By Louise McCready
Esoteric wunderkind Paul Liebrandt has found his voice, so to speak, in the kitchen of Tribeca's Corton where his former Willy Wonka-esque creations are noticeably absent. The boldness of Leibrandt's youthful cuisine has given way to a decidedly more refined style, while still maintaining his playful accents, which are now referred to as "whimsical" and "fun" by discerning critics. Liebrandt's maturity is perhaps heightened by his new partnership with veteran New York restaurateur Drew Nieporent. Corton, housed in the former Montrachet space, opened in the fall of 2008--an inopportune time to open any restaurant, let alone, one with a $79 three-course prix fixe. Nevertheless, despite the downturn, business is still booming at Corton--a testament to star chef Liebrandt.
In the April issue of Food & Wine, Anya von Bremzen mentions Corton in her article defending the need for fine dining, and Colman Andrews, in April's issue of Gourmet, includes your restaurant in his review of New York restaurants that are pricy yet popular in this recession. Why would you say your restaurant is doing so well despite the economic downturn?
We charge $79 for a prix fixe 3-course menu, but what we give for that price is a steal--the petit fours, the canapÃ©s, the amuse bouches--that's all included. At a steak house you'll spend more with the sides and a bottle of wine. It's all perception. If we talk about why as a restaurant we--touch wood--seem to have hit it off, people have generally liked what we're doing. People always like quality-driven places, and recession or no recession, cream rises to the top. Fine wine is still fine wine no matter what is going on in the world and will also command a high price.
In Frank Bruni's New York Times review of Corton, he wrote that you've grown up and calmed down. How would you say your cooking has evolved?
I've tried to balance more of what the customer is expecting with my personal style. I try to be right in the middle where it's playful, inventive, and fun, but recognizable, enjoyable, and delicious at the same time. You'd want to come back because it tastes great, rather than the food being just interesting for the sake of interesting. As chefs, sometimes we go a little overboard and that may not be what some customers want.
You've worked with such accomplished chefs as Marco Pierre White and Raymond Blanc. Who has been your greatest influence?
Pierre Gagnaire. His food philosophy speaks loud and clear to me. He went bankrupt at 47 years old with three Michelin stars, left where he was, came to Paris, reopened, and it was the best thing that ever happened to him. Now, he has six restaurants. It's phenomenal. He's nearly 60, and he's still keeping the menu fresh. He could easily rest on his laurels and reproduce the thousands of dishes he's done, but he's not. He's still passionate, curious, and tries new things. For me, a young man half his age, it's very inspirational. In any profession, it's hard to find people like that. Losing a restaurant--and I've gone through that--is soul destroying because we put so much passion and energy into what we do. This is not just a job; it's a vocation, it's life. It's a testament to him, and his philosophy and ethic that food is risk. Life is risk. It shouldn't be just a business and mundane. That's why I say him--more than just, "I like the food," it's the philosophy for me that's important.
Back to the food, where do you get your inspiration?
Japan, and Asia, in general, because they have a different food mentality and culture. The way they approach food is very interesting, fresh, and creative. New ingredients are always inspirational. I'm not a green market, seasonal chef, but spring is coming so we have first of the season morels and crayfish. After three months of winter fare--root vegetables, hearty things--it's inspirational to see the first Waldmann's lettuces. I look at other chefs' styles of cooking when eating out. It's a multi-layered thing where you take a little bit from each, then influences meld into thinking and creating something here, which hopefully inspires someone else.
New York Magazine gave you the best new fangled desert award for your caramel brioche with Stilton cheese. What was the thought process behind it?
We wanted to do caramel, and salt and caramel go together hand in hand. We wanted to do something that was aromatic, salty, and creamy because that goes well with the crisp brioche. We had a little coffee cream, and coffee and Stilton are a good combination, so we thought a cheese would be the right direction to go in. We tried Roquefort, but that was too creamy. We tried a goat cheese, but there was too much chalkiness to it. We ended up on Stilton and being that I'm British, we experimented until we decided to use Colston Bassett. It's cleansing to the palate to have that salty cheese at the end because brioche is butter-enriched dough. The cheese balances that nicely.
When we prepare the dish, we bring it out from the kitchen. We sit. We look at it. We taste it. We ask, 'How does it look in the dining room under these lights?' As a customer, am I going to have to go like this [motioning] to eat it because I'm in a confined space? It's very different in the kitchen than out here, which most chefs forget. It could look great in the kitchen on the plate, but when you carry it out to the table, how is it going to get executed on to the table? How, through a customer's eyes, are they going to look at that caramel brioche desert?
We kept it as a brioche shape, but we were changing around with putting the cream over here and Stilton over there on the side, but then we said, 'What happens if they just eat the cheese?' How are we going to compose it so that we get them to eat a little
bit of the brioche and the cream with the cheese? We figured why don't
we use at the brioche as a palette? We cut a hole out of the brioche,
put the cream in the center, put the cheese on the sides, and then a little bit of cream on top. That way the customers get to eat everything all together.
So it's all in the details?
Most customers, to be honest, don't notice because most people aren't foodies. They want a nice meal. They're not out for a mind blowing gastronomic experience. And that's ok because this is a business. This isn't an exercise in art. There are certain things in life that maybe you don't associate consciously. You realize that's great and it worked, but it's the sum total of little things done well that makes you think that way. When you eat it, it's delicious, but it's because we've thought about it that you as the customer will find it so pleasurable.
Corton239 W Broadway at North Moore Street in TriBeCa
For reservations call 212-219-2777 or try OpenTable.
Get more information about Corton on Savory Cities.
Photo: Michael Harlan Turkell