NEW YORK (Reuters) - Acclaimed chef Paul Liebrandt recounts the ups and downs of his culinary career and describes how working with world-class chefs in Europe and the United States fueled his ambition to succeed in his first book, “To the Bone.”
Critics have praised the 37-year-old Zimbabwe-born chef for his inventive dishes and impeccable technique since he burst onto the U.S. culinary scene in his early 20s as the executive chef at Atlas in New York’s Greenwich Village.
In 2011 he was the subject of the documentary film “A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt.”
Last summer, Liebrandt opened The Elm, a restaurant that focuses on French European food, in Brooklyn’s trendy Williamsburg neighborhood.
In “To the Bone,” co-written with Andrew Friedman, Liebrandt recounts his failures, including being fired from the American nouveau restaurant Gilt and his successes such as receiving two Michelin stars for Corton, the Manhattan restaurant he left in July and eventually closed.
Liebrandt, who grew up in London, spoke to Reuters about the book, his approach to cooking and creating the perfect dish.
Q: Why did you write this book?
A: The idea was to do something you could read, something you could enjoy as a good story, as well as looking at beautiful pictures of food. I have been an avid lover and collector of cookbooks for decades. What I love about cookbooks is the story (about) where the dishes come from and the thoughts on the creative process and thoughts on the food itself. That, I thought, would resonate in a big way.
Q: What is your creative process?
A: The ingredient is always something we first think about. We could apply different techniques to an ingredient. If it’s a theme on a dish or it’s a theme on a menu overall, there has to be a nice story line between all the dishes. The emotion that plays between tasting a menu dish after dish is very important ... It’s very important when you eat that you have this beautiful story and melody that play between those things.
Q: How do you know you achieved a perfect dish?
A: I don’t think you ever know. There is no right or wrong or a perfect dish. It’s a sensibility which comes from experience and which comes from looking at something and putting your personal expertise to (it). A sensibility in knowing something as it should be. When enough is enough, (to) hold back or (if) it needs a little something more. It really depends on the dish, the chef and how they approach it. For me, I think it’s a sensibility.
Q: Why is food’s seasonality important to you?
A: Seasonality is a big part of what we do as chefs. It’s your role to take them (ingredients) and prepare them in accordance with what’s going on with the weather. But you see that’s changing in a very big way, that’s global. There are more restaurants. There are more people demanding it. There is a finite supply of wild ingredients out there. Most chefs are looking at things differently. You have to look at those means to see what you have to work with. It’s not being in the kitchen and being wildly creative. You have to be very careful and cognizant with what’s going on in the changing world and customers’ needs.
Q: What is the high point of your career so far?
A: My first job in the kitchen at 13 years old at a restaurant called New York New York. It was kind of telling for the future.
Q: What is your biggest disappointment?
A: Not being able to go and eat at Alain Chapel (a former three-Michelin-star restaurant that closed in 2012) in France.
Liebrandt provides a simple recipe for cooks to try at home:
Chicken Tagine (Serves 4)
4 pieces chicken breast with skin on
1/2 cup (125 g) green olives, pitted
2 cloves garlic
Peel from 1 preserved lemon
2 tbsp green extra virgin olive oil
1 cup (250 g) couscous
2 cups (500 g) chicken consomme
1 tbsp pimento pepper paste
2 tbsp cilantro leaves
3 tbsp bacon fat
Fleur de sel to taste
Preheat an oven at 350-degree Fahrenheit (176.7C).
In an oven-proof skillet, warm the bacon fat. Season the chicken breasts with fleur de sel. Brown the breasts, skin side down, until lightly brown and crisp evenly. Remove them from the skillet.
Turn heat very low. Add garlic, preserved lemon peel and pitted green olives. Toast them for a minute without browning. Add dry couscous and toast for 30 seconds.
Rub pimento paste over the chicken skin and return the chicken breasts on top of the couscous mix in the skillet. Pour the chicken consomme over the chicken and the couscous mixture.
Cover skillet with its lid. Put it the oven for 35 minutes until the chicken breasts are just cooked through. Remove the skillet from the oven and let it cool for 10 minutes with the lid on.
Remove the lid and fluff the couscous. Sprinkle the cilantro leaves. Spoon over with the green extra virgin olive oil. Season with fleur de sel.
Editing by Patricia Reaney and Douglas Royalty