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Au Revoir to LE BEC-FIN

ELV note: We only ate at Le Bec-Fin once, almost fifteen year ago now. In spite of what many would call a formal and dated restaurant, we found its cuisine outstanding and the whole experience transporting. True, its decor (somewhere between the inside of a Fabergé  egg and the boudoir of Louis XIV) represented something of a time warp, but the food was classic and impeccable, and the service nonpareil.  Au revoir to Georges Perrier — one of the titans of American gastronomy — a Frenchmen who took America (along with compatriots Andre Soltner and Jean Banchet) by the hand in the 1970s and showed it what great cuisine could be. The following testimonial was penned by our paisan John Mariani and can be read in its original form by clicking here. (BTW: ELV sat at the table at the bottom right of the page with his last ex-wife. Just thought you’d like to know.)

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AU REVOIR TO LE BEC-FIN….FOR NOW

By John Mariani

The announcement that Philadelphia’s venerable Le Bec Fin, one of the true temples of haute cuisine in  the United States, was closing after 42 years under the obsessive leadership of chef-owner Georges Perrier, 68, was greeted with the usual gasps that always accompany the shuttering of an institution. Some came from longtime regulars, some from food media–many that hadn’t mentioned Le Bec Fin in years–and some from people who had never even dined there.

The NY Times wrote a lengthy obituary of the restaurant, covering last Saturday’s closing night, quoting the always quotable Perrier as saying he had “absolutely no regrets” handing over the reins to Nicholas Fanucci, who had worked at Le Bec Fin before becoming general manager at the French Laundry in Napa Valley. (Fanucci plans to cut Le Bec Fin and re-open later this year.)“He will be the onewho will bring back the glory of Le Bec-Fin,” said Perrier, adding “I have given everything that I have.”

Indeed he had: I have known Georges since 1980 when I dined at Le Bec Fin to write about it for Playboy’s “25 Greatest Restaurants in America,” based on a survey of more than 100 food authorities.  At that time, NYC’s Lutèce held first place on a list crammed with French haute cuisine restaurants, including La Caravelle, La Grenouille, and The Palace in NYC, Le Français in Wheeling, Illinois; L’Ermitage in L.A., Maisonette in Cincinnati, and several others.  When I dined at Le Bec Fin and met maestro Perrier to tell him of the honor, he glared at me and, in still-thick French accent shouted, “Le Bec Fin ees number feef-teen??!! Are you keed-ing? You theenk zat places like zee `21′ Club eez better than me?” I defended the list by saying I had not personally chosen or ranked the restaurants, and that being 15th on such a list, especially since Le Bec Fin was in a city without nearly the tourist visits that NYC or L.A. had, was an extraordinary achievement.  That seemed to placate him a little, not much, but he and I began to develop a respectful professional friendship that has endured to this day.

Four years later I conducted the same survey for Playboy, and this time Lutèce again took the number one spot and Le Bec Fin moved up a notch, to number 14, which didn’t make Georges any happier to see places like Paul Prudhomme’s K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in New Orleans at number 6. “Zay theenk zat zees guy who makes goombo and blackened feesh is better than me?” This time I had to explain to Georges that there had been shifts in American gastronomy, and that Le Bec Fin’s lavish dedication to French haute cuisine was considered by some a tad passé, which in the 1990s led to the demise, for various reasons, of most of the French restaurants on the list, most of which were run by Georges’ personal friends and members of the prestigious Maîtres  Cuisiniers de Français.

That commitment on Georges’ part was total, and he was notorious for being the kind of taskmaster in his kitchen that would make Gordon Ramsay seem a namby-pamby. Georges was tough but was always did himself everything he demanded of his brigade, and he oversaw every detail in the dining room, which sat 50  people who paid $65 for a multi-course dinner, which back then was heavy with silver, crystal, and heavy French décor of a kind that had indeed become dated.  But nowhere in America could you find better food or service, a superb cheese cart, and a dessert display from which you could choose as many as you wished, all backed by a truly great wine list,  and, as a chef who had seen the best and worst of la nouvelle cuisine, Georges had in fact adapted the new ideas to his never-too-rigid classicism.

That is still pretty much the case today. Nevertheless, I told Georges that he really needed to get out more and at least to try some restaurants of the new American style. So he came to NYC and I took him to Alfred Portale’s Gotham Bar and Grill.  At first he sniffed and moaned about the place, but as he ate dinner, all his Gallic pretensions dropped away, and he admitted the food, the preparation, even the underpinnings of Portale’s style was superb.

After that, Le Bec Fin’s food evolved, got lighter, more imaginative.  You might find ravioli with foie gras on the menu, less cream in the sauces, less pretension on the plate.  Waiters changed from tuxedos to suits, and eventually–much to his regret–Georges dropped the requirement for jackets-and-ties. Le Bec Fin thrived against all odds as the place to dine in Philadelphia, even as brilliant young chefs–many grads of Le Bec Fin–shook things up elsewhere in the city.  Even after Georges nearly severed four fingers of his hand in a Cuisinart. Even through a couple of marriages. And even after breaking numerous bones in his body after falling down a darkened stairwell. Georges was going to persevere, and as he got older he even opened other restaurants, including a more casual bistro underneath Le Bec Fin.

Now, after more than four decades in business, Georges is stepping away from the great edifice he built.  Knowing him as I do, ever amazed at his energy, his joie de vivre, his knowledge, and the impossibility of separating the man from his kitchen, I suspect he will get restless soon and start something else, begin a new life in the kitchen. Maybe he will teach. Georges Perrier is not one to spend his days perfecting his golf swing or forehand; he won’t merely travel around visiting his old French chef friends and dine at their restaurants, and it’s unlikely he’d ever feel wholly comfortable living back in France. For Georges is that peculiarly American success story, a man of nerve, drive, and unimpeachable standards who in teaching Americans how to dine became part of our gastronomic fabric, his influence threaded throughout this country’s greatest and grandest kitchens, a mentor and master who instilled all he knew in others, and never demanded more of them than of himself.  Georges is a great French chef but he’s also a great American. ❖❖❖

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One Response to Au Revoir to LE BEC-FIN

  • I had a phenomenal meal at Le Bec Fin, where my nephew worked as a waiter, in fact, the best I ever ate in Philly. Chef/owner Georges Perrier actually liked him, but he quit anyway, because he couldn’t take the way the chef abused his staff. This chef was raised in a brutal system, but that’s no excuse for inhumanity, and he passed it along. Yes, he was a great talent, but I say good riddance to him, and all the apoplectic, abusive maniacs from his generation in France. Not that ELV would care.

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