By David W. Hall
Wanna see feverish creativity paired with similarly hectic, unstable employment history? Liebrandt’s restaurants, whose future was assured by critics’ positive reviews, typically close within a year of favorable ink being spilled. Quoting P.T. Barnum: “This way to the egress!”
While cooling his heels again, the phone rings with someone asking to schedule a magazine shoot on behalf of His Royal Highness, Sir Liebrandt. He answers. May I call you after another half hour of sulking please? I’m busy softening my accent to climb another rung in the British class structure before my gentle appearance in U.S. bankruptcy court. Thank you so much. No. No. Don’t mention it. You’re too kind!
Our hero admits the mentor whose portrait is framed in the kitchen (“You changed my life!”) has no recollection of training or ever working with him. Star student? Probably not. Elderly French masters don’t waste time reading NY based ‘about town’ fashion rags.
The young maestro’s face is overtaken by stubble and flab which gradually fuses his throat and jaw together. Flowing locks which the artist waved over plates as he summoned the muse are replaced by his receding hairline ebbed further offshore by slick, greasy gel. Is this desperate signaling to mafia gourmands for their help as angel investors? The prince turning back into a toad? PL’s rock star moodiness and entitlement is offset by the forced optimism of his business partners. New York Times comments — just published online! — are presented by one $orry $oul to a room of line cooks and wait staff as if the words are a biblical revelation.
A note to avid culinarians applauding nonsense for its own sake: When your workplace is defined by pep rallies and temper tantrums instead of actual teeth at the table, per Lord Barnum’s suggestion, you too are heading for a surprise exit. Your paycheck has already fled. Chase it elsewhere. Fits and lectures suit Gordon Ramsay. Gordo has the savvy to market cartoon aspects of himself without lapses of quality at dinner time. If Ramsay’s Michelin stars were confiscated and his shop was magically transformed into a greasy spoon, customers would enjoy the best burgers and fries imaginable. There’d be a line around the block.
“A Matter of Taste” pretends to focus on refinement and high standards. Instead, cliches emerge (Think Garrison Keillor, “Cafe Boeuf”) regarding the chef’s refusal to put anything ahead of neurotic self absorption.
In contrast, I’m reminded of another jowly, balding Chef Paul who doesn’t shave much. This isn’t from the NYT. It’s from ESPN, March 2008:
[Paul] Prudhomme was setting up his tent at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans when he felt a sting on his right arm, above the elbow. He thought it was a bee sting, but discovered a .22 caliber bullet after shaking his shirt sleeve.
Deputies believe Prudhomme was hit by a falling bullet, probably shot about 9:30 a.m. Tuesday from somewhere within a 1 ½-mile radius of the golf course, said Col. John Fortunato of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office.
The celebrated chef didn’t require medical attention.
“He thought it was a bee sting,” Fortunato said. “Within five minutes, he was back to doing his thing.”
Witnesses say the bullet cut Prudhomme’s skin and put a hole in his white chef’s coat. However, Prudhomme continued cooking for the golfers, their caddies and guests at the annual PGA Tour event.
Prudhomme, who grew up outside Opelousas, La., rose to prominence after being named the first American-born executive chef of Commander’s Palace in 1975.
In 2005, when his restaurant was closed by the hurricane, Prudhomme served 6,000 meals to displaced residents. I’m sure lots of those diners recognized Chef Paul before Katrina. I’d also bet many who ate then knew nothing of the man’s reputation.
Food matters. People matter. Ego counts for little in the long run, unless it undermines your talent and ruins your livelihood. This is the bull’s eye Paul Liebrandt seems to hit over and over. I’ve made consistent shots in a tight grouping on that target myself. Surrendering health, income, or losing a loved one are sure routes to personal insight or total collapse.
The reason Paul Liebrandt seems immature and yet oddly persistent is because he hasn’t suffered enough to make meaningful contributions in his field or be wiped off the map completely and find something else worthwhile. Fame insulates him from the consequences of failure and seems to hold him back from real success or satisfaction. We’re in the boat and aging with him, so (You’re welcome hipster Williamsburg!) if you can stomach that irony, this documentary may be an Everyman story for us all.
On the other hand, I could have it completely wrong. Drumming up publicity for performance art where unwashed masses fail to understand your genius, is a solid hook.