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How one chef went from flipping burgers to Michelin stars

At the age of 24, Paul Liebrandt was one of New York's hottest up-and-coming chefs, earning critical acclaim for his bold, innovative dishes, such as parsley and licorice soup, and eel paired with watermelon cubes and crystallized violets.

Then the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks happened, and diners curbed their spending and turned to comfort food over fine dining. Mr. Liebrandt, who trained in the top European kitchens of chefs Marco Pierre White and Pierre Gagnaire, went from serving his ultra-modern, high-end dishes to cooking burgers and fries.

The documentary A Matter of Taste by New Zealand-born filmmaker Sally Rowe follows the British chef over a tumultuous decade as he finds his place in the changing culinary climate. The documentary eventually leads to the 2008 opening of his current Michelin-starred restaurant Corton.

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Mr. Liebrandt and Ms. Rowe will be in Toronto for the opening of A Matter of Taste on Thursday at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Mr. Liebrandt spoke with The Globe by phone from New York.

Cooking burgers and fries was obviously not for you. So why did you do it?

I was involved in a restaurant where the ownership decided to change the direction. And as a professional, I'm not going to say, 'I'm leaving,' and walk out on the spot. I worked there for four weeks, made sure that the changeover of the concept was complete and they had somebody in place and left. Simple.

In the film, you called yourself an artist. Yet in a recent Wall Street Journal interview, you say you're a craftsman, not an artist. What's the difference?

There is art to food, there is craft to food. There's a happy balance between both, which I think is the most important thing. I think I would consider myself a chef. That encompasses what I just said – there's an art and a craft to it.

How has your cooking changed since the filming of the documentary began?

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As far as knowledge, technique, experience, that has obviously improved. In terms of the actual food, the style that I cook in is matured, it's more focused, it's rounded.

What has shaped that change? Have market demands or culinary trends influenced you at all?

I've never been one to follow trends. I'm not one that looks at something and jumps on the bandwagon because everyone else is doing it. If you look at things that are timeless, things like a bottle of Chanel No. 5, it doesn't go out of fashion. And that's a very good life lesson.

Do you ever feel you have to make compromises to please diners?

Compromise how?

Well, there's a part in the film, as you prepare to open Corton, when you question whether your menu is too 'foodie.'

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You don't know how the customers, the critics, the general public are going to receive you. I know the food is obviously beautifully prepared with great ingredients. The technique, the feeling of it, the whole philosophy behind it is great. But until we open the doors and we put it on the plate, you're not sure how people are going to react. So, really, that's just me voicing that, that's all.

We're very mindful not to alienate people who want to try us for the first time by putting together a menu that is so foodie that you have to be a very, very adventurous diner to experience it.

Once you get reviewed, once the critics have come, then you start to develop the menu more, you develop your customer base. We, as chefs, we find our voice. And it takes a very, very long time to do.

There are plenty of chefs who may feel misunderstood or pushed in a particular direction when they work for someone else. Has having your own restaurant allowed you to do what you want?

Anybody who has their own restaurant has to be mindful that it is a business. So you do what you need to do in order to create an environment where you want people to come back to. I don't think that I'm doing exactly everything that I would love to do. I don't know any chef who does exactly what they want to do because that might be good for the chef, but ultimately, it's the diner who pays for the restaurant.

So if you did have carte blanche, what would you do that you're not doing now?

It's nothing drastic, but it's little things that would be nice. Carte blanche means having a very big budget, which these days is not an easy thing.

Looking back, are there things you would've done differently?

I was 23 years old when I came here to New York, very brash, full of energy and wanting to make a mark for myself. My approach when it came to management, when it came to how I dealt with problems within the restaurant, was obviously very different from what it is today.

According to the New York media, you were once known for blindfolding diners and having them eat off naked women. Is food meant to be shocking?

I did one night of that and it keeps coming back up over the years. Obviously people enjoyed it, otherwise they wouldn't keep talking about it, right? The event was more to do with the sensory aspect of eating. That was in 2001, before anyone was even thinking about that kind of thing. It was such a fun night. But I don't cook like that. That's not me. A lot of other things in life are shocking. Food is not really shocking.

Your goal was to earn two Michelin stars in the first year of Corton. You succeeded. Now what?

There are still more stars to get. I have a book coming out next year and other projects that may happen next year, we'll see.

Would you be able to say what?


This interview has been condensed and edited.

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

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