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

To prove that he’s modern, that he is “fun,” Georges introduced a popular $35 summer prix-fixe menu, followed by a $50 fall prix-fixe menu (which on any given night might include foie gras ravioli, a caviar tasting, filet mignon, a salad, and a dessert from the cart). He stiffened his lip and relaxed the dress code, allowed jeans, didn’t require jackets. And in the move that stoked animated chatter among food bloggers, he unveiled a gimmicky limited-time “pay whatever you want” table at Le Bec this summer. (For a dinner that would have normally cost $500, one party of nine left … $35. Total.)

All of which seems to have left Philadelphia’s body culinary … shrugging. Because while we have restaurants that are woven into the tapestry of the city, that have been here for many, many years — Bookbinder’s, City Tavern — no one talks about them anymore. To be a hot restaurant, you have to be a new one. Or at least an old one that feels like a completely new one. And while much at Le Bec has changed, much has not. When you walk in, you still feel as though Blake and Krystle should be at the next table. And they probably are. “I don’t necessarily believe that lowering the prices is reinventing,” says Stephen Starr. In other words, a formal, haute restaurant is a formal, haute restaurant. “People are still not going out in their hats.”

Georges dismisses these kinds of criticisms with a French wave — remember, he’s the same man who once issued culinary jihad by stating, “I declare war on Steve Starr.” But for Starr and the other master buzz-builders who today comprise the backbone of Philadelphia restaurants, Georges is less their rival than the crazy uncle who comes for Christmas dinner. “I don’t take it seriously,” Starr says. “It’s like Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. He’s just trying to stir things up.” I ask him which one’s which. “Oh,” he adds quickly, “I’m Muhammad Ali.”

there was Le Bec.

There had been the stately Philadelphia restaurants, like Bookbinder’s, and of course there had been La Panetière, where the young, blustery, magnificent Georges Perrier first made his name. But the opening of Le Bec-Fin in 1970 would change Philadelphia forever, stamping it with cosmopolitan cachet that laid the kitchen tile for restaurants like Susanna Foo and Striped Bass, then Starr’s Continental, and eventually spots like Vetri and Tinto. The heart of Le Bec, its life force, was its chef, witty, voluble, outrageous Georges, who boasted of being the best and backed it up, who crafted a Parisian salon of unparalleled refinement and luxury at a time when the city was ravenous for glamour. Tout le monde came from Society Hill and Rittenhouse, from the Main Line and New York and Washington, and they imbued Le Bec with the grace of their Windsor knots and their pearls. Le Bec was not merely a dining room but grand theater, with perhaps no more fitting a showman than Georges, who flitted from table to table kissing hands and pouring fizzy champagne when he wasn’t in his kitchen making -seven-course magic. In 1993, Esquire named Le Bec-Fin “the best French restaurant in America,” the latest feather in a long line of feathers that over time turned Georges Perrier’s cap into a headdress.

Georges was demanding — actually, he was impossible — but it didn’t matter, because what was served at Le Bec was so much more than food. This was the restaurant where Philadelphia went to get engaged, promoted, serenaded, adored. Celebrated. It was special, and you felt special sitting in it. As one of only a handful of restaurants in the country to achieve the famed Mobil Guide (now Forbes guide) five-star rating, Le Bec basked in its candlelit glory. Georges opened other restaurants and created a mini-empire of French fussiness, but Le Bec was his soul.