Georges Perrier has made his reputation as one of the finest chefs in the country by serving exquisite French food, created using classical techniques and innovative ingredients, for the past 25 years at Le Bec-Fin. This temple of haute cuisine is considered by such authorities as the readers of Gourmet magazine and the editors of the Mobil Travel Guide to be the best restaurant in Philadelphia, and among the best in the country.
Perrier fits to a tee the stereotypical image of the French chef: He is by turns imperious, charming, hilarious, and demanding, and his powerful personality is projected, often at great volume, from a rather compact frame, which he uses to gesture energetically as he holds forth in his thick French accent. He came to the cooking school De Gustibus at Macy's this fall to demonstrate recipes from his spectacular new book, Le Bec-Fin Recipes, in a class that proved to be enlightening, entertaining, and deeply decadent.
About Georges Perrier and Le Bec-Fin Recipes
A native of Lyons, France, Perrier began cooking professionally at age 15. After training in the kitchens of some of the great French restaurants of the time, including the legendary L'Oustau de Baumanière in Provence, he made the transatlantic move to Philadelphia to head the kitchen at Peter von Starck's La Panetière. Three years later, in 1970, Perrier opened Le Bec-Fin, and he has been winning awards nearly every year since.
To the delight of the many loyal fans of Le Bec-Fin, Perrier has finally commited the signature dishes he serves at the restaurant to paper. Le Bec-Fin Recipes is nearly as gorgeous as the restaurant itself, filled with full-page color photographs of the elegantly plated dishes, along with dozens of black-and-white shots of the behind-the-scenes action in the kitchen. In a substantial introduction, Perrier tells the engaging story of his roots, his early career and his successes at Le Bec-Fin, and his culinary philosophy and sources of inspiration. Many of the recipes are demanding, but in this case it's a strengthtoo many chef's cookbooks are disappointing because the recipes are oversimplified and the dishes aren't much like the ones readers know and love from the restaurant. But neither is Le Bec-Fin Recipes filled with techniques that are impossible to follow without professional equipment, and the dishes are never needlessly complex. "You have to keep the dishes as simple as you can to make sure the flavor you want comes throughif you try to make it too complicated, it never works out," Perrier says. Luxurious ingredients abound in beautifully composed salads, delicate soups, elegant fish dishes, rich meat and chicken entrées, and spectacular desserts. A section at the end, "Le Cuisine de Bistro," features somewhat more casual but equally appealing dishes, including bistro classics like tarte Tatin and mussels in white-wine sauce, in this case enlivened with curry. This is not a book for cooks shy about using great lashings of butter and cream, but if you're ever going to splurge, this is the way to do it.
About the Menu
Perrier started off with a fricassee of succulent, sweet shrimp. Sautéed briefly with a bit of garlic ("Promise me you will not burn the garlic," Perrier says with a laugh. "It gives the dish a bad flavor") and served with a simple, buttery tomato sauce, the flavors of the shrimp were clear and bright. The one challenging step: Perrier dramatically flambéed the brandy and vermouth in the sauce. He assured the impressed audience that though the wines need to cook to get rid of the alcohol and acidity and concentrate the sugars, the flambé is not strictly necessary. At Le Bec-Fin, Perrier usually serves the dish accompanied by mashed potatoes. With the shrimp we drank a wonderfully light but oaky bubbling white wine from Tattinger's Domaine Carneros in the Napa Valley. After the shrimp came a sautéed filet of sea bass that wowed the audience. Perrier says he is very inspired by Japanese and Chinese cuisines, and he uses Asian flavors and techniques to delicious advantage in this dish. The fish is marinated in soy sauce and white wine with a bit of ginger and cooked with the skin on. Perrier served it with a truly revelatory sauce: a mixture of balsamic vinegar, beurre noisette (butter clarified and cooked until it takes on a deep brown color and enticingly nutty flavor), soy sauce, lime juice, and Moroccan preserved lemons. The audience agreed that the saucesharp, sweet, salty, and vinegary all at oncewas one of the most exciting they'd ever tasted. "I made my fame with my sauces," Perrier declared with pride. It was perfectly matched with a slightly spicy, flowery, dry Pouilly Fumé from Michel Redde.
The main course of stuffed chicken breast had a lovely balance of sweet and savory flavors, the apricot, spinach, raisin, and mushroom stuffing contrasting beautifully with the crispy chicken skin and a perfectly balanced sauce based on cider vinegar. A sinfully creamy potato gratin was served alongside. When an audience member asked whether the gratin would be made with cheese, Perrier gasped in horror. "There is no cheese in a gratin Dauphinois!" he said forcefully, his regional pride showing clearly. He explained that the gratin Savoyard, from a different region of France, has plenty of cheese, and that it's a wonderful dish, but it's not a gratin Dauphinois. He rubbed the bottom of the gratin dish with a garlic clove and butter, sliced the potatoes paper thin, drowned them in cream, and them baked the dish for an hour. A delicious and deep Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Domaine de Mont-Redon was served with the chicken, its fruity and peppery flavors and full-bodied texture complementing the complex combination of tastes in the dish.
As a special treat, Perrier demonstrated an elegant new dish he'll be serving at Le Bec-Fin this winter: a filet of halibut, steamed on a bed of seaweed over an herb-and-spice-flavored court-bouillon, beautifully served in a Chinese bamboo steamer. The audience got the chance to taste the rich sauce that will accompany the fisha mousseline of egg yolks flavored with réduction Bernaise (tarragon, parsley, shallots, and crushed pepper) and whisked with a simple vinaigrette before serving.
Perrier finished with a simple and delicious lemon tart, made with a sweet pastry shell filled with lemon curd. The tart tasted purely of the essence of lemonsthe perfect ending to a rich and complex meal.
Tips from Georges Perrier
- Perrier makes rich mashed potatoes with a mix of one Yukon gold potato to two regular baking potatoes, adds plenty of butter and warm milk, and puts them through the medium disk of a food mill to make them perfectly smooth. He also adds a special finishing touch: "I'm going to give you a secret," he says. "I finish my mashed potatoes with a good hazelnut oil." He advises adding a teaspoon or two just before serving for a truly sublime dish.
- For a filet of fish with deliciously crisp skin, Perrier uses a Chinese technique: he dusts the skin side with a bit of arrowroot before sautéing. He also rests a lid slightly smaller than the sauté pan directly on top of the fish in order to keep it from curling and to keep the skin in contact with the hot pan.
- Start with a top-quality chicken for the best results when cooking any chicken dish; Perdue will not do. "I love him, but I hate his chicken," Perrier said, drawing a big laugh from the audience. He advises looking for a free-range, farm-raised chicken produced in your area. "That is the kind that tastes the most like the best French farm chickens, les poulets de Bresse," he says.
- Perrier uses an electric knife for cutting perfect slices of fish or chicken breast. He says it's the only thing he can use to cut slices of the delicate fish terrine he makes at Le Bec-Fin: "It's so light I can't use anything else."