By Nathan Lerner and Len Lear
The first Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, which will take place between April 7 and May 1, will be inspired by Paris during the years 1910 to 1920. A panoply of events, driven by food and fashion, will import the tastes and styles of the City of Lights to our own City of Brotherly Love.
Given its Francophile orientation, who would be the obvious choice for the festival’s first annual Culinary Visionary Award? During his four decades in Philadelphia, Georges Perrier, 67, a Chestnut Hill resident who has achieved international acclaim as a chef and proprietor of Le Bec-Fin. The opening night gala at the Kimmel Center will honor the Lyon native for his contributions to the local culinary culture as well as his accomplishments as a regional member of the Maîtres Cusiniers de France (Master Chefs of France).
Perrier recounted his initiation into the local restaurant scene, “I was 23 when I first came to America (in 1967) and started my work in Philadelphia. Peter Von Starck was preparing to open Le Panetiere and hired me to be the opening chef. I just continued to stay because I fell in love with Philadelphia.”
After three years, Perrier opened his own restaurant at 13th and Spruce Streets (where Vetri is now), choosing the name Le Bec-Fin, a French idiom for “the good taste.” Last October, he celebrated 40 years of running what has become a Philadelphia institution, almost as familiar as the Liberty Bell or Independence Hall.
“I do consider myself to be an ambassador for French cuisine as I was the one who first brought this type of cooking to Philadelphia. I feel my continued work expresses that.”
According to Perrier, he also performs a reciprocal role in promoting Philadelphia. “When I have the chance to visit France, I am always talking about the treasures we have here: the Kimmel Center, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Academy of Music. I brag about the great culinary talent, our ethnic restaurants and the bright cooking stars we have here as well.”
Perrier reflected on how public tastes in food have evolved over the years: “I think people are more aware of what they are eating today and want to be educated about what is on the plate. My executive chef , Nicholas Elmi, uses lighter sauces with less butter and less cream than I used to do. I still make all the sauces, but I listen to him when he tells me, ‘Not so much butter.’”
Perrier made extensive changes to the restaurant after the Mobil Travel Guide reduced it to four-star status in the 2001 Mobil Travel Guide. The interior was remodeled, the wine list expanded, and Perrier relinquished command of his restaurant to the head chef. Said Perrier to his staff, “Change everything but the chandeliers.” In the 2003 guide, the fifth star was restored.
On April 4, 2008, Le Bec-Fin gave up its five-star rating in favor of a more relaxed atmosphere. This loss drops the number of American five-star restaurants to 16. The change to a more relaxed atmosphere includes à la carte dining as opposed to a price-fixed menu with strict seating schedule. Perrier even instituted a permanent four-courses-for-$40 option to make the restaurant affordable to middle-of-the-road diners.
In January, 2009, the French government awarded Perrier the “Legion d’Honneur.” Signaling the end of an era, the one in which Le Bec-Fin helped start the ‘Restaurant Renaissance’ of Philadelphia, Perrier put the iconic building at 1523 Walnut St. up for sale last year, and he said he would close the restaurant in June of 2011, which generated wall-to-wall publicity. During New Year’s Eve dinner at the restaurant, however, he made a U-turn, announcing that he would, in fact, keep the restaurant open.
Georges is also known for his explosive tirades and his passionate perfectionism in the kitchen. A November, 2009, article in Philadelphia magazine put it this way: “He strikes a match, sends his flambé sauce up in a mushroom cloud of flames. There is a beautiful violence to Georges Perrier’s cooking, a mesmerizing, fiery tango of splashing wine and swapping pots and sauté pans on and off of the stovetop, like a race-car driver fighting for position. And of course there is the yelling and the screaming, Georges’ rendition of Tosca. ‘People just look at him and think he’s bat-shit crazy,’ says his chef de cuisine, Nicholas Elmi (now executive chef). ‘And there’s something to that. But he’s one of the most generous people I have met in my life, ever.’ ”If only the world got to see soft Georges, cuddly Georges, a tad more often. ‘To be good restaurateur,’ Georges Perrier is telling me, ‘to be an artist, we’re all a little cwazy. So I am a little cwazy like everybody else. And sometime, I get carried away, I know I get carried away. This is not the way a gentleman like me should get carried away, but sometime it is difficult to control your emotion. I wish I do not have Latin blood, so I be nice and quiet like everybody else. But unfortunately, it is not the way I am.’” (The magazine referred to Perrier’s still-thick accent as “Elmer Fudd slathered in a gooey béarnaise.”)
Despite the accolades that he has accrued, Perrier, who recently put his massive Chestnut Hill home up for sale, is not resting on his laurels. He is expanding his off-site catering, and he is scheduled to open a new bakery soon, The Art of Bread, in Narberth.
PIFA will take place between April 7 and May 1. For more information about all of the events during those 24 days, call 215- 790-5800 or visit www.pifa.org.
Nathan Lerner, the Director of Davenport Communications, is actively involved in civic and cultural affairs. He welcomes feedback at email@example.com.