One on One with Le Bec Fin’s Georges Perrier:
Foie Gras, Philadelphia, and the Future
If you think this column is going to discuss the ornate tapestries in the Le Bec Fin dining room, or how much heavy cream is used in the lobster bisque, you will be sorely disappointed.
If, however, you want a behind-the-scenes, rarely revealed look into the man who wins all the awards, draws the ire of protesters, and makes the competition green with envy….the man whose passion consistently ranks him the best of the best, and whose compassion knows no bounds….fasten your seatbelt.
Georges Perrier is the world-renowned restauranteur whose Le Bec Fin establishment has earned more coveted Mobil Five Star Awards than nearly any other establishment, and whose restaurant was twice rated the best in the entire country. He has been at work in Philadelphia for nearly four decades, yet continues to perform at the top of his game, setting the bar, consistently impressing a discerning clientèle with unparalleled service and cuisine.
Beyond his culinary innovations, however, is a visionary—courageous, outspoken and, at times, an extremely frustrated man. He talks about being the primary target of protesters, even being threatened at his house, and his increasing exasperation at the inefficiencies and misguided efforts of city government. Perrier also opens up about the business climate in Philadelphia, and makes some extremely powerful statements in that regard.
He is a man greatly ahead of his time. While he opposed the city smoking ban on the grounds that government should not regulate a legal activity in a private restaurant, he banned smoking in his dining room…in 1974! Likewise, while he doesn’t agree with efforts to ban trans-fat, he hasn’t used it in nearly eight years. The meat and fish he buys are wild, free-ranging and antibiotic and hormone free (all practices more beneficial to the animals), yet he is constantly assailed for serving duck liver.
And his unheralded personal compassion is awe-inspiring. Such as signing a convict out of jail, giving him an opportunity, and thirty years later, having that person as his best employee. Or flying another employee and his family to France, all expenses paid, for three weeks, three years in a row, for a special asthma treatment for the employee’s son. An employee, by the way, who lost his other son to the same disease.
Following is a candid Question-Answer session with the originator of the Philadelphia Renaissance, Georges Perrier. We were joined for a time by Joe Wolf, Director of Operations for Signature Restaurants, Perrier’s company.
CF: Do you think that non-carnivores are genetically predisposed to their affliction, or do they just not know how to have fun? Hey, I care about Opie the calf as much as the next guy….but come on now—it’s veal. If not for being the centerpiece of a great meal, what other purpose does it serve?
And have you thought of marketing “counter-protest” recipes for foie gras, celebrating its “rich” history?
OK, those weren’t really questions.
CF: Let’s talk about foie gras. Even though numerous restaurants serve foie gras, you seem to be the biggest target of the protesters. What is it about Georges Perrier who so inflames the non-carnivores? What is your feeling about the protesters, both those that protest respectfully and legally, and the corporate terrorists who take it way too far?
GP: In this country, if government gets involved in this matter, then it will have to get involved in the chicken industry, the beef industry, veal….we’ll have to do away with everything and no one will be able to eat these foods. So what are we talking about here?
You think the ducks are treated “badly”? Look at the chicken industry—it is much worse. And let me tell you something…we don’t “force-feed” ducks anymore. (What the protesters say])…is not true. The ducks feed themselves the corn through self-feeder tubes. So there is absolutely no cruelty. You want cruelty? Look at chickens being caged all day long. Look at the beef industry….did you know that the beef industry is the largest purchaser of antibiotics in the world?
JW: Do you know that ducks and geese eat fishes whole, 10, 12 inches long. It’s natural.
CF: Because there is no gag reflex…
GP: But what happens? My name is dragged through the mud in front of my restaurants, they say that I have never done anything (good), that I am no good (for the city)? And to hear it from some of these people who have been arrested by the FBI? And the police can’t do anything, because these people are protected by civil rights. Where are my rights?
CF: Let me digress for just a second. What are your restaurant’s standards for beef, chicken ,etc…
GP: We use only free range chicken (not caged), and our beef is antibiotic and hormone free. Sure, I could buy farm-raised salmon cheaply, but I only buy wild salmon—much healthier but also much more expensive.
CF: You just discussed the protesters. They say you have done nothing for the city. Why don’t you receive support from fellow restauranteurs? From the various restaurant associations? Where are they, and why don’t they understand that what is bad for you is bad for them? I see Steven Starr caved in to protesters, removing foie gras from his restaurants? Why?
GP: Steven Starr is a coward. It makes me mad. Starr used to be a big leader in the restaurant industry, but he removed foie gras because he didn’t want to fight (the protesters). For me, that was a big disappointment because I always considered him a leader, and I consider him a friend. And I thought Steve should have called me and said “Georges, can we do a coalition on this (issue)?”
