. But for Paul Liebrandt, his situation was almost ten times worse.
In Sally Rowe‘s “A Matter Of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt” we find in the titular subject in the most curious of circumstances: bursting with talent, but without the proper venue to show it off. Spanning nearly a decade, when we first meet Liebrandt it’s just after 9/11 and he’s cooking at Papillon, a small bistro where his talents far outsize its modest decor. It’s not long before he finds a champion in New York Times food critic William Grimes who awards the chef with two stars — the most he can dare give the establishment which barely meets the requirements of haute cuisine — and Liebrandt finds his name being buzzed. But not even the good word can keep the business afloat in post 9/11 New York City which found restaurants closing left and right, and soon, Liebrandt reduced to cooking burgers and fries. With the owners no longer able to afford the high end ingredients the chef needs and changing their approach to try and catch a bigger swath of everyday eaters Liebrandt soon finds himself in a cruel purgatory where his sophisticated fare no longer has a home in a restaurant culture that has started to embrace comfort food.
The next few years finds the young chef wandering, keenly aware of his talent but without a place to put it. The best way to describe his food would be avante garde. Pushing the boundaries of familiar flavor profiles and food combinations, Liebrandt serves up fare like beer and truffle soup and espuma of calf brains and foie gras. Using molecular gastronomy well before it became a full blown trend, his cooking is divisive and Frank Bruni, who took over for Grimes at the New York Times, was not initially enthralled by Liebrandt’s wares, tasting the chef’s latest creations at Gilt in the early aughts. This would mark the lowest point of Liebrandt’s career as he continued to struggle to find the right job and dabbled in consulting for a wide variety of clients including candy and drink companies. But it would take restauranteur Drew Nieporent to draw him out and give him the chance (and gamble) of a lifetime: his own restaurant with his own menu.
Director Sally Rowe has a helluva subject in Paul Liebrandt, but both he and the story are underserved by the film’s scant running time which pushes just over the one hour mark. For all the time we spend with Liebrandt — and given the film stretches over a number of years, we can only assume Rowe had some great access — there is very little we learn about the man himself other than his food. It’s interesting that he doesn’t have the ego or even the temper of some other celebrity chefs, but we learn little about his philosophy in approach to cooking or his views on the contemporary food scene. Moreover, ‘Serving Up’ misses opportunities to offer a more balanced assessment of his food. When someone like Eric Ripert says he’s eaten Liebrandt’s cooking, smiles cryptically and then says “no comment” you hope that Rowe would dig more, but that’s all we get from the man. Instead, more time is given to folks in praise of the chef’s food including local critics and colleagues like Thomas Keller. There is no sense of where Liebrandt fits into the larger food world, or how his technique and plates resonate among other chefs, seasoned diners or even fans who have followed his cooking over the years.
As ‘Serving Up’ enters the second half, focusing on the work to get Liebrandt’s restaurant Corton to its opening day, there is an uneasy sense that the film becomes less entertainment, and more informercial. Most chefs would kill to have a seasoned restaurenteur like Nieporent backing their venture and the only real dramatic stakes raised are whether or not Bruni will give Corton the star-rating they’ve been working toward (but you’ll be able to guess the outcome). For all the drama that Rowe tries to drum up, Liebrandt’s struggles are ultimately fairly superficial. Even during his “lean years” Liebrandt was profiled in several magazines, had a cookbook, the aforementioned consulting business — he was hardly lacking in attention which makes the absence of a larger career and industry perspective all the more glaring. Moreover, there is a slight suggestion towards the end of the film that Liebrandt somewhat “mainstreamed” his entire approach that is left unexplored or even questioned directly to the man himself.
You will come away from ‘Serving Up’ with a clinical, distant appreciation for Liebrandt’s food but with little understanding or even shared passion for it. Temporarily filling like a mid-season episode of “Top Chef,” ‘Serving Up’ leaves you wishing the meal were a half hour longer with more filling, and less fat. [C]
“A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt” premieres on HBO tonight at 9 PM.