When someone puts a $500 bounty on intel about your new restaurant, you know that expectations have reached a fever pitch. Now, wunderkind chef Paul Liebrandt finally unveils Corton, his modern French collaboration with omni-restautareur Drew Nieporent located at the old Montrachet space.
Unlike the chef’s previous work at Atlas (which scored three stars from the Times) and the luxuriously bombastic Gilt, Corton represents a quieter, more astute approach for Liebrandt, who harnesses locally sourced ingredients to craft a menu that still exhibits his refined sensibilities: butter-poached wild striped bass with razor clam and caramelized pearl onion; scallops with uni crème, radish and Marcona almond.
On the day of the restaurant’s official opening—and a few hours before ardent groupies finally get their long-awaited dose of Liebrandtphilia—the “busy, busy” chef (his words) came up for air.
Ever since leaving Gilt, you’ve inspired one of the most popular guessing games in the industry. What have you been up to?
I’ve been working on several consulting projects here and abroad, and I’ve actually been working on Corton for a little over a year now. It’s just over 18 months ago that I left Gilt, and the first six months was a lot of consulting and traveling—Europe, Asia.
Ever consider asking for a cut of that $500 bounty that Eater put out?
No, that would just be frowned upon now, would it? [Laughs] I thought it was quite funny, actually.
You did a good job keeping a poker face the whole time.
[Laughs] You know, it was a lot of work put into the space. You want to keep quiet and work diligently.
How’d your partnership with Drew Nieporent come about?
Mutual friends. After Gilt, the space that we’re in now was vacant, and we were talking and talking and talking, and it took a couple of months to figure out what I wanted to do.
What did you think of Montrachet, which Corton has now replaced?
Legendary space. Needed repair, obviously—it was a dated space. But legendary.
What can we expect from Corton?
Modern French. In former restaurants, I have used imported wild turbot and things [like that] from time to time. I really tried to stay away from that for now. Everything that’s on the menu is pretty much local—I’m using a lot more local producers than I have before and am really inspired by the greenmarket stuff. We have good relationships with a bunch of small farms, and that’s a big inspiration, whether it be an egg or beautiful herbs that we’re getting from upstate New York. Evolution-wise, the food is definitely much more focused, I would say, than in past restaurants. As in, trimmed down and much more to the clarity of the dish.
What’s your attitude toward food critics?
They do what they do, and I’m a chef and I cook. Food critics are there to go out and be journalists and review restaurants. I’m a chef. My job is to produce food for a customer.
I’m going to throw out a couple of words used to describe your food and your cooking style over the years, and I’d like to get your gut reaction: avant-garde.
No, absolutely not.
Absolutely not. You see, you’re pulling all of these words from eight years ago.
My last one was “virtuoso.”
What do you want me to say? Everything I ever said gets twisted around anyway, so… [Laughs] Times change, I’ve changed, food has changed. Gilt was very different to Atlas. [Corton] is very different to Gilt. Look at the space, look at the maturity of where I am now, and the food evolves completely.
I checked your blog. There are seven posts there since January.
[Apologetically] I have been really, really, really shoddy about updating it. I’ve been so busy with building the restaurant and getting the team trained and I just have not done it, and I feel terrible about it. I apologize to everybody. I’m guilty as charged.
Are you planning to attend any of the events at the upcoming New York City Wine & Food Festival?
I’m gonna be at the restaurant. It’s a critical time. The team is doing wonders in the kitchen, and the guidance has to be there. I’m here 18 hours a day, six days a week right now. As much as I would love to go, my place is here, in the kitchen.