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.”


IN THE BEGINNING,
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.

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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.