Nowadays, the national press and local foodies alike salivate over the doings of young guns like Jose Garces and Marc Vetri. Perrier, who invented the Philadelphia dining scene long before Vetri and Garces were household names, seemed in danger of becoming irrelevant. Weary of persevering in bad economic times and against increasing competition, Perrier announced last year that he planned to shutter Le Bec-Fin.
But something happened. Howls of protest reached from coast to coast and beyond. "It was not a PR [public relations] thing," he said of his announcement. "I thought it was time. Then we got 200, 300 letters and phone calls telling me, 'You are the jewel in Philadelphia, you cannot close.' "
So instead of closing, Perrier, at 67, is pulling out the stops to give Le Bec-Fin a new lease on life. "If we want to stay open for the next 20 or 30 years, we have to compete, we have to be exciting," he said.
For starters, he invested in a team of thirtysomething talent, most notably bringing longtime chef de cuisine Nicholas Elmi into the business as a partner. Brittany, France-born Sylvain Briens, who used to run Taquet, at the Wayne Hotel, is now general manager; and Cedric Barbaret, whose pedigree includes opening M Resort, in Vegas, and baking for The Donald at Trump's private Mar A Lago Club, in Palm Beach, Fla., is the new pastry chef.
Perrier's also renovating and renaming the downstairs Le Bar Lyonnais, a project that should be completed by September. "We want something sexy down there, something hip," he said.
And The Art of Bread, his new bakery and gourmet takeaway spot in Narberth, is set to open by the end of the month.
For himself, this is a last hurrah. Although he's not planning on retiring any time soon, the famously particular chef wouldn't mind slowing down a bit. He still goes to market to shop at 4 a.m. and makes 10 sauces every other day for Le Bec-Fin, putting in long hours. During service, diners often see the white-coated chef prowling the dining room, correcting the staff's smallest misstep with an intensity that could split an atom.
Le short fuse
Although Perrier's famous temper doesn't flash like it used to, he still gets passionately upset when his high standards aren't met. One day last week, a risotto made in the morning for staff dinner had him up in arms.
"It's criminal," he proclaimed in his trademark French accent, which, despite his four decades in the U.S., remains as deliciously thick as a good beurre manie. "This is mush - you don't make risotto in the morning. I wouldn't serve it to the customers or the staff. It's the same thing. The staff deserves better."
An admitted taskmaster, Perrier points to his experiences in an eat-or-be-eaten kitchen in Lyon as a reason for his short fuse. "I have a tough personality and I get upset," he said. "I had to fight for everything in that kitchen in France. They hid the recipes from me! It was like working in a prison, just horrible. The chef only screamed and beat us. I had to survive, so I became like that. But at least I never beat anybody."
Far from it.
Perrier's kitchen has produced dozens of great chefs over the years, including Chip Roman (Blackfish), Peter Gilmore (Gilmore's), Pierre Calmels (Bibou) and Lee Styer (Fond). "When people work here, and then accomplish something spectacular, I think that's wonderful," said Perrier, who's also sometimes called Chef. "It makes me feel extremely proud."
Even when he's difficult, Perrier's commitment to excellence and personal work ethic inspires respect.
"At the end of the day, he's very down to earth," said Briens. "He knows what he's doing. When he is critical, it's justified, there's a reason behind it. He's one of the main reasons I took this job. He's very open to new ideas, even though he's coming from the old school."
Part of that old-school approach is his start-early-and-finish-late mind-set. "Chef taught me patience," said Tamar Devine, who, at 44, has been with Perrier close to 25 years, working his way up from washing pots to making homemade ravioli, stocks, sauces and even Chef's signature crab cakes.
"He's firm, but he's also parental," Devine said. "Chef loves his staff. Sometimes people don't understand that it's a tough love. He's from a different era. He's gotten me out of some tough times. He gave people from my neighborhood jobs. He believes in me, and I believe in him."
"I like smart people," said Perrier. "Really, it's not what I know, that's not much. It's the talented people that surround me, it's what they know that will help Le Bec-Fin find its way in the new world."
Striking the right balance between haute French cuisine and a dynamic setting that speaks to a younger demographic is a challenge, said Elmi. "It's hard to exceed people's expectations when those expectations are already so high. The people who come in expect us to hit 100 every time."
Elmi, who has been working with Perrier for close to 10 years, at Brasserie and Mia, sees his role as both continuing and updating Perrier's legacy. "Our focus is to make Le Bec-Fin the best restaurant in Philadelphia. That's why we're all here, why we put in 85 hours a week. By using Chef's recipes for sauces and his techniques, and at the same time updating the menu and adding in modern ingredients, we keep things fresh. By getting it right, every single day, that legacy will continue. Hopefully, 40 years from now I'll be passing Le Bec-Fin onto somebody else."
Perrier takes credit, rightly so, for starting Philadelphia's restaurant renaissance by attracting the highest caliber of talent to his kitchen at Le Bec-Fin and keeping the bar of excellence high - and by simply staying in Philadelphia, when so many chefs opted to leave for New York.
Seeing the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood the way it is now, with its swanky shops and dozens of trendy restaurants, it's hard to remember that Le Bec-Fin broke new ground by moving to 1523 Walnut St. from its original location on Spruce, now home to Vetri. "I used to chase the prostitutes away from the door," Perrier remembered. "I cleaned the street. It was terrible out there when we first opened."
Yet in his inimitable style, Perrier dug his heels in and prospered, weathering storms that sent many other restaurateurs out of business. To understand Perrier's staying power in a town notoriously fickle about its culinary demagogues, all it takes is one bite of his trademark crab galette, a crab cake bound with a delectable shrimp mousse that remains one of Le Bec-Fin's favorite dishes.
Despite the loosening of the dress code in the dining room - even the servers have gone business casual, clad in brown suits instead of tuxedos - dining under the glitter of crystal chandeliers at Le Bec-Fin is a special experience. Diners still swoon at the sight of Barbaret's pastry cart, laden with chocolate gâteaus, petit fours and pates de fruits. And with prix fixe menus that start at $35 for lunch and $40 for dinner, it's an experience that needn't be relegated to a special occasion.
Keeping French cuisine relevant for his customers isn't something Perrier worries about too much. He believes that fine French cuisine always has a place at the modern table.
"Do Americans understand French cooking?" he asked. "They could understand it more. But life is like a wheel - today Mexican is popular, or Chinese, then it turns and, 'Oh, we love French food, it's delicious.' That's just the way life is."
Perrier's life is still defined by his passion for work, with Le Bec-Fin the closest to his heart. He's excited about the plans to renovate Le Bar and feels good about the energetic team in place to see the restaurant into its next incarnation.
Although, as Devine puts it, Perrier "isn't the retiring kind," Chef dreams of slowing down a little.
"I don't want to finish my life working all day long," Perrier said. "I like to play golf. I enjoy travel. I'd like to work when I want to, not all the time."
When does he think that's going to happen? "This is the last hurrah for me. Maybe then it's time to fade away into the sunset. I don't think about five years from now at my age. I look six months, maybe a year ahead.
"Then," said Chef, with a very French shrug of his shoulders, "we'll see what happens."