Chef Paul Liebrandt Dishes on Brooklyn and Beyond
Chef Paul Liebrandt's Brooklyn eatery bridges boroughs and a world of culinary influences. Nikki Ridgway spoke to the Michelin-starred chef and author of To the Bone about his first “casual” restaurant and what’s next on the menu
Nikki has been writing about travel for more than a decade, covering everywhere from England to Russia to tiny Pacific Ocean archipelagos. Now with a junior Jetsetter in tow, she's all about upstate New York escapes and Euro city breaks. Nikki is a former Jetsetter senior editor and writes for Conde Nast Traveler, AFAR, the Sunday Times Travel Magazine and more.
Chef Paul Liebrandt opened his first Brooklyn restaurant, the Elm, in the McCarren Hotel & Pool in the heart of Williamsburg in summer 2013, but the Michelin-starred chef hasn’t spent time getting to know the new ‘hood, and isn’t interested in discussing the area’s rapidly changing dining scene. “I opened a restaurant in Brooklyn. I don’t live in Brooklyn. I’m as far from Brooklyn as you could be,” he says.
Liebrandt’s sights (and tastes) have long been set on France, whose cuisine he’s spent the past two decades mastering, then reimagining, first in the kitchens of Marco Pierre White, Raymond Blanc, mentor Pierre Gagnaire and more, then at his own celebrated Manhattan eateries Atlas (where he became the youngest chef to earn a three-star review from the New York Times at age 24) and Corton.
With the Elm, Liebrandt is doing things differently. It’s a hotel restaurant that feels like a local’s joint, and has an ingredient-driven menu that works in the main restaurant, poolside bar and for room service. The subterranean dining room parades a modern-industrial look in concrete and glass, and there’s a lively late-night scene in place of the hushed tones of his former fine dining restaurants. “The Elm isn’t three-Michelin-stars, but casual doesn’t mean badly done,” says Liebrandt. Indeed, the snack menu includes crab doughnuts and foie gras with apricot, while the fish and chips dish is prepared with hake, Indian pickled lime and vegetable chips.
Liebrandt’s reverence for the ingredients and focus on the simplest flavors is a trait that grew out of his appreciation for Japanese cuisine. “I’ve always been very taken with the mentality of the cooking there,” he says. “The elements are so simple but so precise. With modern cooking, the purpose of the dish can get lost, but in Japan, even a bowl of ramen noodles from a hole-in-the-wall can be phenomenal.”
Liebrandt is east again, this time to Hong Kong for his next restaurant project. “I love Cantonese food, so it’s a natural fit. I went for the first time in 2012 and just fell in love with the cuisine, the energy and beauty of the place. It’s a marvelous part of the world.” There’s also talk of a new restaurant in the city, though he insists most Manhattanites weren’t phased by his move to Brooklyn. “It’s the same crowd and in many ways, the future of Williamsburg,” he says. “If we moved to Staten Island, that really would be different.”
To the Bone (Clarkson Potter, $30), Paul Liebrandt’s first memoir and cookbook, is out now.
Photo by Evan Sung
Most memorable travel meal?
Most recently it was a lunch at Lung King Heen in the Four Seasons Hong Kong. It completely rewired my interpretation of Dim Sum. The precision, quality and flavors were just stunning.
Favorite street food destination?
Thailand, or more specifically, Phuket in the south. On a recent trip I ate shrimp with ground pork wrapped in rice paper and served with a super hot sweet chili sauce. It was so simple, and mind blowingly good.
Favorite new ingredient discovered on the road?
Korean miso, which is much coarser than Japanese miso, and, like bread, is prepared from batches of yeast that can be in the family for generations. I couldn’t bring any home but we made our own version back home.
Best food market?
For me it’s La Boqueria in Barcelona. The shellfish is just incredible.
Favorite hotel restaurant?
For the longevity and sheer arrogance of what they’ve produced, it’s Alain Ducasse’s Le Louis XV at Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo. It’s the cornerstone of French gastronomy.
Best foodie souvenir?
I bought a shark skin grater in Tokyo, which is similar to a wasabi grater but meant for citrus.
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