I am French, and everyone has copied everything the French has done, and what I have done. When I came to the city, there were no (high-class) restaurants. You couldn’t even buy a good suit. The city had nothing. W.C. Fields said Philadelphia was the worst city in the country. I started the Renaissance in this city. My restaurant was twice named the Best Restaurant in the United States. I’ve gotten the Mobil Award for 28 years. I bring quality to the city, I teach people, I have hundreds of employees, and have helped countless others along the way start, some of whom have started their own restaurants. So I feel that I’ve done something. I don’t accept the people who have done nothing in their lives, some of whom have been in jail, come in front of my door screaming. I don’t care about the screaming , but what makes me upset is when they scream that I haven’t done anything. Who are we kidding?
Where are my rights as a citizen and business owner?
By the way, we love foie gras. Tell (the protesters) to come every day they want to come… it brings more people to my restaurant. I’ve never sold more foie gras than now.
JW: We have spent thousands upon thousands in legal fees to get an injunction…so that now these people have to stay 15 feet back from the front door of my restaurants. They are not allowed to use bullhorns. Before the injunction, they were able to stand right in front of the door. It’s absurd…we have to spend significant money on legal fees to protect our business from people who have no investment in anything.
CF: As far as other restaurants stepping up and supporting you…
GP: In France, all the restaurants band together (on these types of issues) to help each other out. In this country, no one bands together. I have never received a call from any restaurant association to support me about foie gras. Where is the leadership there? I am very disappointed.
CF: That’s a disgrace, not to mention stupid business…
GP: Yet the owner of the restaurant London Grill called me and said she didn’t have the money for an injunction. First, I told her not to antagonize the protesters, not to argue with them. But she said they intimidated her customers, and the police were no longer coming to help her. I gave her some suggestions to help her.
The restaurant industry should get together in this city and help each other, but they don’t. It’s tough.
JW: I suggested that she piggyback on our injunction, which she is allowed to do, and that will help her tremendously. They are a small operation—they don’t have fifteen or twenty thousand dollars to spend on legal fees. We spent twice that.
And one more thing: when fellow restauranteur Susanna Foo was arrested after a disagreement with a Parking Authority official, the first phone call she received was from Chef Perrier to see what he could do to support her. That’s his compassion for both a person and another restaurant owner.
CF: Where are the statewide associations on this—why are they silent?
JW: Everybody is too afraid, everybody is too independent in this business. This is an industry of everybody by themselves—nobody wants to get together in this industry. There are a number of restaurant associations. We belong to every one of them, pay dues to every one of them, contribute to them—but they don’t do anything collectively when an issue like this comes up.
GP: Here’s the problem: Today it is foie gras, but tomorrow it can be something else.
CF: It opens the door to ban more things…like Whole Foods banning lobsters and crabs because it’s “inhumane”—whatever that means.
GP: Where does it end? Everything can be called “cruelty”. Where does it end?
CF: Philadelphia imposes some of the highest taxes on business in the country, resulting in the city’s lagging business climate and being labeled as one of the least desirous places for the “best and the brightest” in the workforce. Now there is a proposal in City Hall to ban foie gras. What is your take on that?
GP: I would be extremely upset—what are they thinking? Do they have nothing else to do?
The school system is in shambles. The violence on the streets—the crime (murders) in Philadelphia is the highest of any city in the United States. The city is filthy and dirty, like I have never seen. It is a disgrace! There are homeless and beggars everywhere. Parking is a huge problem. What are the City Council members thinking who want to pass a ban on foie gras?
I would say to them: “Go to work! Do the work that you are supposed to do! Go and make the Convention Center a place that can bring us some business, because so far, you have done almost nothing (in that regard), but we pay taxes like you wouldn’t believe.”
Of the twenty five conventions we had the first year, only two said they would return. How can you run a business like that? Conventions bring people, business, tax revenue. For everything we (the business community) pay in taxes, what do we get for it? Absolutely nothing. And now they want to pass a law banning foie gras? Don’t they have anything better to do? Do your job!
I just don’t get it.
JW: As an example, there was a gigantic pothole in front of Le Bec Fin, so large that cars hitting it would rattle our windows…it took forever to get that fixed. You would think that on one of the most prestigious streets in the city, they would jump on the problem immediately.
CF: In that vein, if you were seeking to open your first restaurant today, would you locate in Philadelphia? In Pennsylvania?
GP: This is a tricky question, because I own four restaurants in Philadelphia, and I am opening another one. I have been here 42 years, I know the city and the people, and I have the name, the brand, and a loyal customer base. I love the city. We have accomplished in forty years what would have taken France 2000 years. But we still have a very long way to go.
But if I was new to the area, and learned about the city (and City Hall), learned about the business (climate) and the economy, I would never open a restaurant here. My friend, Jeffery Chodorow, owner of China Grill and two dozen restaurants worldwide, told me he would never open a restaurant in Philadelphia. And he’s from Philadelphia.
CF: That’s pretty indicting to the city government.
GP: The biggest problem is that we’re not bringing business to Center City.
CF: It takes guts to run a business—and a city—successfully.
GP: You do have to have guts, and you have to be a leader. I have nothing to prove—I’ve done it all. I’ve done so much since I came here at age 23.
But I’m not finished. That’s why I am opening another restaurant.
And that’s good for Philadelphia.