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HBO Documentary Gets Into the Mind of a Chef

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© Photo by Allison Anastasio/Courtesy HBO
Chef Paul Liebrandt in 'A Matter of Taste.'

Consider your last decade. Now imagine it was filmed, discreetly, by a friend fascinated by your job. This is the chef documentary A Matter of Taste, premiering June 13 on HBO at 9 p.m. New York’s Paul Liebrandt met director Sally Rowe in 2000 at Atlas restaurant when, at 24, he became the youngest chef to earn three stars from the New York Times. Compelled to shoot Liebrandt’s avant-garde style of cooking with unheard-of combinations like wasabi and green apple, Rowe followed his career through a painful progression of short stints: Papillon, a West Village bistro, where post–9/11 drinkers wanted burgers and fries; cocktail consulting; the bottom-line-focused Gilt at the Palace Hotel. His current gig as chef-partner of Corton with restaurateur Drew Nieporent finally provided a happy ending. At a preview of the film, we asked Liebrandt about his biopic.

What convinced you to let someone film you for a decade? It's not like Sally came to me and said "Right, we're going to shoot for 10 years." It was as simple as: Her husband Ben, then boyfriend, was the wine director at Atlas.

How did it progress? He said, “My girlfriend is into film.” She said, “I find what you do interesting. Do you mind if I shoot?” And she did it and it went on, and on, every month, slowly but surely. Five years in, I was like "Seriously, what is happening with this?” Eight years in, “Okay, what is happening?” Finally she said, “Okay we're editing.” I lived life; she just filmed it.

What’s it like to watch yourself grow up over an hour? The Papillon stuff, I was so young. We've all been young, but most people don't have it caught on camera. My hairstyle certainly goes up and down. It's interesting to see the progression of the food as well.

Where do you think food is going in the next 10 years? It's becoming more localized. It's good because people are more aware of what's around. It used to be the case that you had to be in New York, London, Tokyo or Paris. Now there are chefs in tiny little towns getting noticed and I think that's really good. If you're a chef in the middle of France or Spain, and you’re a young guy trying to put yourself out there, it's important.

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