At Home, at Last
Mr. Liebrandt, hulking yet baby-faced, is the chef at Corton in TriBeCa, one of the most gastronomically ambitious and pleasurable new restaurants to open in the city in years. Ten years ago, he arrived to begin an on-and-off relationship with New York’s diners, filled with misunderstandings, reunions and provocations. At Corton, Mr. Liebrandt has found a refined, reformed cooking style and made a mutually nourishing commitment to his adopted city.
“I have no contact with anyone in England now,” he said last week, with mild annoyance at being identified as a British chef. “This is where I belong.”
New Yorkers have not always agreed. Mr. Liebrandt, now 32, came to the city from London in 1999 and, with his challenging avant-garde cuisine, became one of the most controversial cooks in town.
For every glowing review (at 25, he was the youngest chef ever to win three stars from The New York Times, at Atlas in 2000), there were 10 doubters who criticized his penchant for combinations like eel and chocolate, hibiscus and beets, smoke and cream.
In an interview, he showed off scars and boasted of beating his kitchen staff into shape. He has launched and left kitchens in less time than it takes to cure a ham: in 2005, he opened Gilt, one of the most opulent rooms in the city, and was gone a few months after a two-star Times review. He left Atlas after a year; at the restaurant that followed, Papillon, he was known for introducing chocolate and scallops to squab, onions to sorbet, and archaic methods like hay-smoking to expensive cuts of beef. One enchanted evening, diners were blindfolded for one course and, in another, bound at the wrists and directed to slurp foie gras from a bowl of soup.
Mr. Liebrandt now says that such stunts were done deliberately, to generate publicity — which, in turn, would bolster his case with immigration authorities and allow him to remain in New York.
“I would do it again,” he said. “It did work, but it’s been surprisingly difficult to get past all that.” But, he says, he has outgrown certain arrogant assumptions he made in the early years. “Interesting is not enough,” he said. “Food must be pleasurable and delicious.”
The Paul Liebrandt of 2009 is a high priest of hospitality, completely dedicated to the transcendent values of flavor, technique and craftsmanship. “Feeding people is by definition a repetitious act,” he said. “Trying to make it perfect is what gives it meaning.”
Mr. Liebrandt’s vision of perfection draws heavily on the work of the French chef Pierre Gagnaire, layering global flavors (cilantro and tarragon; sansho pepper and apricot kernel oil), and sending out plates that are invitingly lush.
“Paul’s plates look like the food was blown there by a gentle breeze,” said Will Goldfarb, a pastry chef who has worked with him. “To have a plate that is super-composed but looks organic, that’s the dream. And it’s not easy to do.”
Mr. Liebrandt’s food at Corton is mysteriously flavorful, shimmering with new variations on perfume and texture and temperature, but restrained from pushing cuisine beyond recognition. His asparagus velouté has notes of vanilla, garlic, yuzu and fresh bay leaf, but it’s familiar; a soup is still a soup. And yet. Within its traditional framework, Mr. Liebrandt’s food is so full of allusions and hints and references that it’s like Nabokov on a plate: delicious, demanding and just the slightest bit disturbing.
“People either love it or hate it,” said Joël Antunès, a French chef in New York who has known Mr. Liebrandt since they both worked in London in the 1990s. “What is the word in English, when a man walks on a string between two buildings? You have to have perfect balance to walk the string, and Paul has that in his food.”
He was born in 1976 in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) to British parents; his father, a career officer in the British military police, traveled often, and the couple split when he was 11 years old. Paul, an only child, was sent to St. George’s, a large boarding school in Hertfordshire. “The combination of military discipline at home and corporal punishment at school is probably good preparation for a restaurant kitchen,” he said.
Mr. Liebrandt first worked in a kitchen at age 14. At 19, he was working at Restaurant Marco Pierre White when Mr. White became the youngest chef ever to win three Michelin stars. “That was a heady experience,” he said. “Now I always feel I’m behind.”
