Inside story: Rebuilding Le Bec-Fin

Walter Abrams and Jennifer Smith look at plans for the kitchen. The executive chef/owner and the pastry chef, alumni of the French Laundry, are engaged. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
Walter Abrams and Jennifer Smith look at plans for the kitchen. The executive chef/owner and the pastry chef, alumni of the French Laundry, are engaged. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 10, 2012

Two months ago, Georges Perrier sold most of his interest in Le Bec-Fin, the French institution he created 42 years ago.

Still, almost every day, Perrier shows up.

“But Georges is my dad,” says Nicolas Fanucci, who was Perrier’s manager a decade ago and who now is the majority owner.

Perrier is taking a backseat, offering commentary and counsel, as Fanucci goes through Le Bec-Fin from top to bottom, literally and figuratively. The restaurant, which closed the night of Feb. 29, is due to return the first week of June.

Le Bec-Fin is Fanucci’s baby now. Fanucci left a comfortable life as general manager of the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., which critics regard as one of the top restaurants in the country, to — as he says — “follow what I have been training for all my career.” Nearly four years after he first approached Perrier about the possibility of selling him the restaurant, Fanucci is resettling his family (wife Fazilet and three sons) to the Philadelphia suburbs. Also making the trip east are other Laundry alumni — the new executive chef, Walter Abrams, and the new pastry chef, Jennifer Smith, as well as Shannon Corin, the private events coordinator.

Everything now is Fanucci’s call. The three crystal chandeliers in the main dining room? Staying. The carpeting? Going. The downstairs bar, renovated only a year ago at a cost of half a million dollars? Ripped out in favor of something less austere. The front dining room, with its fresco on the ceiling, will become a salon with a hardwood floor. Hostesses will greet customers there, not at a podium two steps inside the front door. A logo? Fanucci said he was interviewing graphic designers when he stepped outside to get better cell-phone reception. He turned and looked closely at the front door, and saw that the metalwork was stamped with handsome brass coins bearing the restaurant’s name and a bird’s beak — the literal translation of its name. He had his logo right under his nose.

It was also Fanucci’s call to serve a tasting menu at dinner — at $150 for what he calls “eight-plus” courses, it will be the costliest prix-fixe this side of New York. Lunch menu will be a set $55, which is comparable to other power rooms. The restaurant will still be closed on Sundays.

“The idea is to change Le Bec-Fin without taking the charm away,” said Fanucci, who likes to talk about restoring it as it was in the old days, before renovations brought its mood from Louis XVI into the art-deco age. He has hired John Kelly, an Old City designer who typically works in residences and yachts.

Fanucci’s other call was to his former neighbor Walter Abrams, who had left the French Laundry a year ago, after seven years, to take the chef de cuisine job at Spruce, in San Francisco. How about becoming the executive chef and a partner?

Abrams, a Floridian who spent most of his early childhood in Colombia, said he talked it over briefly with Smith, who grew up in Lake Tahoe, Calif. – the farthest east she has ever lived. “We flew out for the weekend,” Smith said. “Like 24 hours,” added Abrams. They toured the restaurant on a Sunday night in February, and drove around the city. “We made the decision it would be great for us to work as a team together again,” Smith said. The two took a Spanish holiday in April and were engaged in San Sebastián.

Abrams, mindful of what he called Le Bec-Fin’s “amazing past,” said his goal was to present refined cuisine and plating and to incorporate different techniques, such as sous vide, and to showcase fresh ingredients. Le Bec-Fin classics will be refined. “Lighter. We don’t want the guests to feel like they’re going to fall asleep,” Abrams said.

The food in the downstairs bar will be served a la carte. Fanucci described it as ”classic French comfort food, but not bistro style. Easy food. Familiar.” The downstairs bar, which had a year’s run under the name Tryst, used to be called Le Bar Lyonnais, after Perrier’s hometown.

Fanucci has changed the name to Chez Georges.

Contact Michael Klein at mklein@philly.com.

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