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Interview with Sally Rowe

A Matter of Taste Serving Up Paul Liebrandt

HBO

'A Matter of Taste' marks your directorial debut. Why Paul Liebrandt?

SALLY ROWE

I ate at Atlas in 2000. His food, his flavor combinations, the texture combinations -- were all so interesting. No one was preparing food like that at the time in the U.S. And he was so young, 23, when I first ate his food. When he left Atlas I asked if he was interested in us following him around.

HBO

You started filming before cooking shows like 'Top Chef' started appearing everywhere.

SALLY ROWE

As a filmmaker, you tend not to think about trends. If you think it's an interesting story, and you have chosen to film someone, you have to believe in it and make those choices. I made a film that I wanted to see, a look behind the curtain of fine dining and high-end kitchens. I did follow other chefs because I did think it would be a broader piece, but no one's food to me shone as brightly as Paul's did on the plate. It was cinematic and I needed something strong visually to get people's mouths watering.

HBO

You shot Paul for nine years. Did you have an arc in mind setting out?

SALLY ROWE

When you're shooting, there are many different ways you can take the story. When you're cutting the footage, you have to go with the material and that will lead you in the strongest direction. We knew when the 3-star thing was happening at Corton, the New York Times review was a strong finish. We went with it because it was all everyone was talking about.

HBO

Is the New York Times still the paper of record for reviews?

SALLY ROWE

Times are changing, but for a chef, the Times is still an important landmark. But Michelin is up there too. For anybody that's high end, the Michelin Guide is the be-all and end-all.

HBO

In the film, Paul is very candid about his career -- and lack of personal life.

SALLY ROWE

All documentary filmmakers respect their subjects. He allowed me into his life for nine years, there was no way I would want to affect his career adversely. He trusted me and I trusted him.

HBO

Even during the low points of his career?

SALLY ROWE

I think we were the least of his worries then.

HBO

It seems hard to imagine that a chef that talented would have trouble finding steady work.

SALLY ROWE

He cooks at a really high level and trained at some of the best restaurants in the world. It's like being a painter or a musician that's highly trained. And it is a costly endeavor to open a restaurant so you have to find that person who understands what you're trying to do. I think it's something most people can relate to.

HBO

Since kitchens are run with military precision how difficult is it to have a camera on the scene?

SALLY ROWE

Kitchens are noisy. They're under a lot of pressure. They're warm. When there was a reviewer, we got kicked out. Or if Paul was stressed, he would say, "Stand over there." He'd put us in the corner so we had to use a long lens. There are moments you want to get and you just can't. We would wrangle and negotiate: "C'mon Paul, it's really important."

HBO

You were kicked out when reviewers were dining?

SALLY ROWE

He would never let us shoot when they were in the house. But when the review came out, we were allowed to be there.

HBO

Does having an editing background help you decide what to use out of 200 hours of footage?

SALLY ROWE

I've worked on many different departments on set and have been around different directors. With editing and script supervising, you're constantly seeing how to cover scenes and you know what's needed. But when it came to cutting, I really needed another pair of eyes, someone with more perspective, because I had lost it all.

HBO

Will craft services ever be as good on other movies you shoot?

SALLY ROWE

Whenever we were offered something, we always took it!

A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt

HBO Documentary Films Summer Series