Mr. White’s kitchens were notoriously tough, but Mr. Liebrandt, like most chefs, eschews shouting, threats and throwing of pots. “That works once or maybe even twice to give someone a scare,” he said. “But after that, where do you go?” He proceeded to demonstrate the cold glare and contemptuous brushoff he uses on errant cooks.
“Paul was always intense, even though his food was playful,” said Galen Zamarra, the chef of Mas in Greenwich Village. The chefs worked together at Bouley Bakery in 1999, when junior cooks had what Mr. Zamarra called “a free rein” in the kitchen. “I remember a perfect, smooth ball of foie gras, breaded and deep-fried, that showed a lot of technique,” he said.
Recently, Mr. Liebrandt maintained focus over the course of two enormous Thai lunches in Queens. “Try the temperature on that duck,” he said, lifting a forkful of yum phet. “Any colder and it would be clammy, any hotter and the taste would change.” He pointed out the “fruit sweet” of the pineapple in the salad, how its flavor differs from “sugar sweet.” Some chefs taste in two dimensions, he said, and some in three — discerning nuances of flavor that others do not. “There’s nothing wrong with being a two-dimensional chef, and it’s not easy to be a good one,” he said.
If there is a fourth dimension in cooking, Mr. Liebrandt is chasing it.
Every morning, he cooks a single scallop from that day’s delivery to test its sweetness, then decides how to complete the flavors of the dish with icicle, breakfast, Easter and black radishes, which vary in bitterness. He turns essence of lobster into a cool jelly, the perfect foil for a warm soft-cooked egg and a few bites of caviar. Without muddying flavors, he manages to fill a plate with about a dozen distinct ingredients at one time, and in his best dishes, each flavor is precise and legible: lemon over here, chorizo there; cèpes at 12 o’clock and black bean sprouts at 6.
Mr. Liebrandt’s raw product is mainly local — microgreens from the Hudson Valley and excellent pheasants from New Jersey — but his cuisine is self-consciously international, reflecting the growing globalism of haute cuisine. “You can’t only think about your local audience,” Mr. Liebrandt said. “It’s a world stage you’re on.”
Via FedEx, chefs can get fresh and luxurious ingredients from anywhere; Michelin stars, the only global currency in dining, are more and more valuable. Once young chefs reach the top-level kitchens — no easy feat, requiring connections, some savings and a commitment to grunt work — they now move around the world, exchanging stages and spice mixtures.
“There are hundreds of young donkeys like I was who come through Gagnaire, through Bras, through El Bulli every year now,” he said. “Each one of us absorbs what we can and brings it to the next kitchen, and the next,” he said.
As the International Style revolutionized architecture in the 1920’s with design that transcended national and traditional boundaries, Mr. Liebrandt’s hothouse cuisine — a careful balancing of French, Spanish, Asian, molecular and North African influences and ingredients — is part of the evolution of culinary art that began with the nouvelle cuisine innovators of the 1970s and 1980s, continued with both clumsy and graceful versions of “fusion” food, and more recently bubbled away as molecular gastronomy.
“Today’s chefs must absorb everything that’s gone before — because stocks and jus and proteins are still the basis of cuisine that people will pay for,” he said. Mr. Liebrandt has also absorbed, and seemingly embraced, the fundamental transaction of restaurants: that no matter how crafty or brilliant the food, the customer must walk out feeling well fed and cared for. For the first time, he said, he is thinking of settling down with a second restaurant, with simple food like “the perfect beef short rib.”
He recently had the odd experience of being named one of the best new chefs in the country by Food & Wine magazine — despite having taken charge of his first kitchen when Bill Clinton was president. (Mr. Liebrandt qualifies as “new” under the magazine’s rules because his total time in charge of a kitchen adds up to less than five years.) Having experienced the rough love of the restaurant world for 18 years, he cannot get his mind around the notion that he is just starting out.
“I thought I was done being new,” he said.