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!”

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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.