"There are certain points in the year when you have a smile on your face: summer's coming and you have melons, tomatoes, corn and zucchini—wonderful stuff like that. It's great. It's exciting."
So begins Chef Paul Liebrandt. He is very rooted in the here and now—what excites him about the future versus what has already been done in the past. At Corton he builds dishes that his customers will want to eat immediately again or excitedly share with their friends. It's that connection with the person he's cooking for that most fuels him now. And the future? We had a chat to find out what that may be.
As a chef you use a lot of local ingredients but you have a very international cuisine. The core of the food is always French. I add my personality to it.
What is that personality? The personality is looking at the world as a whole. In the traditional French manner you cook in the French way: with certain ingredients, certain ways of doing things, and you stick to the classics. I feel that it's maybe a bit limiting. So I'm taking maybe an Indian technique or a Spanish flavor and melding them into something French at heart but very international when you look at the whole cuisine.
Is there some region that you haven't had prior experience with that is interesting you now? Yes, South America. South America will be the next Spain or Nordic region.
Do you see that shift happening already in New York City? No.
So are we behind the ball? No. There are people in South America doing really incredible food, however it's a part of the world that is very difficult to get to—the Amazon basin I'm talking about. There are ingredients down there that are only available in that one spot on the planet. Have you ever seen a fresh cashew nut? Ever smelled or tasted it? It's like nothing I could describe—it is its own thing. This particular nut only grows in the Amazon basin. The depth of ingredients, cuisine and technique there is so far beyond what most people know. So I think that will be the next part of the world which people will look at and really embrace.
Is it going to be an ingredient-focused attention? No, I think it's exactly the same as Spain was. The man who made Spain Spain as we know it was Ferran [Adria], right? He was using Spanish ideas, a Spanish palate and Spanish classical combinations, but creating these genius techniques. I feel like there are chefs down there right now (Alex Atala of D.O.M. restaurant is one of them—phenomenal) who are in a very similar vein but using the Amazonian basin. They're using techniques that no one really knows about, like the proper way to make a ceviche.
What's the proper way? You take your curing liquid, put all your aromatics and infuse it, then strain that and cure the fish in the flavored liquid. That's not a traditional way here. So it's the simple things that that part of the world will bring.
How open are we to embracing what you would consider an "authentic" cuisine transferred here from somewhere in South America? I think it's more of an influence with chefs taking ideas and utilizing them in their own way. It's a tough sell. But for me New York is the melting pot of the world when it comes to taking other cultures and making them your own. Not necessarily replicating them exactly, but taking the feeling and the spirit of a cuisine.
Does the increasing prominence of food in media make it easier to tell the public what to embrace? Or do you think we still decide for ourselves? There are people that will embrace something new because they're inquisitive, but most people are not like that. Most people will look at something and be cautious. I think cooking shows give an appreciation to the wider public of cooking and chefs. Chefs have slaved for centuries in the back and in the dark, not being allowed out. It's about time we got the recognition for the hard work that we do. And it helps people to maybe see different kinds of cuisines that pique their curiosity; "I want to try something other than the normal, safe route."
Do you try to both provide something familiar but also introduce something new on your menu? I cook what the customers demand. We have a very unique style to the food, and I bring things on that will work within the confines of the menu. It's delicious food—it piques your curiosity, but it's delicious.
What are you excited about for summer? Tomatoes. There are certain points in the year when you have a smile on your face: autumn comes and you have pumpkins—I love pumpkins. Black truffles are coming in—big smile. Summer's coming and you have melons, tomatoes, corn and zucchini—wonderful stuff like that. It's great. It's exciting.
What most excites you about your current, personal relationship with food? It's the connection with the person I'm cooking for. It's sitting at a table, eating and talking and finding out something that I didn't know before. When you're young as a cook you go out to dinner and it's all about the food. And that's wonderful—that's part of growing. The older you get it's more about the experience of who you're dining with and where you're dining.