The 10 Dishes That Made My Career: Paul Liebrandt

The notoriously headstrong chef plays our game, but makes up his own rules—and we wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

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Photo: Evan Sung

Paul Liebrandt is operating on a different level than you, and don't you forget it. The British chef, who trained in London and Paris under chefs like Marco Pierre White and Pierre Gagnaire before coming to New York, is so next-level that the documentary about him, A Matter of Taste, began following his career when he was just 25-years-old. Of course, at that point, he'd already been the youngest chef to receive a three-star review from the New York Times, a year earlier. He would go on to rack up stars at restaurants across the city, punctuated by abrupt departures at the height of each success. His personal website opens with a quote from Paradise Lost: "Long is the way, and hard, that out of hell leads up to light." Do not fuck with this man.

He's characteristically sangfroid about his career as a chef: "It’s very Americanized to have some sort of big story, like, 'This is what led to it,'" he says. At 15, he abandoned the prospect of career in the British Army to go through a different sort of boot camp: restaurant kitchens. Why? "Things just happen sometimes." Food was in his head; what other choice was there? He trained hard from the start, stocking up a classic French education at L'Escargot and a sink-or-swim apprenticeship under White, the archetypal hot-tempered kitchen dictator. Somewhere along the way, Liebrandt's personal style emerged: precise, beautiful, deadly serious.

Cooking is his career; it's also his art. He thinks in terms of ingredients, of raw materials to be processed and used to suit his needs, the way great writers use the dirty details of their own lives to feed their work, hurt feelings be damned. Anything is fodder because everything has value, is beautiful in some way. Talking about a recent trip to Hong Kong, he becomes animated, excited by the prospect of a new discovery. "We got to spend some time in a three-Michelin-starred dim sum place, and they showed us some techniques and ingredients which I hadn’t seen before," he exclaims, detailing a new-to-him method that he's since appropriated for his own amuse bouches.

This approach to food is why, when tasked with coming up with the 10 dishes that have shaped his career, Liebrandt made it halfway through our game before rewriting the rules, talking about ingredients rather than dishes—tools for his arsenal rather than preparations frozen in time. Prepare a photo gallery of dead plates, meals served years ago and since abandoned? He'd rather spend the time creating something new from their ashes. That's why Corton—where he has been running the show for five years—earned two Michelin stars in its first year and has held on to them ever since. He applies his incredibly high standards to his own menu, which must keep improving. And it's why the long-awaited opening this past weekend of his second restaurant, the Elm in Williamsburg, was the only logical next step: He's conquered running his own kitchen. It's time for the next lesson.

From wild blackberries at a British boarding school to the most exclusive beef in the world, take a guided tour through the foods that make Liebrandt tick.

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