Gilt-Free Cooking

Paul Liebrandt has served eel with watermelon and candied violets to an uptown crowd used to classical French food, introduced scientific cooking methods when few had heard of El Bulli, and made his diners put their faces into ice-cold seaweed broth to bob for foie gras. Then there is his personality. “Paul cooks better than anyone else in New York,” says a former colleague. “But he also tells you that he is better than anyone else in New York.”

After cooking at several Michelin star restaurants (including under Marco Pierre White and Pierre Gagnaire), Liebrandt became the youngest chef to have garnered a three-star review from William Grimes of The New York Times, for his inventive, daring cuisine at Manhattan’s Atlas restaurant.

The opulent space formerly occupied by Le Cirque 2000 in the Palace Hotel underwent a $4.5 million renovation to become Gilt, which opened in December, 2005. Gilt Management Group, a British hospitality group owned by the royal family of Brunei, hired Liebrandt to head up the kitchen. It was an unlikely combination: an uncompromising experimental chef with a venerable, legendary dining venue.

“Every time Paul is in a new place, you expect him to do something outrageous. Because he is Paul Liebrandt, everyone was watching,” says a New York City food editor.

In less than 10 months, the chef and the restaurant abruptly parted company with very little explanation from either side. Diners who called up looking for a reservation were told that the restaurant was closed to train a new executive chef. Here, a Gilt-free Liebrandt talks about dining, critics, and life after Gilt.

You have quite a reputation for controversy. Is it well deserved?

I’m not controversial. Gilt, however short-lived that was, proved to everyone that I can operate an extremely high-level restaurant. My food is not weird or strange. I think, in terms of cuisine, Wylie (Dufresne, owner-chef of wd-50 in New York City) and Grant (Achatz, owner-chef of Alinea in Chicago) are way ahead of me. My cuisine is classically modern: classical because it’s based on French techniques and modern because I update it to make it my style. It’s the kind of food where flavor and palate come first.

I read about your dinner with blindfolded customers peeling jelly off a naked woman and feeding through bottles. Was that true?

That was one dinner I did with Will (Goldfarb, now the chef of Room 4 Dessert in New York City) five years ago, and people are still talking about it five years later. All I can say is that everyone that was there had a lot of fun.

What were you hoping to accomplish?

It was about taking one sense at a time, and really exploring it. And, like I said, everyone there had a lot of fun.

“Paul cooks better than anyone else in New York. But he also tells you that he is better than anyone else in New York.”

Do you think you are misunderstood?

To a certain extent, yes.

What happened at Gilt?

What happened was, I was on vacation when I got this phone call telling me that the management of the hotel had decided to go in another direction, and we parted company. I respect their decision and I mean it. There’s a lot more to a restaurant than just putting food on the plate.

Do you think what happened at Gilt had anything to do with the interview in W magazine where you were quoted as blaming the management for the restaurant’s lackluster business?

I don’t think anyone in their right mind is going to change the whole kitchen management team, who created the style of the restaurant and menu, and changed the style of food, based on one article. It’s just not a good business decision. They told me that they weren’t happy about the article, nor was I. The piece was very different from what I was led to believe. I thought it was going to be a profile piece on me, but what they really wanted was something more edgy. A lot of what I said was taken out of context.

How do you respond to the complaints from some customers that your food at Gilt was way too expensive?

It is not my restaurant, and I did not make the final decision on what to charge for my food.

Do you read reviews of your food?

Of course I do. Everyone has his own opinion. You like to get good reviews, but it’s the customers that count. Reviews are not everything. A good example is Asiate (the Japanese-French fusion restaurant located at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York City). It’s one star, and it’s still open and still full. It’s a beautiful restaurant. If you don’t get a good review, it’s not the end of the world. You keep going; you don’t give up. When the critics pay my bills, then I’ll listen. The critics are super-important, but it’s the customers that make the restaurant. If people think I am worth more stars than I am given, then it means a lot more to me.

What about the customers who are also the critics? Like the bloggers. Lots of chefs hate them.

Bloggers are the new critics. You see fewer and fewer people taking what is a traditional review as opinion. These days, you can go on any of these blog sites and get a sense of what the food is about and even see pictures of the food. And it’s not just one person who’s writing about the place. It is many people, so you can get a balance of opinion. People are going to do it, and you can’t stop them. You might as well embrace it, and work with it. I think it’s useful, although you do run the risk of going the opposite way and not getting an educated view. You need to get a balance of the traditional review and the bloggers.

When the critics pay my bills, then I’ll listen.

Having worked all over Europe, what do you think is the main difference between American and European dining scenes? What about the theory that it’s not possible to have a true Michelin star restaurant in New York?

It’s very hard to do an exact comparison. At Marco Pierre White in London, we used to do 60 covers a night, and for those 60 covers we would roast 38 chickens and let the juice drip down to make chicken jus. Then we squeezed the chicken to get all the juice out, and threw away the carcass. It’s delicious, but if you did that here, you’d be out of business. New York is a different animal altogether from Europe. The cost is different here, so you have to judge it differently. I have a lot of respect for the Michelin guide. It gives credibility to the chefs. A Michelin three-star is like the Oscars of the food world. It’s a guide with consistently high standards and many years of history and experience.

What’s next?

My own place —Restaurant PL.

Photographs by Michael Harlan Turkell