Friday, April 1, 2011

The Insatiable Journalist Part 4: Time to Start From the Beginning

I didn't have any crazy adventures with Chef Perrier or Chef Elmi or even Patti the PR woman since the last time I've posted. Don't get me wrong, it's not like I haven't been working on "LBF: the Life and Times" - my faux working title until I get a better idea of the story's arc. Quite the contrary. There have been interviews to transcribe and logistics to maneuver for the remaining visits and, oh yeah, a 7000 word story to consider.

Some of the best experiences are (I hope!) yet to come. But as excited as I am, I'm trying to go against character here and not indulge my giddiness by spilling all the details before they're worked out. Instead, I figured it's about time that I gave this crazy guy who flirts uncontrollably and smokes in the kitchen some context, the sort of context that explains why, in spite of those idiosyncrasies, he is one of the most well-respected men in the city.

Local legend remembers him as the man responsible for Philadelphia’s Restaurant Renaissance in the 1970s and since then for maintaining a standard that refuses to let Philly’s food scene be reduced to cheesesteaks and tastykakes. Recent years have seen Le Bec-Fin falter under the weight of economic realities and critics who don’t think people should have to spend a fortune or put on a jacket and tie just to eat out. The young crowd with new money doesn’t want to celebrate the hallmark moments of their lives at the same old restaurant on Walnut with the overbearing chandeliers and gilding that recalls the ballroom on the Titanic, where their parents and grandparents dined out in their best pearls and cufflinks. With the ethos that newer is better sweeping the nation and hot celebrity chefs opening “concept” restaurants it seemed that the short French chef with the even shorter temper might be reduced to a relic, or worse, a joke.

Eventually, despite lightening the dress code and holding promotions to defray the costs of dinning there, even the notoriously stubborn and self-assured Georges Perrier couldn’t ignore that with big names like Stephen Starr, Jose Garces, and Marc Vetri offering patrons a dinning experience that is hipper, younger, and sexier that the once-classic Le Bec-Fin was becoming obsolete. Last July, Georges Perrier announced that after forty years, Le Bec-Fin would be closing the upcoming May. That is, until he changed his mind.

In perfect Perrier style, he announced the non-closing on New Year's Eve to so much fanfare that it doesn’t take much of a cynic to infer why the line cooks rolled their eyes at any mention of the potentially tragic closing. Maybe they knew something the rest of us didn’t and had reason to retrospectively not take the would-have-been loss of a job seriously. But just because the foodies of Philly let out a sigh of relief on January 1st and tsk tsked the rest of the city to respect their elders doesn’t mean the scene is changing. Le Bec-Fin is just as out of place amid the unpretentious BYOs and monthly new Starr creation as it was this time last year. Maybe the threat of closing and the slowly stabilizing economy is the wake-up call the city needs to reclaim her epicurean icon. But if LBF is to last another half a century--as Chef Perrier assures me it will--something’s got to change.

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