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After Years of Doing It All, Paul Liebrandt Doesn't Want to Take All the Credit for The Elm

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The acclaimed chef talks to Eater about new projects, how he's changed over the years, and why the Elm "was never meant to be about me."

Nick Solares

It's been a year and a half since Paul Liebrandt opened The Elm, his casual restaurant in the McCarren Hotel (fka the King & Grove) in Williamsburg, and parted ways with Drew Nieporent and Corton, where he earned two Michelin stars. What is the chef, who made his reputation even before Corton in high flying roles at Atlas and Gilt (not to mention as the subject of a documentary), plotting now? Even before the Elm opened he was already rumored to be working on a second restaurant, and shortly after departing Corton he confirmed to the Times that a "signature Paul Liebrandt" restaurant, plus other projects were already under way. Eater sat down with Liebrandt, to talk about current and future ventures, what he's learned from New York, and how he's changed since his hot shot younger years.

Eater: How much about your role at the Elm has changed in the past year and a half, since it opened?

Paul Liebrandt: Of course when you open a restaurant, you have a vision for it. And then you make adjustments based on location and clientele. I made some adjustments, that's all.

Have there been any major adjustments? Things that you would not have expected when you opened?

We're involved with multiple elements of the hotel, not just the restaurant. I haven't had experience doing that before, so we've adapted to that. Any good chef adapts to whatever the demand is.

The Elm was never meant to be about me.

Are you happy with the direction it has gone in?

It's a business. I don't own The Elm. I have partners there, and I have to be respectful if they have some feelings. It's not about me, it's about the customer. It's not fine dining, it's not meant to be. It's a fun, more casual, more affordable place, and so I take myself really out of it. It's not my culinary...it was never really meant to be. So, I put the customer first. Any good chef does that.

What about the Little Elm? Is that something that you've stepped away from since it opened? I noticed that Arnie Marcella's name is on the menu, not yours.

And Mazen [Mustafa]'s was on it before that. The Elm was never meant to be about me. Arnie, who opened Corton with me, Mazen, who opened Corton with me, they're fantastic people. They work very hard and I've known them for years. I have a great team and it's about them. I'm not the one who cooks every single thing there. As far as the menu ideation goes, we all talk, obviously, but on most of it, Arnie comes to me and say, "I'm thinking of this," and we discuss it. I work with them. He's the one, and not just him, the sous chefs Mary, and Eric, and Alex, and they do a great job. Little Elm's good stuff.

The elm

Back when you first left Corton after The Elm opened, you talked about other projects down the road, including a restaurant of your own. Are you still planning those?

We are working on other projects, yes.

Can you talk more about that?

No.

Will the next restaurant be more of your project? Will that be a Paul Liebrandt project?

Yes, it will be. But I really can't divulge anything. We have a lot of other stuff coming next year, not just restaurants at this point, which is really cool. Fun things that actually have nothing to do with the restaurant.

Were you frustrated that people consider the Elm your project? That when they talk about it, they say Paul Liebrandt's restaurant, The Elm?

I'm a little older than I was 10 years ago, when I wanted to do it all myself.

Oh, no no no. It is what it is. But it's not my restaurant. I guess I'm the figurehead if you want. I have partners, I have employees, and really it's about the people that are there doing it. When I was young and I was working, the European way was that you didn't really promote. Everyone worked under the chef, even the chef de cuisine, who basically did everything on a day to day basis. America, New York has the humility of real teamwork. Looking at your whole team, and making sure they are the ones who get the credit. I really like to go in there now and discuss what we're doing, but be hands off and let them do it, because they're ready and they want to do it. Now that I'm a little older than I was 10 years ago, when I wanted to do it all myself, I'm realizing that if I want to expand, I can't work that way. I have to trust that they know what they're doing. I'm just trying to learn, for myself, how to work in a more sensible way. At Corton I was there pretty much every service, every day, doing it all myself, for six years. Even the cooks would say, "Why are you here all day? I know what you want, you don't have to stand here." It's annoying, I get it.

So this is a recent thing?

I really want to be able to, for myself, be understanding of the needs of others, more than I have been in the past, and give them the tools to be successful in what they do. When you're the chef of a kitchen, you want to train all of your people. It's good structure, that's it.

The Elm

How else have you changed as a chef over the last 15 years or so?

15 years ago I was a kid. I'm 38 now, so 15 years ago I was young and dumb. I wasn't even in this country 15 years ago.

You came here in?

2000.

So 14 years ago.

I was 24. That was a different time. I came to New York because when I came back from Paris, London at the time was, so sort of 2000. Like, the Fat Duck had been open for five years, but hadn't really exploded like it has now, and there wasn't the creative aspect of cuisine in London. We were just finding out about Ferran [Adria] and el Bulli on a global basis in 2000, but in London it was like, where do I go? I'm restless, I'm a young man, I want to learn. Coming here was like, New York, holy shit. It was like a bug. I can't even get the words out.

What excited you about it back then?

I've grown up in this city in many ways. It's been my nurturer.

