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Corton Chef Paul Liebrandt on Maturation and Curiosity

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Photo: Daniel Krieger

The chef Paul Liebrandt, who worked in some of the great kitchens of Europe as a kid and whose saga as a young chef in New York allowed writers to beat the terms "enfant terrible" and "peripatetic" to death, has spent nearly four years running the kitchen at Corton, in Tribeca. In the time since the restaurant opened and received near-universal acclaim, Liebrandt has kept pretty quiet — save for an HBO documentary, A Matter of Taste, which chronicles his journey to Corton. And so, a few days ago the chef agreed to sit down and talk about what it takes to keep a high-end restaurant in business, his shyness and maturation process, and his desire to expand.

Your last big review came out in '08, when Frank Bruni gave the restaurant a glowing three stars. What happens after that, when things calm down?
The review comes in and it's a good introduction for people and a boost. After the review, other restaurants open, but we have a clientele here that is very loyal. We focus on building that.

I think it's difficult to quantify what a review can do in the long run for you, in terms of exposure.

Maybe I should clarify that I'm not speaking specifically about the impact of the review. I'm more interested in what you do to stay alive and well as a high-end restaurant when things calm down.
I think that obviously everybody has their likes and dislikes. This style of dining, it's very particular. There are white tablecloths and it doesn't appeal to everybody. The price point is obviously not available to everybody, but I would say that people keep coming back for it. We don't do huge volume here, and the food and service aren't supposed to fuel that. I look at things in terms of quality and the long run.

Do you worry?
I do. Everyone does. The restaurant business is the restaurant business, especially since we opened. It's a whole new way of doing a business model with regards to this style of restaurant. You have to approach it very differently.

You have to look about how you market the restaurant and who you are marketing it to on a worldwide basis. It's not just one segment of the population. It's a whole new world.

Has it been a struggle?
There's been no big hurdles or anything. We work towards refining what we do on a daily basis. We knuckle down and we do it. We're still here. We have goals and aspirations that we are still going for.

What are they?
There are still achievements to be had with reviews, I suppose.

So you'd like another New York Times star or Michelin star?

How much do you think about that?
It's not the basis for the business. I don't come in every day and think about that. But doing this style of dining, you try to aim high and try to aim above. For me, it's very important that you keep that mindset. But downtown it's a different dynamic than at a Midtown restaurant. There's just more people up there. People laugh when I say this, but the fact that people get lost when there is no grid system actually plays a role down here.

Do you also think that people are afraid or against fine dining these days?
I don't think people are afraid of it. If you want an analogy, people went to the opera a hundred years ago and wore top hat, tails, and gloves. People still go to the opera, but they don't wear the same clothes they used to. They still enjoy it and want that, but their approach has changed. The same thing is true with fine dining.

And when we're talking about "fine dining," what we're really talking about is exclusivity when it comes to price. In this day and age, the dynamic of what you think of as a fine dining restaurant has definitely changed. The clientele has gotten younger. When I was cooking in London as a boy, it was older, more business. So, the dynamic of how you approach that in terms of service has changed.

Do you look at that as a positive or negative change, or are you indifferent?
It's the way of the world. Everything changes and moves on. People that grumble about it should understand that there is evolution in everything. Right now, it's the case that people don't necessarily want to put on a suit and tie for dinner, and we welcome that here. We have a very high standard for service, but it's more hands-off than what you might find at Per Se. You have to read on a nightly basis who is coming in and what they want. Who am I cooking for?

That sort of leads me to something that Grant Achatz brings up often: that there's the misconception that certain contemporary high-end restaurants are stiff, when in fact the chefs really want people to have fun.
20 years ago, when I started cooking, you never heard anyone in the dining room laugh, and you had the captain and the maitre d' standing behind you watching you eat. Now, it's more relaxed. They still want a high standard of cuisine and experience, but it's way less stiff. We encourage that here. If a customer feels comfortable where they are going, they will come back. I don't want to cook once for someone. And the pricing, for what we give, is pretty agreeable. It's not cheap, obviously, but it's more affordable than most restaurants in the category.

Now, to your food. Would you say it's changed while you've been at Corton?
It's changed a lot since the opening. Everybody's cuisine has periods, and it takes a long time for a chef to find their voice.

