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

But starting a decade ago, something began to shift. In 2001, an argument in the dining room between a waiter and a busboy cost Georges his precious fifth star. And there were other, even larger issues. The couples who constituted Le Bec’s Gilded Age clientele began to die off or move to Palm Beach. Brassy, sassy Neil Stein threw tables out on the sidewalk at Rouge, young upstarts opened sleek, casual spaces in Old City and Rittenhouse, and suddenly Georges wasn’t alone. He worked feverishly to regain the lost star in 2003, only to voluntarily hand it back five years later when he realized that Le Bec couldn’t rely on the type of Monte Carlo dining five stars recognizes. To survive, it would have to become less restrictive, less formal, less Georges. In more ways than one, the gloves had to come off.

So here is Georges, with a heavy heart and a strained smile, the crazy artist trying to reinvent his creation, his sterling, majestic creation that no one appreciates anymore. But it’s hard. It is very, very hard, to let go of your idea of what a restaurant is. Especially this one. “I think there are people who want the traditional, who want to get dressed to go to a restaurant, and are upset when they walk in and see people in a shirt and jeans and no jacket.” His brows furrow, and his voice goes suddenly lower. “They get very upset. Very upset.” He would know.

TO SHOW THAT he’s hip, to show that he can compete in the “new” Philadelphia, to show that he’s not only alive but relevant, Georges Perrier has done what great club managers do: recruited a young, hungry bullpen. His chef is the aforementioned Nicholas Elmi, 29, a native Bostonian who started as an extern at George’s late, lamented Brasserie Perrier and in his year aboard has brought a measured New England reserve to Le Bec’s kitchen. General manager Michael Franco is 29; Joe Norkus, the assistant sommelier, is 27. Cedric Barberet, Le Bec’s buzzed-about new pastry chef and the man charged with “reinventing” its legendary dessert cart, is 35 but looks 25. Stylish, well groomed and handsome, together they’re the new face of Le Bec, a sort of foodie Backstreet Boys. But what they are, mainly, is unflappable. Which, it appears, is no accident. “I think one of the reasons our relationship has worked is because I can calm him down,” Elmi says of Georges. “And I haven’t seen very many people who can do that.”

Time will tell whether the Le Bec youth movement is brilliant or desperate. There are people close to Georges who are still worried. Very worried. They fret that his piecemeal changes will be so much salt and pepper when what’s needed is an entirely new recipe. A year and a half ago, Franco brought up what has become a common suggestion — flipping the Le Bec and Bar Lyonnais spaces — to Georges. “Ah, yeah, that just didn’t go over well,” the younger man says with a dash of politique. “So we just didn’t talk about it after that.” “I am not saying this isn’t a good vision. Yeah, it be a good vision,” Georges tells me. “But I think if they do this, they have to do this after I die, because I don’t want to see zis happening.” Because he is trying, he is trying so … fokking … hard to czhange, but there is only so much Georges Perrier can change. Taking down the chandeliers alone might be enough to kill him. “My vision of Le Bec,” he says, “is what’s upstairs.”

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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.