The energy of New York. The people of New York. When you grow up in England there's almost a hierarchy, especially in the chef world. Not so much now, but 20 years ago you would need to know the right person or be blessed by someone above you to go up. You couldn't just work and gain that. It felt very much like there was only so much you could achieve. But then coming here, looking around at the chefs of the time, like Gray Kunz, so unbelievably creative. People weren't held back by French tradition. There was much more Asian influence, which I never experienced in England. I had my first sushi in New York. I mean good sushi. Sushi Yasuda was the first one. I remember going there and thinking, "What have I been missing up to now in my life?" So, how have I changed? I've grown up in this city in many ways. It's been my nurturer. A lot of chefs come at a later age to New York. I was 24 years old when I came here and I didn't come under the wing of some other grand French chef who then set me up. I just showed up. You mature in this New York way, which is great.

What is the New York way of maturing?

The more I travel, I realize that the city produces some really sharp, sharp people. American chefs understand a lot more than others how to do volume, how to make your restaurant into a business, how to just get on and do the job. In France if you wanted to do a restaurant of Michelin-quality, the kitchen had to be like so, you had to have this, you had to have that. Coming here, space is so limited, more so than in other cities, you need to be sharp, you have to adapt. You don't learn that elsewhere. In London I remember it was very much, "This is a restaurant, this is what we do." Maybe you wouldn't be that busy for lunch, but you would open just because that's just the way it was.

Have you seen New York as a city change?

Oh yeah. Hasn't everybody? From even 10 years ago to now, when you look at the economic landscape, running a business becomes harder every year. Incessantly hard to do, especially restaurants. 10 years ago, cooks who were outside New York felt like they would have to come to New York as a finishing school. Then you go back to wherever you're from and set up on your own. Not so much anymore. In fact, not at all anymore. Look at the amount of really good restaurants that have popped up all over this country, in Kansas, and Chicago, and Charleston, and everywhere. It's not just San Fran, New York, LA, or big, big cities. People feel like they don't need to go to New York now. And obviously in general the approach to fine dining has changed dramatically in the past 10 years. All over, not just New York, London, Paris, and what have you.

How would you describe that change?

If you look at people who went to opera a hundred years ago, they went in top hat, tails, and a cane. People go to see opera today, probably the same operas, but they don't wear a top hat and tails. They still want the opera, but the way that they approach it is just different. That's a good analogy for fine dining. People always drink good wine and like good food, it's just how you approach it. Food has become more localized than it used to be. 15 years ago you had to have a French turbot or bass on your menu. You don't have to have that anymore. People are looking more localized, are looking at more hybrid cuisine, where it's not French, not American, it's something in between.

So what of those changes are positive and what of those changes, if any, are negative?

I think it's all positive. I mean, it's progress, right? You can't fight it. The world moves on every day. Hopefully you can influence it in some way, but you go with it. The people in any business who get the most behind are the ones who say, "I remember how it used to be, that's is the way it should be." You've got to adapt, and ideally you want to set the trend. You have to say, "This is what I think will be the next thing," taking into account details, likes and dislikes, food allergies. Ten years ago, my god, you didn't have as many allergies.

Paul Liebrandt

What restaurants do you admire now? Who is at forefront of New York dining right now?

I am really, really excited for Enrique's place, Cosme. I had the privilege of cooking with him a few times but in Mexico City two years ago, and I ate at Pujol and it was phenomenal. Changed the way I see Mexican food, changed the way I feel about it. And he is an animal in the best way possible. He's just got so much energy and he's cool. I love his food. So I'm very excited to see how that translates. I think it's going to do phenomenally well.

Anywhere else in New York?

What I see here are a lot more places that are smaller, where it's really only about the food, like Take Root.

Have you been there?

It's big. I loved it, great energy, great passion. And it's about the food. So that's really what is opening in New York. It's great to see people with personality really think on the plate.

Is there anything you feel that you haven't accomplished yet that you want to?

Oh, tons. The list is very long.

What are the top three?

One is I really would like to — it's going to sound weird — I would really like to be a little more...I think sometimes people see me in a different light than who I am.

Like how you were at 24?

A decade ago, exactly. When I was brash, young...

What I did 10, 12 years ago doesn't necessarily reflect on who I am now

Well you had a documentary made about you.

That was nine and a half years ago. I would like to be a bit more accepted in the bigger sense of it. What I did 10, 12 years ago doesn't necessarily reflect on who I am now, I think we all know that. But that is something that I do try to work on. So The Elm has been really, really nice in a way. It's devoid of any sort of pressure, and I can be out of the kitchen and talk to customers and be more approachable I guess. That's been really good, to show people that it isn't all amuse bouches and truffles, and cook a mean burger. So that's one thing but that's an ongoing thing. I would also love to do a restaurant in London.

I was going to ask you if you planned on sticking around New York forever.

No, no, I wouldn't leave, but expand. I have people who talk to me about doing something in London. I'm from there, so it would be nice to have one foot there and one in New York. New York, I feel, is my home, but my passport is British. So that's two things.

The Elm

160 N 12th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11249 (718) 218-1088 Visit Website

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