Recent culture has given us a view of chefs as either dainty elitists, screaming lunatics or rats voiced by Patton Oswalt. Paul Liebrandt is none of these things. He’s an accomplished artist that makes for an incredibly compelling subject matter. He’s bold and inventive, but he’s also shy and somewhat socially reserved. He demands perfection and has the sharp tongue to do so, but he also praises his employees when they do well and treats them mostly as equals. He’s a genius that is on the cusp of being celebrated, but he’s still hustling it out in the kitchen.
A film about Liebrandt is undoubtedly a great idea, which is why it’s a shame that A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt fails in its execution. It’s a too-straightforward look at the duller parts of the chef’s life, leading up to an incompletely portrait of the most important moment of his career.
Sally Rowe’s movie is confusing in its inadequacies. It’s a fun flick with an endlessly watchable main figure, but it’s a jigsaw of a doc with a few of the pieces missing. For one, it wastes too much time on a first act that spans several years and several missteps for Liebrandt. Normally, they would be great fodder for revealing the human being behind the food. After all, here is a highly regarded young talent without a real place to showcase his work. He’s a budding artist who can only hang his work in gift shops instead of in galleries.
Unfortunately, these years are told in interstitial cue cards that tell us how much time has passed and what’s happened. The words are surrounded by scenes of Liebrandt discussing why and how he’s working at a lower end bistro instead of slinging hash at exclusive engagements. Sadly, all of it only serves to ask this question: if there was footage from over 9 years of his life, why was so little of it used? Why were the catalyst moments told to the audience with words on the screen instead of by Liebrandt himself (or from actual footage of the event)?
Liebrandt is enough of a personality to overcome some of the film’s deficits, but it makes one long for a serious look at him and his food. He’s quirky and self-effacing, and there’s a real sense of struggle in a cut-throat career. Along the way, he finds a girlfriend who grounds him and compliments him perfectly. He’s engaging to watch on his own, but the pair are an absolutely joy. Of course, none of these things are focused on for too long. The problem of finding a place for his food, the issues of dating after an 18-hour-long workday, the ultimate question of when a dream is too much to bear – these situations are all given lip service and then discarded.
Speaking of which, the other main star is the food. With precision and a modern art flair, the plates are a thing of abject beauty. There’s no denying that Liebrandt has a formidable skill at creating memorable meals. Here, again, it would have been nice to learn more about what he was making and why his work is considered so avant-garde. Other chefs are given the talking head treatment as a means to praise his skill, but we’re never given the inside details on why they feel that way. Rowe gives glimpses of the plates as they’re assembled and sent out to be dissembled, but descriptions are sparse.
Once the second act finally gets moving, Liebrandt is in for the fight of his career when he is hired to open a new spot for restaurant mogul Drew Nieporent. After so much disappointment, the spotlight will be on him, and it will be hot. It might be his last chance to make a move to the big time. The segment focuses on getting the menu together, overseeing the construction, and the drama in waiting for an unfriendly food critic to render a verdict on how many stars the place will get. It becomes a bit of a sports film in the end, but even that excitement is more than a bit manufactured.
As such, A Matter of Taste is a linear documentary with many parts missing and a sheer lack of context. It succeeds when it focuses on Liebrandt because of how charismatic and awkward he manages to be, and it even has a few clever turns when profiling his young kitchen staff, but none of it ever comes together. Side stories are small tidbits, Liebrandt is entertaining, but there’s never a main course. The doc, much like the culinary world at the beginning of Liebrandt’s career, has a genius at its fingertips but can’t find a way to showcase him.
The Upside: A fascinating figure, some great food, and an interesting climax.
The Downside: A film with no real focus, too much fat, and a real lack of the most interesting information.
On the Side: The movie continually refers to the Michelin Guide without saying what it is. Through context, it’s clearly an incredibly important rating manual, and for those about to watch the movie, you’ll be glad to know that “Michelin” doesn’t refer to some French cooking legend. It refers to Michelin, the French tire manufacturing legend.
A la Carte: It feels a bit jarring to be writing a review of a movie that features people waiting to read a review of their work.
A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt premieres tonight on HBO at 9pm EST/6pm PST and is available On Demand.
Related Topics: Documentary