Chef Paul Liebrandt is one of those maverick foodies who elicits equal parts admiration and dissent, love, fear and loathing in his equally distributed coterie of fans and detractors. To his adherents, he is that prototypical wunderkind in starched chef's whites, possessed of the ability to wow the palate, as he dazzles the eye with food presentation that is so surgical he uses tweezers more often than tongs.
But to his naysayers, he's ego run amok, living in his own hermetically sealed world of flights-of-fancy dishes where origami-like complexity trumps good-tasting food.
By contrast, there is little to disappoint or dissatisfy at all about the new documentary, A Matter of Taste -- Serving Up Paul Liebrandt, currently airing in heavy rotation on HBO. Directed by Sally Rowe, and after stirring up the foodocracy at the most recent edition of SXSW, A Matter of Taste becomes what every great documentary is, and what every reality program should aspire to. It has, in Liebrandt, a mad young genius of a lead character, whose playground is the kitchen, and whose big, puppy dog's eyes, and gangly gait suggest a shy first termer at a boarding school. In short, he's a character to root for, though his child-like petulance makes one want to rap his knuckles.
But like any winning filmed drama, there are great bit characters orbiting in Liebrandt's tempestuous universe. Chiming in with measured words of praise and psychoanalysis of chef Paul are such great toques as Eric Ripert of perhaps the States' greatest temple to all edibles with fins, Le Benardin, and there are words of controlled (never effusive) praise from arguably the country's most lauded chef, Per Se's Thomas Keller.
Two other New York foodies jump into the Liebrandt narrative and give it even more heft. There's Frank Bruni, the hyper-intellectual former food critic of The New York Times, whose anticipated arrival, and judgment of, Liebrandt's latest restaurant, Corton, forms the dramatic spine of the documentary.
Also appearing with all his natural impresario-like bravura intact is veteran New York restaurateur Drew Nieporent. With his finely trimmed, graying power goatee, and swinging his literal weight around like some culinary pasha, Nieporent is naturally cast as the one who still believes in the somewhat battered Liebrandt. In the documentary's beginning, we are introduced to a Liebrandt chastened by his "only" earning two stars from the Times during his stint at the gilt-priced Gilt and then getting summarily relieved of his apron as a result of that disappointing showing.
Nieporent swoops in to rescue Liebrandt from a slightly wallowing period in which Liebrandt is inexplicably the subject of a Vogue photo shoot, or from free-lance gigs as a cocktail consultant for a hipster-filled eatery.
Liebrandt admits very poignantly that he's a bit too young to be washed-up and, given his prodigious talent -- at one point, Liebrandt makes duck's blood appetizing, and he distills the essence of a vodka tonic into little bubbles that taste detonate on the tongues of his tasters -- he really yearns for a certain kind of stability.
But from where?
Enter his latest savior in the corpulent form of Nieporent, who finds Liebrandt to be the perfect chef at the center of the New York restaurant world's most nostalgia-filled reclamation project: Converting the old Montrachet restaurant space in Tribeca, the one that Nieporent launched in 1985, and giving it a complete reboot with Liebrandt at its helm.
Its new name: Corton.
Inevitably, it is the ever-present clock ticking to the grand opening of Corton, and the open question of whether Liebrandt's unquestioned talent will receive the ultimate imprimatur of a glowing New York Times review that gives this documentary all its internal momentum and built-in tension.
But it is Liebrandt's willingness to be filmed in his "office" that elevates this documentary so far above anything any scripted reality program could ever hope to portray. Liebrandt seems totally oblivious to the prying camera, whether he's hunched over a dish, applying that last bit of micro-greens to some sushi-grade fish, or whether he's caught in mid-rant against some poor sous-sous-sous chef over his lack of focus. Or, and this is Liebrandt at his most unreasonable and humorous, when he aims his invective at some poor underling for staying out too late with a random woman. This is not acceptable in Liebrandt's fiefdom, where total loyalty and the ability to produce extraordinary food at the 16th hour of the workday is what he demands. You got that?
It is Oscar-worthy stuff as Liebrandt is not afraid to be filmed at his militant and dictatorial worst. It is also courageous of Liebrandt to open himself up to that kind of unflattering scrutiny. Think about it. Would Bobby Flay or Mario Batali, let alone their surrounding flotilla of managers and agents, agree to a camera following them around in the sweaty, close confines of his kitchen, far away from the cosmetically flattering conditions of a Food Network set. The answer is no.
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Maybe it's because of overweening ego, or maybe he was truly oblivious, but Liebrandt all but welcomed that probing lens into his professional space. And the result is a complete, absorbing look at a young, hyper-talented, flawed chef, staging his own improbable comeback.
Now that's a reality program worth cheering about.
(A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt currently airs at various times on HBO.)