Do you think that's a constant process?
Speaking for myself, absolutely. I'm a very curious person and I like to learn and see new things. I don't like boundary pushing for the sake of it, but I don't like being stagnant either. As far as learning goes, it's the usual stuff, like new ingredients and new cultures.

Can you talk about some?
Yeah. I was in Japan last week, and seeing the culture of eating there — the discipline, the reverence for cuisine — I don't think there's anywhere in the world like that. I was also in Hong Kong recently doing an event, and it was similar to Japan but in a different way, if you know what I mean. It was more family-oriented, more about the group, which I hadn't really seen before. For me, it's very important at this point to learn more about the culture of eating. It's important to understand and tap into that, whether it's with a technique, a dish, or a service style.

We went to some amazing Cantonese-style dim sum places in Hong Kong, and the way things are cooked and presented in that style as opposed to Shanghai or Szechuan-style, it's interesting. The food obviously itself was incredible.

We adopt a lot of techniques and flavors, but we came back and put some stuff on the menu influenced by that style of sharing. We do a lovely spring dish of rabbit and sepia done in our style but also in a dim sum manner. It's laid out for the customers to share.

You've never been at more than one restaurant at a time. Is that on purpose?
Like I said, there are still things to be achieved here, but I'm not going to stay in one restaurant forever.

What does that mean?
I mean, I think that these days you need different tiers of restaurants as a chef and as a brand. I don't plan on being a solo chef at one restaurant for the rest of my life, no, but it has to be the right thing. It's a lot of work, so it has to be the fit. I'm very picky. The days of the chef-proprietor with the solo restaurant who is there at all hours doesn't really exist anymore. You have to promote yourself and go out to the wider public. They have to know who you are, so you can't necessarily be tied to your kitchen 24/7. Well, anyway, if the restaurant can't function without you then it's not really a business. It's about finding a balance.

In the film, there's a point in which you seem to suggest that you had especially bad luck, having to move from restaurant to restaurant. Do you think you've found home?
I came here just before 9/11, and that changed the landscape a huge amount. I hadn't established myself or had friends or connections, that was the way life went. I don't grumble about it though.

But are you comfortable now?
I think that I'm just older and more mature and more worldly, but we don't know what's coming tomorrow. When I was younger, I wanted to make my mark in New York, and we were cooking a style of cuisine that was maybe not as widely seen outside of Europe. I think that I feel as a person maybe less angry internally.

I really am a nice guy. I can just be angry with myself. How can you understand other people if you don't understand yourself? For a very long time, I didn't understand who I was inside. Again, I'm not whining. Just getting older, living life, and having ups and downs, you learn. Those that think about what they do in life learn from their mistakes. And in general, I'm maybe a bit more calm and happy now, and it shows in the food and the approach to cuisine.

It's brighter and livelier?
Yes. It's also like a writer that sits down and looks at a blank page and says, "I need to write the best novel ever written." They look at it, and nothing happens. Eventually, you learn that you don't go into it thinking that way. Instead, you tell yourself that you're going to do it and see what happens. There's something to be said about doing that with food. You can't keep trying to completely outdo yourself and force it. It's just food. You need to be able to explore and have ideas.

Going back to what you said about branding and getting your name out there. Is that something you don't like?
Regardless of what I think, it is the case. I'm not the best at it because I'm kind of shy. I don't feel the most comfortable going out there because I'm not very good at it, honestly. I'm not nearly as good as other chefs are. I like the comfort and warmth of the kitchen, since that's all I've really done since I was a boy. But you have to do it these days. I come across as aloof and awkward maybe, but that's not intentional at all. I'm just shy. Maybe it's the accent [laughs].

Do you think you missed out on opportunities earlier on because you perhaps didn't accept that?
Yeah, absolutely. When I first came here, I am sure. But I was young, and young people say and do dumb shit without thinking. I am guilty of that, but again, I was young. I got three stars at Atlas when I was 24. It wasn't that it was overwhelming, it was just that I was a kid. Maybe I stuck my foot in my mouth, but that's life and I take responsibility for it.

As I learned, there was a game to be played and a way to approach things, people. I say to the kids in the kitchen that of course it's a business, but most importantly it's about connections between people. It's about the connections between the cooks, the customers and us, the investors and the restaurant, the media — all of it. It's about encouraging that connection and getting someone to embrace what you do.

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