Bernard Perrier, 'front of the house' at Le Bec-Fin

Posted: August 23, 2013

Bernard Perrier, 65, of Moorestown, an unassuming, self-taught intellectual whose love and appreciation of lively conversation, fine wine, and French cuisine helped define the acclaimed Philadelphia restaurant Le Bec-Fin for 40 years, died Sunday, Aug. 18, at his home.

The cause of death was heart failure, said his wife, Linda Oliver Perrier.

Known to his family as "Bear," Mr. Perrier worked closely for most of his life with his brother Georges, the restaurant's chef and founder. Together, they built and maintained Le Bec-Fin's international reputation for exquisite food, served with tuxedoed grace in a Belle Epoque setting.

Born and raised near Lyons, France, Mr. Perrier was the youngest of five children. In his early teens, he was hit by a car while riding his bicycle. Though the injuries resulted in lifelong migraines, he did not allow them to interfere with his hunger for reading and studying art, history, and antiques.

After serving eight years in the French navy, he moved to Philadelphia in 1973 to join Georges.

"He had great talent," Georges Perrier said. "If he had the training I had, he would probably have been the best chef in the world."

For several years in the mid-1980s, Mr. Perrier ran his own catering company, Chez Bear, based in Conshohocken.

In contrast to his brother, renowned for his fiery temper and forceful personality, Mr. Perrier was relaxed and engaging. He oversaw Le Bar Lyonnais, the downstairs bistro, and served as sommelier for the main dining room.

"He became front of the house in a way my dad couldn't be," said his niece Genevieve Perrier. "He was immensely knowledgeable about wines and completely self-trained."

Among his flashier skills, she said, was his ability to saber champagne - a Napoleonic technique for slashing off the cork with a blade.

He and his brother would sometimes clash. "But we always made peace," said Georges Perrier. "Together, we made something special."

After Le Bec-Fin closed in 2012, Mr. Perrier devoted more time to his six grandchildren and his English rose garden. Although he dressed impeccably for work, at home he could often be found in a wet suit bobbing in his koi pond, pulling weeds from the muck, or wearing a big straw hat and rubber boots, whacking  at bushes, hunting for snails.

"We had a routine every morning," said his wife of 16 years. "He'd feed the koi, I'd make the coffee, we'd sit on the sofa and read the paper."

Several days before his death, she recalled, he reached over, touched her arm, and said, "I think this is my favorite time of the day."

The couple met in 1993, less than two months after her first husband died of cancer. She had taken her older daughter to Le Bec-Fin as a treat.

Mr. Perrier was then single; his first marriage, to Cheryl Gearhart, had ended in divorce years before. He passed through the dining room, caught Linda Oliver's eye, and later asked for her phone number. When she explained that she was newly widowed, "he was so kind," she said. For the next few months, he called every day to offer his friendship. Three years later, they married.

Together, they traveled widely, feeding Mr. Perrier's fascination with Egyptian and Chinese art and history. They made annual trips to France to visit his other siblings and his parents.

Although he cherished his French roots, his wife said, he considered himself an American and became a citizen in his 40s.

In addition to his wife, niece, brother, and grandchildren, Mr. Perrier is survived by a son, Jean-Baptiste; stepchildren Matt Oliver, Carrie Boxer, and Mary Ellen Angelini; two other brothers; and a sister.

A funeral service will be at 10 a.m. Friday, Aug. 23, at Weber Funeral Home, 112 Broad St., Riverton. Burial will follow at Lakeview Memorial Park, Cinnaminson.

Contact Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or or @dribbenonphilly

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