INTERVIEW: Director Erika Frankel

Her documentary about Georges Perrier opens locally this weekend.

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Gladwyne’s Erika Frankel first ate at Le Bec-Fin when she was 12 to celebrate her brother’s high school graduation with her family. She remembers being a little bit afraid she’d witness some of the yelling and drama from the kitchen the fiery French chef was famous for. The iconic restaurant, which closed 43 years in June 2013, was always a special occasion establishment with five-star food and a dash of Gallic temper thrown into the mix. Frankel, the director of a new documentary on Le Bec-Fin’s legendary chef Georges Perrier says ruefully, “The culinary experience was lost on the 12-year-old me.” King Georges captures the restaurant’s tumultuous last few years from 2010 through to the success of Perrier’s protege, Nick Elmi, who opened his own heralded restaurant, Laurel, and won the reality show Top Chef competition in 2014. The charming paternal relationship between Perrier and Elmi, two culinary stars caught on film as Perrier’s glory fades and Elmi’s blossoms. I caught up with Frankel by phone from New York City, where she now resides, to discuss the making of King Georges.

What captured your imagination about this story?
I grew up outside of Philly, went to Penn, and spent the first 21 years of my life in that area. Georges is a great character and if you grew up in the area you knew what a fiery personality he was with all those stories about his temper. … There was talk about Le Bec-Fin closing and it seemed like such a historic event for the city. It had been such a beacon for the city, drawing celebrities from New York City and diplomats from Washington, DC. So I got in touch with Georges and said I wanted to make a film about his impact on Philadelphia and the culinary world. Within 30 seconds, he said yes of course. He said, ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ He was funny and flirtatious. One of the chefs was rolling his eyes [laughs]. They clearly had heard that before.

When did you film?
Mainly November and December of 2010. We thought the restaurant was closing imminently. It was quickly apparent how passionate Georges was about what he was doing. He’s been cooking since the age of 13 in restaurants. So then he announced he wasn’t closing the restaurant. We weren’t sure what to do, but he was so captivating we kept filming. Any camera crew I brought down from New York City always loved being there. Even when he was cutting onions it was so beautiful to watch. And Nick’s [Elmi] career was taking off. The rise of his career evolved during the three years we were filming, which was a fortunate thing.

You seemed to have jumped in at exactly the most dramatic moment.
To me it’s so interesting because there aren’t many films about retiring that are that emotional and moving. I was at the Seattle Film Festival last May and was filling out a form about what kind of film it was. I checked off the box for ‘coming of age’ film. It’s really is about a transition in life and Nick becoming a big star chef.

Chef superstars Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller and Eric Ripert all make appearances in the film, as well as Philadelphia Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan’s voice. Was it difficult to get them to participate?
No! It was very easy to get all of them. Of course, there were a lot of handlers who’d say they were very busy and only had 20 minutes to talk. All three chefs sat with me for an hour each. They really like talking about food history and telling me a lot of hilarious stories with Georges. They really look up to him as the godfather of fine French dining in the United States. They were happy to do something for him.

What space does your film carve out in that crowded foodie field of cooking shows, chef competitions, and podcasts?
We wanted to make it a verité film, not a competition reality show type of thing. We watched other food documentaries to see what the landscape was like. But the more editing we did the more we realized this was a story about a cultural icon at the end of his career. It had less in common with a food documentary and more in common with the genre of documentaries looking at icons from an older generation — like the ones about Joan Rivers, Elaine Stritch, Bill Cunningham, Valentino…

During the filming, did you worry about being in the way? How did you negotiate the tight space and fiery mood?
It was dangerous sometimes with fire and knives. But because we were a small crew, I would stay against a wall somewhere, while the camera person was right up in it. We were trying to be in the mix but unobtrusive.

Did he try to teach you anything?
I did get scraps of things while filming. During that first interview with him, at one point I asked if he needs to check on the risotto. He said, ‘I’m not cooking risotto. It would be burnt by now. I don’t think you know how to cook.’

The scene at the end of the movie with Georges and Nick in the car driving through South Philly to Nick’s restaurant was surprisingly touching.
At the Seattle Film Festival last year, Nick said “Georges is like my father, my best friend, my antagonist’ or something like that. They both really understand the dynamics — father-son, or master artist and young up-and-coming artist. There’s love between them. It had been a little while since I’d seen them together when we shot that. If there was any strain between them after they parted, it was gone. There’s a moment in Nick’s kitchen at Laurel and they are rolling out dough [for a dish] and George says ‘You’re the master. I’m so proud of you.’ The camera got half of Nick’s face as he reacts and he has the biggest grin. It was so beautiful, a moment where Nick is getting his due. They both have hearts and minds in the right place.

Screenings February 26-March 3, Roxy Theater, 2023 Sansom Street. Also, an in-person Q&A session with Erika Frankel and Georges Perrier on February 27. More information: 267-639-9508, filmadelphia.org.

Screenings February 26-28, Bryn Mawr Film Institute, 824 W. Lancaster Avenue, Bryn Mawr. Also, an in-person Q&A session with Erika Frankel, Georges Perrier and Nick Elmi February 26 after the 7 p.m. show; and introducting the film at the 9:30 p.m. show. On Sunday February 28 Q&A after the 4 p.m. show with Frankel and Perrier. More information: 610-527-9898, brynmawrfilm.org.