It's hard to keep Georges Perrier out of the kitchen. He sauntered into the third-floor cooking facility at West Catholic High School like he owned it. In some ways, he did. On Wednesday morning, Perrier, owner of Le Bec-Fin, was at the West Philly high school to hand over an oversize check. It was made out for $75,000, the French chef's contribution to the school's existing Culinary Arts program.
"I'm sorry I'm late! I couldn't find the door!" Perrier blared in his thick French accent, rushing in. Everyone laughed and clapped, and after a few words of gratitude, Perrier headed straight to the stove. The charming kitchen is bright and clean, with some new stoves, well-loved wooden countertops, and black-and-white floors.
"I smell garlic! Ah! Pizza!" he said, before quickly turning to Pedro Ortiz, 18, a recent West Catholic graduate, who was chopping tomatoes. The chef couldn't help but show him a faster way.
Ortiz is going to miss his cooking classes. "It's the one class where I know that what I'm learning I'm going to use in the future." Chicken cacciatore, pastas, salade Niçoise, and fruit salad are a few favorites that Ortiz learned.
The program was reintroduced to the school six years ago by Brother Tim Ahern, West Catholic's president. When he took the post, he couldn't bear to see the old home ec classroom empty. "They learn skills here: how to budget, health, sanitation, and nutrition," said Ahern. Such electives provide hands-on-learning experiences for students, many of whom come from homes with busy single parents.
When he started the program in 2006, Brother Ahern made a trade with the nearby Restaurant School. It needed more kitchen space; Ahern needed an instructor. But a year later, when the reciprocal program ended, Ahern found the money to keep chef-instructor Ron Giovanni and invest in new equipment.
But programs like this need dough. Enter Father Michael Marrone, the school's minister. He dined at Le Bec one night with friends who are regulars. "I told Georges all about the school program, and he said he would help, right there. Just from that one conversation. He did it out of the goodness of his heart," said Marrone. The donation will help keep the program running for about a year. It will help pay Giovanni's salary and benefits, as well as for equipment and food.
After the tomatoes were chopped, Perrier took on making his own pizza. Off came the blazer, on went the apron. He turned to chef Giovanni. "The dough is nice, chef, but no honey? Next time, I'll show you how. We'll have fun. Or maybe Bolognese. I love Bolognese!"
And just like that, he was gone. He'll be back throughout the year, though, to plan a fund-raising dinner, get parents involved, and work with the students.
After all, says the chef, "it is Le Bec-Fin money. The customers paid for this. . . . They eat a lot of snails."