A Matter of Taste: Film Review

A conventional documentary portrait of a deeply unconventional star chef, Paul Liebrandt.

HBO has already picked up Sally Rowe's revealing documentary about British chef Paul Liebrandt's journey from unemployment to owner of acclaimed Tribeca restaurant Corton.

AUSTIN -- A straightforward behind-the-scenes portrait of a culinary career nearly extinguished, A Matter of Taste does double duty as an affirmation of the fear New York Times reviews continue to strike in the hearts of NYC restaurateurs. Well suited for small-screen play (HBO has picked it up for summer broadcast), it will appeal to the legion of armchair foodies who have made gastro-centric programming a phenomenon.

In profiling Paul Liebrandt, mastermind of the Tribeca restaurant Croton, filmmaker Sally Rowe is lucky to have started following him in 2001, during his first taste of stardom. But shortly after the 24 year-old chef won three stars from the Times' William Grimes, the post-9/11 zeitgeist swerved from the kind of experimental haute fare he created (like a dish of "eel, violets and chocolate") to comfort food. Liebrandt was out of a job.

Rowe follows the chef to his next gig, creating a similarly imaginative menu at an eatery Grimes calls "a dump." Though Rowe captures much interesting kitchen footage here -- Liebrandt's attention to the placement of each sprig of greenery and squirt of sauce is dumbfounding -- the comeback attempt is short-lived. His bosses soon respectfully insist he revise his menu to feature (gasp!) burgers and fries.

As the ups and downs continue, we see what it's like for a cook who sees himself as an artist to enjoy widespread acclaim while being unable to find work in a restaurant. If we learn little about his past (aside from the fact that he wasn't exposed to cooking as a child), it appears to be because he has no life outside the kitchen.

So it's good news for the film when Liebrandt does get a girlfriend, Arleene Oconitrillo (now Corton's restaurant director). Her humor punctures his tendency toward self-importance just at the point where that attitude becomes hard to take.

While Taste's first half pairs kitchen action with praise from critics and fellow chefs (foodie star Eric Ripert is one of the few dissenters, saying he has eaten Liebrandt's food and "I have no comment"), the second half becomes a straight chronicle of the venture that proved to be his breakthrough, Croton -- offering a reality-TV-ready chronology from design through construction, menu planning, crew training and critical reception.

It isn't spoiling anything to say the chef finally wins over his most important critic, then-Times scribe Frank Bruni. Rowe treats that as the great white whale, leaving other little milestones (two Michelin stars, for instance) to a mention only in the end titles.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival, Documentary Feature Competition section (HBO)
Production Company: Rowe Road Productions
Director: Sally Rowe
Producers: Sally Rowe, Alan Oxman, Rachel Mills
Executive producer: Benjamin Breen
Director of photography: Sally Rowe, Elizabeth Tracy, Ronan Killeen 
Music: John M. Davis
Editor: Amy Foote
No rating, 68 minutes