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

HE WALKED INTO the room — or, to be more precise, stalked in — as he often does, and so often legendarily has, angry and sputtering and flailing, his flushed, ham-shaped face the color of a just-ripening tomato. And for the next 25 minutes, he did one of the two things he is very famous for doing: He bitched. In his pitched, sometimes squealing, zhick-as-butteur, velly, velly Flench accent, he bitched. About the city. About taxes. About being underappreciated. About the unions. About the homeless, the LCB, the Convention & Visitors Bureau. His is a career glued together with iconography, but this is now his legacy, his raison d’être. He is the man who bitches. Bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch.

The group is called the Friends of Fred, and a few months ago it gathered around a large, exquisitely set table in the soigné private dining room at the top of the winding staircase inside Georges Perrier’s Le Bec-Fin. The FOF is named for Comcast-Spectacor vice chairman Fred Shabel, who some years ago assembled a shadow cabinet of Philadelphia movers and shakers to come together over pricey meals and, in hushed tones, take the temperature of the city.

They had just finished dinner, this gathering that included, in addition to Shabel, financier Ira Lubert, Committee of Seventy head Zack Stalberg, oil and gas executive Marsha Perelman, Tasty Baking CEO Charlie Pizzi, headhunter-to-the-stars Judee von Seldeneck, tycoon Manny Stamatakis and city tourism directrix Meryl Levitz, when Georges Perrier cycloned in and deposited his mailbox of a body, still clad in his stained chef’s whites, at their table. They were accustomed to Georges’s tirades — after 40 years, everyone in Philadelphia is accustomed to Georges’s tirades — but something about this one seemed … different. Louder. More spewingly, sputteringly vitriolic. “He was really, really out of control,” says an FOF who was there. “I thought he was going to spin off right through the ceiling.”

As the ranting increased, tacit eye contact was made around the table. There was a shifting in seats, a gaze or two toward the exit. Georges flailed his arms and shrieked about how “everyone in the world is fokking me,” how no one appreciated all he had done for Philadelphia, how he, not Stephen Starr, not Jose Garces, not Marc Vetri, was responsible for the city’s culinary renaissance. How people had come to Le Bec for almost 40 years to celebrate “the landmarks of their lives.” Le Bec staffers stood by helplessly, paralyzed.

The faces around the table all seemed to telegraph the same sentiment: Poor Georges. So sad. “All of the air went out of the room,” says another FOF who was present. “People just wanted to leave.”

Finally, Meryl Levitz managed to calm him down. In soothing tones, she offered to come to Le Bec for lunch, to discuss all of his issues, to kiss his ego and make it all better. Haltingly, the Friends began to stand up, issuing handshakes and air kisses and goodbyes now made stilted and awkward. Several thought Georges had actually made some very valid points, but all anyone remembers is the coat of bile in which they were delivered. “I think at first there was a certain air of amusement, because, well, that’s Georges,” says one. “I didn’t feel disrespected, but after a while, I mean, I’m a customer. Frankly, I just don’t want to hear this shit.”

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  • Todd

    Crisman’s portraits of Perrier are brilliant. He’s captured his pomposity, while celebrating the great tradition of french chefs. This chef says well done.

  • Jason

    Why can’t we appreciate Jose Garces, Jen Carroll, Morimoto, Marc Vetri, AND Georges Perrier…at the same time?

    It’s sad that Georges’ original vision of a restauant with elegant surroundings, impeccable service, and world-class foodwhich is now fully realizedis undesired by those who think having all three somehow makes one passe. (And as a graphic designer who absolutely hates wearing ties…well, I do not for one minute mind throwing one on if it means experiencing Le Bec-Fin in all its glory.)

    It’s so easy to be cynical; everybody loves to hate; and all thingseven greatnessare cast aside when something shiny & new appears on the horizon.

    People will lament Georges when he retires, and wax poetic at his funeral. That’s fine. But until then, I think I’ll appreciate his cantankerous nature and succulent offerings right now while he’s still around!

  • Carol

    I have only had the exquisite pleasure of dining at Le Bec Fin three times but I wouldn’t trade the experience for any other. I have also dined at most of the Starr restaurants as well as Amada and Tinto. While these places are very good, Georges’ point about the cost, compared to Le Bec Fin is true. The sticker shock at Le Bec Fin is known, upfront and you can buy your wine accordingly. The sticker shock at the others comes with the bill. I still believe the best meal I have ever eaten was my first dinner at Le Bec Fin.

  • Nathan

    This was a delightful article, but I disagree with its central premise. It’s not that Philadelphia is no longer interested in a formal, elegant, impeccably serviced, world-class restaurant–it’s that Le Bec Fin is no longer elegant, impeccable or world class enough. 1993 was a long time ago. Quality in service, decor and food is constantly evolving (see New York’s 3-star restaurants), and Le Bec has simply failed to keep up.

  • Simon

    this article is brilliant and eye opening. I hope for only the success of Le Bec. This article should be considered for a James Beard in Food writing. I was completely consumed by it

  • Ardie

    It was Perrier’s numerous PR agencies that created the image he wants to take credit for. There were other french restaurants that were better, but didn’t spend the money for PR.

  • Chef

    You can keep your flashy Steven Starr joints that are more about flash than food. George and Le Bec Fin is why I became a Chef. I wear tee shirts and jeans all day but when I dine I want to wear a coat and tie. It is called class. George once told me that the FOOD and SERVICE has to be the best anywhere and the guest must have a experience that they will get nowhere else and will remember forever. Of course if Le Bec Fin has to change decor I prefer the decor of the Fountain at the Four Seasons. Maybe George will go for that… As Alton always says “I am just here for the food!”.
    Lec Bec Fin is my “La Pyramide” and George is my “Fernand Point”.

  • Jake

    It doesn’t require a coat and tie to have a great dining experience. While Georges is one of the pillars of dining in Philadelphia, he, like many other classical French chefs have not evolved. As our country changes, so do our tastes. Chef Perrier creates an absolute fantastic product, but the market has changed.

    Georges Perrier is the best analog in a digital world.

  • Jason

    GEORGES PERRIER AND LE BEC-FIN, THE BEST!!! I GET TREATED VERY WELL THERE BY THE STAFF AND CHEF PERRIER! THE FOOD IS THE BEST I EVER HAD.
    LE BEC-FIN DESERVES RESPECT. DINE WEARING PROPER
    ATTIRE, NOT JEANS AND A T-SHIRT. THIS IS NOT SOME LOW-CLASS JOINT, THIS IS CLASS, THE BEST IN THE WORLD!

  • Mark

    I remember when Steven Starr couldn’t cook a burger. Don’t forget Steve Poses as one of the forerunners of the Phila restaurant scene.

  • http://keefrh@hotmail.com bRENDAN

    What a pompous ass.