"Nobody who is a chef is a normal person, because a chef doesn't have a normal life," Georges Perrier observes in King Georges, the wistful and wonderful documentary portrait of the famous Philadelphia cuisinier.
Of course, Perrier - who opened the fabled Le Bec-Fin in 1970 and went on to win every culinary honor imaginable over the restaurant's 40-plus-year run - isn't your typical not-normal professional cook. Demanding, driven, schooled in the French traditions, the Lyons native landed in Philadelphia way-back-when, opened his elegant eatery (first on Spruce Street, then on Walnut), tormented his kitchen staff, and charmed his moneyed clientele - businessfolk, politicians, movie stars, gourmands. Galette de Crabe and Quenelles de Brochet to die for!
Erika Frankel's documentary, which began shooting in 2010, follows Perrier around as the chef struggles to keep his business going in the face of changing dining habits, in a city that was once a food wasteland, but has morphed into a destination dining town.
With its stiff-backed chairs, synchronized service, and shimmering chandeliers, Le Bec-Fin was a fancy place, and a pricey one, too. As former mayor and governor and Le Bec-Fin habitue Ed Rendell notes, lamentingly, in the film, Perrier's restaurant was deemed, by the end, "a little bit too expensive, too formal," as trendier spots popped up all around.
But King Georges isn't exactly an elegy. There are terrific clips of Perrier doing his magic on old daytime TV shows; there are star chefs (Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller) saluting Perrier and his accomplishments. There is Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan (off camera), putting Perrier into context (and then, painfully, putting his restaurant to rest in a devastating review). Philly.com food columnist Michael Klein serves periodic updates on Le Bec-Fin's efforts to reinvent itself over those last years - an effort that saw Perrier forming a partnership with his former sous chef, Nicholas Elmi.
The relationship between the young American and the old Frenchman is as rich as one of Perrier's sauces: the pupil and the teacher, the son and the father, the keen protégé and the stubborn classicist. One of the sweetest things about King Georges is in its final scenes, after Le Bec-Fin has shuttered (the last dinner: June 15, 2013), as Perrier, puffing on a cigarette and cooing to his white, fluffy pooch, Isabelle, heads down to Passyunk Avenue to check out Elmi's new place, Laurel. Perrier helps Elmi prepare an elaborate pate en croute, and then the pair head for a coffee across the street. Perrier says something about maybe opening his own little cafe, or trying out a food cart.
King Georges, then, is a celebration of a man of outsize ambitions and talent, whose obsessive work ethic obliterated his family (divorced, with a daughter who remembers the weekend visits and the peeling of carrots at his behest), but who is seen coming to terms with a life post-Le Bec-Fin. There is time to nap on the couch, to reflect, and, yes, drop in on his old crew, now cooking up a storm in ballyhooed establishments of their own. Perrier will lift the lid on a pot and swat the aroma his way, and maybe make a suggestion or two. Or he'll think better and just let his erstwhile apprentices soldier on. After all, they have learned from the master.
Note: Perrier and filmmaker Frankel are scheduled to do a Q&A Friday night at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute following the 7 p.m. screening and again after the 4 p.m. screening Sunday. On Saturday, Perrier and Frankel are set to appear at the PFS Roxy. Check the respective theaters for details.