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Paul Liebrandt on A Matter of Taste, His Chihuahua Spencer, and How Everyone Is a Critic

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A Matter of Taste, a documentary about ten years in the career of New York chef Paul Liebrandt, premieres tonight on HBO at 9:00. Below, Liebrandt discusses being a British chef in New York, the restaurant review process, who the film is for, and his chihuahua Spencer (who has his own cocktail at Liebrandt's restaurant, Corton). Bonus: two clips from the film are also below, as is the trailer.

This was a fairly long project, and I'm curious as to what made you agree to do it. What was it was like to be filmed for that long?
It wasn't meant to be this long. Actually, even in the beginning, it was just more of, Sally [Rowe], the director, was a friend and asked, "Would you mind if I filmed what you did in the kitchen?" That was it. And I said okay, no problem. It wasn't meant to be this sort of documentary thing at that point.

So how did it end up being a project of this scope?
Well Sally just kept filming. I didn't actually do anything for the movie. I didn't make the movie. I didn't have anything to do with it. It was Sally that just filmed. So I lived life, and she just filmed it. And she made this decision that it had to end at some point, and ten years was a pretty good time to end it, so?

Not many people get to see their career examined like this. Has it been helpful for you as a chef to look back to see where you've come from and see the process of evolution of all those years?
Well, I feel that obviously anyone that looks back at ten years of their life, it's very eye-opening to see. Especially when you compress it into just over an hour. I think that as far as the career goes, it's kind of like a snapshot because, you know, I had already been cooking ten years prior to when the movie began. And obviously I'm doing it now. It's more of like a snapshot of the last ten years than sort of the beginning of a career. I think that the growth is important, and obviously ten years is quite a while for anybody to see themselves. For me it was funny to see. When you're young and you're more naive in the ways of life.

One of the things that was really fascinating to me about the movie was that it's as much about your personal trajectory as it is about the relationship between chefs and the press and restaurants and critics.
Well reviewing anything in any field is a personal thing, right? We all review. Everyone. Whether we want to admit it or not. Whenever we go to look at something, when we eat something, it might not be outwardly, but there is always a little critic inside us. So it's always an opinionated thing. And everybody has an opinion and everyone is welcome to an opinion. So as far as that goes, that's just life. You open a restaurant, people are gonna like it, some won't, but that's with anything.

Firstly, I'm British, as you know. Living in New York and cooking in the kind of restaurants that I've done, with being around now ten years, I have history to look back and see. It's not easy — it sounds silly — it isn't easy being British here. Because there are no other Brits. I don't really count Gordon Ramsay because he's not really here, you know? If I was French or American, you've got other chefs to sort of parallel to. I'm kind of always being the one that's left of center. It's a challenge sometimes.

Do you think it's just the outsider status or do you think that it's because your food is somehow British?
I wouldn't say my food is British. I'd say it's pretty global, actually. I don't cook British food. The fact that I am British, there are influences, there is a style of cuisine that I do is French, I've trained with French chefs. Modern French is the way that I cook. But as far as the style goes, it is a little different yes. And I don't find there's anything wrong with that. It's good to have personality in what you do in your profession.

I saw on Ryan Sutton's Price Hike blog that Drew Nieporent "wants another round of reviews" for Corton. How you'd think that would go differently than the first round?
Well Mr. Nieporent can say whatever he likes to say. Anybody that's been through the reviewing process knows that it's not the most wonderful thing in the world. It's something, obviously, in which everyone's there to criticize you. We've been through it, and the biggest critic for me is the customer that comes in every day. The ones that are paying the bill, the clients that come in every other week, every week, that's important. Those are the real critics.

If people want to review us again, that's really up to them. As far as the food goes, I feel the food is — obviously now that we're open two and half years — the food is more structured than when you open and you get reviewed in the first sort of month and a half. It's tough to do. It's a brand new business. We're settled down now. We've got our systems and procedures locked in. I feel that we have taken the standard of what we do up, for sure, since we've opened. Absolutely. I would like to people to think that.

The film is obviously different than being on something like Top Chef, but I'm curious as to how you think being on HBO will change things for you. And also what you think about chefs on television in general?
As far as HBO, it's kind of weird. Last night, HBO sent me a link because they just put up a splash page for the movie. And there's my face on the HBO website. I don't know, it airs Monday, they're gonna air it seven times. What they're telling me is that they're looking, viewership-wise, five-plus million people are going to watch it. Not on the first premiere, but when it's all said and done — I think it's on demand, too — it's a little strange. It's a lot of people to look at you and your life.

The difference with Top Chef is that it's a made-for-TV program. It's edited and scripted (in a way). It's not personal. Padma is not opening up herself up and her life up to the whole of America. This is. So I don't know. I just hope people watch it and enjoy it, that's all.

I think definitely, from a movie point of view, it's got a lot of elements that I think that everybody can look at and can parallel their lives to. It's very sort of common things that everyone goes through. I just hope that it inspires people out there — young people, not just in the food world but anyone — to watch it be like, you know what, going through a hard time, don't give up. It's very important not to give up. This is your career, this is your life, this is what you do, this is your passion. Passion comes and goes, but your career should be very focused. I hope that people can absolutely parallel to that and take inspiration from it, and hopefully it can help someone in their world and maybe inspire them to maybe keep going down the road that they want to go down and stick to their guns.

So it's not just for food people.
It's not a food film. It's not a film about a restaurant. It's not that. It's about a young person making their way in life. And it just happens that I cook and there's food. It's not a film about the opening of a restaurant or anything like that, no. That's not what Sally meant it to be. The subject matter is obviously that I do cook for a living, but it could easily be that I was a documentary filmmaker, for example, trying to make my first movie, or a struggling actor, or anything to do like that. It could be anything. It just happens that I cook. I hope that anybody from any walk of life can get something out of it, very positive for themselves, to reinforce their own feelings of determination to keep doing what they want to do.

My editor called Spencer the chihuahua the "breakout star of the film." How's he doing?
Spencer is absolutely the star of the movie. I actually wanted to bring him to the HBO premiere, and HBO wouldn't allow me. I said to Arlene, you could just say he's a seeing eye dog and bring him in. He is doing great. He's a little bigger now than when you saw him in the movie. He's grown a little bit. He's almost a six-pound dog. He's a good little boy, we love him dearly. He's like my son, he really is.

Video: Paul Liebrandt on Cooking and Storytelling

Video: Opening Night at Corton

Video: The Trailer for A Matter of Taste

· A Matter of Taste [HBO]
· All A Matter of Taste Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Paul Liebrandt Coverage on Eater [-E-]