HBO's A Matter Of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt Offers a Fascinating Look at an Unconventional Chef

In the world of fine dining, Chef Paul Liebrandt marches to his own beat.

By , Columnist
Do chocolate-covered scallops sound like just the thing for dinner? How about espuma of calf's brains and foie gros? Beer and truffle soup, maybe? There's always mackerel tartar with black olive jelly and smoked bacon sorbet.

These are just a few of Paul Liebrandt's signature dishes. If they sound intriguing, you will love this program and are probably a foodie who would be a most welcome addition to Chef Paul Liebrandt's clientele. If they sound just shy of delectable, you might want to take a look at this documentary anyway to learn what inspires this unconventional chef to create unusual dishes such as these.

"I'm not a nutcase, I'm just an artist," Liebrandt, the native Brit, explains at the top of the HBO documentary A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt. In this detailed look at the chef's varied career, we follow him from his earliest success at New York's Atlas Restaurant in 2000, where at 24 he became the youngest chef to receive three stars from The New York Times, through his current position as head chef and part-owner of Corton, the high-end restaurant in the heart of Tribeca.

Director-filmmaker Sally Rowe's documentary is a refreshingly honest look at Liebrandt's frustrations and triumphs through the years. His unconventional manner of preparing culinary fare has brought him notoriety and, at times, unemployment. Food as an art form has its detractors.

William Grimes, who was The New York Times food critic from 1998 through 2003, explains Liebrandt's craft this way:  "It's true of all the food he makes that if you describe it with a straight face it sounds like a put-on. But if you're in the restaurant and you're eating it, and you're thinking about it, and you're actually seeing the relationship between the flavors, it was often inspired food."

The food preparation footage, where Liebrandt is shown creating meals much like an artist would create a painting or sculpture, is unusual yet riveting. He is hands-on, even when he is doling out tasks to his staff. This is a rarity in his line of work, he explains. He takes pride in running his kitchen with military precision. It is the only way, he says, to reach the standards he strives for.

Interestingly, no one in Liebrandt's family ever displayed a penchant for cooking even though he always found it fascinating. His jobs in traditional, classical restaurants in Europe brought him to work under chef Pierre Gagniere, whose unconventional vision inspired Liebrandt to create food that was both artful and tasteful.

Liebrandt considers what he does a whole sensory experience. It comes down to what story he is telling with food. What emotion is he trying to stimulate? His goal is to bring out feelings of wonderment and discovery in creating a meal, not just a beautifully cooked piece of fish. It all sounds somewhat precious but to see him at work and hear him tell his story gives his methods credibility.

The inception and subsequent opening of Liebrandt's restaurant, Corton, takes up the final quarter of the documentary. The segment is filled with moments as climatic as those in any scripted thriller. Will The Times food critic arrive unannounced? Will he like what they've done? Will he give them the three star rating they've worked so hard to earn? In the end, after accompanying Liebrandt on this virtual ten-year trek through his career, you really have to root for the guy and wish him success.

Renowned food critics and restaurateurs laud this chef who has worked diligently to gain the right to do things his way. Among those interviewed are Grant Achatz, chef-owner of Chicago's Alinea; Heston Blumenthal, chef-owner of The Fat Duck in Bray, England; chef-restaurateur Daniel Boulud; Frank Bruni, New York Times food critic (2004-2009); Mike Colameco, PBS culinary host; William Grimes, New York Times food critic (1998-2003); Thomas Keller, chef-owner of Per Se; restaurateur Drew Nieporent; and Eric Ripert, chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin and host of PBS's Avec Eric.

In A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt you'll learn the challenges, tribulations, and ultimate rewards of being an innovative chef in the extremely competitive restaurant business. It is sure to intrigue you even if you could never imagine yourself scarfing down a plate of Liebrandt's chocolate-covered scallops.

The program premiered on HBO on June 13 at 9 PM ET and will be rebroadcast several times throughout the month of June.

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Mindy Peterman is a freelance writer whose focus is on television, movies and pop culture. She has written over one hundred articles for the award winning website and has conducted interviews with producer Peter Asher, psychic-medium John Edward, Greg Grunberg and Bob Guiney from Band…

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