In 2001, Paul Liebrandt—whose story is told in A Matter of Taste: Serving Paul Liebrandt, on now at the TIFF Bell Lightbox—was one of New York’s most promising chefs. At 24, after working in some of Europe’s most accomplished kitchens, the British expat moved to New York to make a name for himself. He practised a high-concept, experimental style of cooking—chocolate-covered scallops, crystallized violets—that was lauded by critics but commercially unviable during the ascendancy of comfort food. Soon enough, Liebrandt found himself flipping burgers and making seven different kinds of french fries, just to keep his restless mind occupied.
A Matter of Taste follows the chef through 10 turbulent years as he struggles to maintain his artistic integrity (and a steady job) in New York’s cutthroat restaurant scene. The documentary kicks into high gear when, in 2008, Liebrandt partners with Drew Nieporent, the restaurateur behind Nobu, to build Corton, which has since become one of New York’s most distinguished fine dining restaurants. Director Sally Rowe gives Leibrandt an antagonist in Frank Bruni, the New York Times’ chief restaurant critic until 2009, who was known for favouring simple, rustic food. She intercuts scenes of Liebrandt, desperate for a three-star rating, speculating on Bruni’s taste (“My food is over his head”) with Bruni describing his critical process, which boils down to one surprisingly unscientific question: how much joy does this restaurant bring for the price?
Liebrandt’s peculiarly magnetic personality makes A Matter of Taste more than merely a foodie film. In the early footage, he’s as awkward and gangly as Mark Zuckerberg. He can also be as self-mythologizing as David Brent, confronting the camera with quips like “I’m not a nutcase, I’m an artist.” He even reveals a touch of Gordon Ramsay volatility when he threatens to smash his sous-chefs’ heads into a wall for overcooking steaks. Yet he’s generous with encouragement and praise, and soft-heartedly admits his chihuahua makes him want to be a better man.
There’s also plenty of lingering close-ups on expressionistically smeared white plates and glistening sous-vide pouches worthy of Modernist Cuisine—and the $12 price of admission.
Details: To Oct. 6. TIFF Bell Lightbox. 350 King St. W., 416-599-8433, tiff.net