(2014) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Georges Perrier, Nicholas Elmi, Eric Ripert, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Jean Perrier, Yvonne Perrier, Genevieve Perrier, Michael Klein, Abraham Abisaleh, Michael McDonough, Craig LaBan, Edmund Konrad, Ed Rendell, Bruce Holberg, Pierre Calmels, Lilianne Nina, Hilary Hamilton. Directed by Erika Frankel
Most of us who have never worked in a kitchen have absolutely no clue what it takes to run a fine dining establishment. When you’re running one of the most prestigious restaurants in the country, the pressure multiplies exponentially.
Georges Perrier emigrated from Lyon in hopes of founding an authentic French restaurant in the United States. He did just that but not in New York City but in Philadelphia where his Le Bec-Fin became one of the first iconic French restaurants in the country and paved the way for other French émigrés like Eric Ripert and Daniel Boulud to found similarly iconic establishments in this country.
Le Bec-Fin closed in 2013 after more than 40 years of service, and Frankel – a documentary producer making her feature film directing debut – spent three years backstage at the restaurant observing and chronicling Perrier’s somewhat abrasive manner and giving us one of the most realistic and intimate looks at what happens in the kitchen than any reality show does. You get a sense of how cramped and hot it is there; a close-up of one of the line cook’s hands reveals burns and scars a-plenty to remind us that loss of focus for even a moment can result in injury, sometimes of a serious nature.
We do get some talking head interviews from some celebrity chefs, Philly foodies and critics, former staffers from the restaurant, former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell and of course Georges himself, but the real meat and potatoes of the documentary is the scenes in the kitchen where we see Georges and his sous chef Nicholas Elmi work their magic.
It is the relationship between Georges and Nicholas that is particularly compelling. Where Georges is abrasive and manic, screaming at his team when things aren’t going exactly the way he wants them to, Nicholas is much calmer and seems to connect better with the younger line cooks and chefs. Georges is very hands-on; a renowned saucier, he holds his sauces in very strict regard. When a crab cake order is messed up, he fires a new one up himself, screaming at the offending chef the entire time. He’s not above vacuuming the carpet or washing dishes.
The relationship between Georges and his restaurant is almost as compelling as that father-son mentor-apprentice relationship with Nicholas. The restaurant is Georges’ passion; his drive for perfection has cost him his family and any kind of normal life, although Georges himself ruefully says that there is nothing normal about a chef’s life because of the hours; he’s often up shopping at local markets at 4:30am after having shut the doors at the restaurant at midnight. It’s not conducive to keeping a wife and children happy when you never see them.
The movie is extremely informative, particularly when we get to see a single meal for the Delaware Valley Chaine (a sort of gourmet society) prepared for them en masse but where it falls down is in connecting us to Georges on a more personal level. I get the sense that he is a private man and that may not be a fault of the documentary entirely, but still I would have liked to have known what drove him better, particularly as he sacrificed so much for his dream. I would have also changed the soundtrack as the music was often intrusive and annoying.
Many of us think of cheesesteaks and pretzels when we think of Philly cuisine; Le Bec-Vin did a great deal to change all that. No less an august institution than the New York Times crowned that restaurant as good or better than any in New York City, which at the time was the center of the dining out universe. Times have changed however; our dining habits have become more casual and we demand less pricey fare. These changing times did in Le Bec-Fin, sadly; it was the last of its kind in the United States and as much as there was no place for it, there was a need for it whether we choose to admit it or not.
There’s something about the fine dining experience, surrounded by opulence and impeccable service with an assurance of an incredible meal, fine wine and memories that will last a lifetime. Some may look at Georges Perrier as a dinosaur but I prefer to think of him as a conservator, a man dedicated to a craft that requires patience, skill, determination and above all, passion. I’ll always regret not having visited his establishment while it was extant, but his legacy will always be in those chefs he trained to bring some of his magic to their own establishments.
REASONS TO GO: A sense of being on the inside of a real kitchen. Informative as to kitchen politics and Philly cuisine.
REASONS TO STAY: Really doesn’t give us too much depth in the portrayal of Georges. The score is a bit annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Elmi won the Top Chef competition
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
BEYOND THE THEATER: VOD (check your local provider)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Son of Saul