Georges Perrier Profile: Last Days of the French Chef

Critics say he needs to change. Customers say he needs to change. His staff says he needs to change. But change, as Georges Perrier will tell you, can be very, very hard

The accent — Elmer Fudd slathered in a gooey béarnaise — remains, more than 40 years after legendary city restaurateur Peter Von Starck plucked him from Paris and brought him here as chef at what became one of the shining stars in the Philadelphia culinary universe, La Panetière on Spruce Street. Georges likes talking about the old days.

“There was the old ar-ee-stock-rassy in Feeladelphia, who were well traveled,” he is saying, his eyes almost shining. We are at the scene of the crime, as it were, the private dining room of Le Bec, three months after the infamous FOF debacle. “They traveled all over the world, and they knew good food. They understood.” They understood.

I ask him if there is a place for Le Bec in the new city dining scene.

“Thees is a very interesting kwest-eon,” he replies, slowly. This is Georges’s new default response, the safety valve he pulls to make sure he takes his time answering, that he does not say anything … Georges. It’s as if he’s struggling to be thoughtful, to ponder, to be open, to be anything but Georges. And this is what makes it all so difficult. He’s trying to suppress himself, suppress and change what has made him him for 50 years, in order to fit in, survive in a world he doesn’t comprehend, can’t comprehend, will never comprehend — the world of louche vagrants in tanning-booth complexions and designer jeans and untucked shirts and Juicy Couture sweats and matching iPhones, who now saunter into Le Bec like it’s the food court at the King of Prussia mall.

“The new czeneration,” he is saying, wants “more relaxed, more fun.” He says this the way he has rehearsed, the way people who love him and care about him and know what he has done for food, what he has done for Philadelphia, tell him he must. But it carries the unmistakable aroma of artifice, and even when we’ve hated him, what we’ve always loved about Georges Perrier is his relentless, often painful authenticity.

“Fun,” of course, is code for Stephen Starr. And Jose Garces and Marc Vetri and Michael Solomonov and all of the other brash gourmands who have opened up the glittering restaurants that now define culinary Philadelphia. Georges takes great pains to compliment them, though sometimes even Georges 2.0 can’t help himself. One afternoon, as we share a bottle of Côtes du Rhône at his cozy Le Bar Lyonnais downstairs from Le Bec, he brings up Garces, bellowing, “Joe-say Gar-seeya, I think he’s brilliant! Brilliant! But every time I go to eat at Joe-say Gar-seeya’s restaurant, he serve me small portion, and it cost me $400 per person. And to zink zat a lot of people come to me and complain that I am expensive, but I am a quarter” — his voice now the squeal of a Normandy boy in puberty — “price of Joe-say Gar-seeya! But nobody say nossing about zat.” His latest flustered publicist (Georges changes them like shirts), Patti Klein, immediately rushes in, shushing — “Off the record, off the record” — but original extra-crispy Georges is now back, making a guest appearance, and he will not give up his seat on the couch. “No! On the record! On the record! So, this is what astonish me, because I am the one battling the perception I am too high. Everything is perception. I give food away, but still there is perception that, No, we cannot eat there, because it’s too expens-eeve. It’s cwazy!”