There's a chance you dont give a rip about Paul Liebrandt, Michelin-starred chef of Corton in Tribeca and something of a tortured-toque genius figure — many people who live their lives outside the realm of top-tier gastronomy, or simply outside New York City, probably don't. But that's not an acceptable reason to skip A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt, a documentary, debuting next week on HBO, that is as much about the coronation of celebrity in this soul-gnashing industry as it is about the celebrity himself.
Liebrandt, who delved deep into cooking after a "lonely childhood" in Britain, is compelling on his own. Trained under legendary names like Marco Pierre White and Pierre Gagnaire, he comes off peculiar and neurotic but boyishly funny, an unwielding, tight-wound workaholic chef lauded for the incredible visual context of his plates, as well as his skill at coaxing revelatory results out of unorthodox combinations like chocolate, squab and scallops. But it's clear director Sally Rowe also saw the near-decade she spent following Liebrandt from kitchen to kitchen as a way to clue us in to just how arduous it can be to achieve sustained culinary success, and how one's treatment by food media (in particular, former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni) can acutely bend a chef's trajectory.
After leaving Atlas in 2001 (then 24, he was the youngest ever to receive three Times stars), Liebrandt ends up at Papillon, a casual bistro that in no way nurtures his sensibilities. (There's an amazing scene with him cooking burgers and fries, a look of pure dismay on his face.) He later lands at Gilt, where his high hopes are dashed by a mediocre Bruni review; after leaving here, he freelance-consults, lamenting that his career heads "down the toilet" at an even clip of every two years.
Eventually, he lands in a partnership with bigwig restaurateur Drew Nieporent to open Corton, and Rowe's film follows the restaurant from a whitewashed shell to the recipient of three Times stars and two Michelin stars, one of just seven NYC restaurants currently holding that latter distinction. (Fun Philly fact: Early in the doc, there's a nifty shot looking up from beneath a sheet of glass that Liebrandt paints like a plate. That was filmed in the now-closed Snackbar — then-chef Jonathan Adams, now at Pub & Kitchen, worked for Liebrandt at Gilt.)
Having tape of Liebrandt's growth, from cerebral Boy Wonder to zombie-eyed, 20-hour-a-day knife-wielding automaton focused solely on his goal, is enough of a draw for the most fervent followers of high-end cooking. But regardless of your intellectual investment in food as art or food as business, A Matter of Taste is simply an interesting movie about food.
A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt debuts Mon., June 13, at 9 p.m. on HBO.