[14 June 2011]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Cutting into a pig’s head, Paul Liebrandt pauses. His hands and white apron are bloody, and a bright red slick spreads over the metal kitchen counter where he’s working. “This is bound to attract investment,” he says, as a photographer frames a shot and, of course, the film crew captures the interaction. “You want to open up a serious restaurant and they see photographs like this?” Liebrandt asserts, “No way.”
Smart, self-aware, and endlessly self-performative, chef Paul Liebrandt is the focus of the aptly titled A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt. Born in Zimbabwe and raised and trained in London, he’s arrived in New York full of ambition and righteous ego. Following his Manhattan career over a number of years, Sally Rowe’s documentary is by turns observational and predictable. Initial commentary extols his genius and, repeatedly, his life on the “edge”: “He’s such an innovator,” notes, Amy Scherber, founder of Amy’s Bread, “And he’s on the cutting edge of things a lot of people want to do, but they’re a little bit afraid of trying them, I think.”
Close-ups of Liebrandt’s concoctions showcase their gorgeous color and design, and invite you to consider their unusual combinations of flavors. Thomas Keller, chef at New York’s Per Se, explains how difficult it is to assess food on the edge: “You don’t know whether it’s good or bad,” He says, “You know if you like it or don’t like it, but you don’t know if it’s a good interpretation of it or a bad interpretation of it because it’s the first time it’s ever been done.” Mike Colameco, host of a “culinary show” on PBS, calls Liebrandt’s work “deconstructive,”” adding, “It’s what Duchamp did to art.”
Liebrandt’s predilection for invention is early on rewarded: in 2000, he’s the youngest chef ever to be awarded three stars by the New York Times. It’s only a few months after that, the film notes in an intertitle, that he leaves the restaurant Atlas, “due to disputes over the menu.” Such non-explanation becomes something of a pattern in the film, which goes on to record the several restaurants where he works over the next decade, sometimes showing him in the kitchen or in his apartment, as he describes a series of current states. His language is colorful, his manner erratic, befitting a genius. He runs his kitchen, he says, with a “military precision,” a mode he learned during his own time in “the culinary equivalent of the Special Forces.” At the same time, he indulges in a certain poetry: “The taste has to do with the cerebral part of it,” he says, “I’m thinking of what story am I telling here? What emotion am I trying to stimulate?”
The film doesn’t consult diners, to see which of their “emotions” might be stimulated. For the many years it covers, the film maintains a tight focus on the chef as intelligent, factious, and evolving personality, the self he puts on stage. The film is partly an extension of that stage and a reframing of it. The volatile, awfully precious world of New York restaurants—ever vying for stars bestowed by the New York Times as well as Michelin—engenders outsized self-performances. As Liebrandt appears more symptomatic than exceptional, he’s judged incessantly by professional critics, such as William Grimes and Frank Bruni, both formerly of the New York Times.
His rock star cache is at once appealing and off-putting. After several jobs and some periods of joblessness (“This is the dichotomy of my life,” he points out, “Vogue magazine does three-page spreads on me and all the rest of it, and yet I’m unemployed. I’m still pretty young, but at this age I should be a little more stable right now”), Liebrandt finally makes a deal with new York restaurateur Drew Nieporent. As they prepare to open Corton, the film takes up the countdown, first by months and weeks, and then by days.
This structure is familiar and so its tension is limited. But as Liebrandt oversees the lighting design, scolds his kitchen workers, and trains his wait staff (and at least one of them expresses his gratitude that this chef, at least, doesn’t throw things at him), the film underscores that his methods yield results—or stars anyway, which are the most desired results in this universe.
And this is A Matter or Taste‘s greatest insight. By dipping in and out of Liebrandt’s experience, the documentary maintains an unusual distance from its compelling subject, and also reveals the environment that produces him. As much as he’s rewarded for his inventiveness, he’s also repeatedly recontained, reminded that he’s not actually supposed to be too arrogant, too smart, or too different.