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.”