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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