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SXSW Movie Review: ‘A Matter of Taste’

March 15, 2011

Like most folks, I love food; its sheer edibleness, its eat-tastic-tude, its ability to be eaten…anything that better facilitates the process of receiving nourishment from something is tops in my book.

Paul Liebrandt, however, might disagree. He views food as a work of art, and the New York chef has made a name for himself over the last decade creating dishes that are meant to be tasted and appreciated for their miasma of flavorful combinations rather than their nourishment. Sally Rowe’s documentary A Matter of Taste follows Paul’s passion to cook, refine, and perfect his art, as well as provide a brief chronicle of his life as one of the hottest up-and-coming chefs in New York, to his nadir flipping burgers for a simple NY bistro, to his joint undertaking to open Corton, a New York restaurant where he could cook the kind of food he wanted (and wants) to.

Paul is a charming character, surprisingly level-headed and calm given both his youth and profession. He’s also interesting to watch at work, with strands of hair on either side of his head, swinging like pendulums as he mashes a paste of brains and eggs amid a bed of eel tongues (or something like that, but seriously, that’s really the kind of stuff the guy cooks) or discusses the finer points of skinning a pig’s head (as he does in the opening shot). He works with a swift and violent and hypnotizing precision; you don’t need to taste the food to appreciate the aesthetic of the piece.

And much of the early portion of the film details his drive to create unique and odd, yet (and this is the important part) workable flavor combinations. I’m convinced, but I want more, and I wish Taste would’ve focused more on Paul’s process. I believe it, but how does he know which seemingly contradictory flavors will pair? What’s his method of testing each one? Does he just know? If he does, then can he explain? There’s a slight bit of this, but the documentary is satisfied to watch more than tell. It does a good job convincing the audience of Paul’s talents, but several more minutes spent on his theory of food would have made a wonderful documentary out of a merely good one.

The trials of starting up a new restaurant are also nothing new. Granted I care because I care about Paul, but not much more than I do any other chef I’ve spent an hour with on any other show watching them pour their heart into any other venture, and so we’re left with a profile not too different from something you could see on The Food Network. It’s interesting and well done, but it doesn’t set its aim very high. You won’t learn anything especially insightful or new other than the summarized life story of Paul. I just have to ask why this deserves a full-length documentary.

There’s a scene later on in the film when the prestigious food critic of The New York Times is rumored to be coming for a review. The movie informs us that NYT critics arrive anonymously, and no one knows what they look like. It also happens to be the same critic who once gave Paul a mediocre review. This review will make or break Corton, and both Paul and the staff scramble to decipher clues as to whether or not a certain person is the critic: “He uses ‘Steve Allen’ and we have a reservation for an ‘Allen Stevens’”; “I went to the men’s room and there was a paperclip on the sink! He must have put it there!” It’s a brilliant scene, and the kind of energy and freshness I wish A Matter of Taste had all through it. Or to put it less cleverly, it’s good, but it leaves you wanting more.


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