“Can you tell me about the day you died?” is a question that few people can answer.
But let’s flash back to March 5, when chef Georges Perrier, 74 — who put Philadelphia on the culinary map decades ago with Le Bec-Fin — collapsed outside his Center City apartment building. A neighbor, Nancy Petersmeyer, who is a physician, said she found Perrier unresponsive, his skin gray, his eyes glassy. There was no pulse. She administered CPR. His heart started beating again as medics arrived and whisked him to the hospital.
We chatted the other day at Parc, at a table looking across at Rittenhouse Square. Perrier, frequently interrupted for hugs and handshakes, looked none the worse for his experience. He was drinking cranberry and club soda, explaining with a sigh and a shrug that he misses wine.
What are you up to these days?
Nothing. I want to teach, maybe do another cookbook. Now it’s vacation time. I cook sometimes. I did a dinner at Le Cheri with Charlotte and Pierre Calmels [a former Le Bec-Fin chef]. It was very successful. They said, ‘You have to do it again.’ And now they’re closed. My life is quiet. I read. I watch television, the French news. I go out. I’m never bored, to tell the truth.
Tell me about the restaurant business today.
Very funny, because I just saw Neil Stein today, and he said, ‘You remember, Georges, we were the kings of Walnut Street.’ Neil was a gentleman, a true restaurateur. He loved the business. I don’t think the business has changed. I think maybe we see more bistros and more casual food than we are seeing fancy restaurants. The fancy restaurants are not popular now. But the restaurant business is always a cycle. The cycle turns and I think that maybe in five years, in six years, the cycle will turn and we will see very chic and very elegant restaurants where the people want to wear a tie and the women want to get dressed. I think it will come back.
Are there too many restaurants now?
That doesn’t matter, if there are too many restaurants, because the good ones do business and the bad ones go out of business in six months. So it’s always been that way — even when I was in business. Now I think the competition is very ferocious because there are so many BYOBs. That didn’t exist in my time. BYOBs take a lot of customers away from the restaurants that serve alcohol. And it’s much cheaper, so people go where it’s cheaper. They always look for a bargain. I’m glad I’m out of the restaurant business. When I was in the restaurant business, the pressure was so much. It’s crazy. I was number one and I wanted to stay number one. And then, you know, the restaurant caused me to divorce. I was married three times.
Who’s doing the most exciting food in Philadelphia now, from your perspective?
I like Vernick. I like Nick Elmi [at Laurel and Royal Boucherie], too. I think he does great food. I like also Lee Styer at Fond. But don’t you know? They all worked for me, so they do Georges Perrier food a little bit and they do what they like to do and that’s why they’re successful. They’re very smart.
Can you tell me about the day you died?
I’ve got to tell you something. I was walking down the street and I felt this pain. I went down on the ground, and this woman came and she gave me CPR. She saved my life. If this woman didn’t come give me CPR, I’d be dead. Then the ambulance came to take me to the hospital. And it’s funny, because I never had any symptoms. No symptoms whatsoever. It just came like this.
Any white light?
No! I mean, I saw death. For a second, I was dead. You know, now I look at everything different. Now I say, ‘This is not a rehearsal.’ God gave me another chance. So I’m going to live it and be a good person. I always was a good person. I consider myself very lucky. Very, very lucky.
I have to ask: How was the hospital food?
You know, I didn’t give a [whit] about the food. Who cares? Stephen Starr was so nice. He sent me food every day. He’s a class act.
Tell me about your family.
I got two granddaughters, who are beautiful. My daughter [Genevieve] is wonderful, and she’s so good to me. I’m lucky to have a beautiful daughter. It’s nice when you have children and your children love you and take care of you. It’s really special.
Did you ever worry that your daughter would go into the restaurant business?
She hated it. So I had nothing to worry about. She always said to me, ‘I hate that business.’ I never saw her. She didn’t have a father. I was working all the time. That’s why she hated it. And you know, I understand. Because when you’re in the restaurant business, you don’t have a normal life like normal people. Not me. My life was not normal. I used to get up at 3 o’clock in the morning, go to the market, buy my food and load the food by 7 o’clock in the morning at the restaurant. Go home, take a shower, and go back to work. And work till 2 o’clock in the morning. It’s crazy. Who wants to do this?
But did you like it?
I loved it.
What did you love about it?
I loved the action. I loved to see the people. I loved when the people came and they said to me, ‘Oh, my God, this is so beautiful. The food is so good.’ I loved it. It was like a drug.
What dish would you like to be remembered for?
The galette de crabe.
The famous French chef and crab cakes? How did you come up with them?
I have to tell you a story. One day years ago, I went to Maryland, and I had galette de crabe. I think, ‘This is missing something.’ So the next day, I was in my kitchen and I said, ‘What am I going to do?’ If I do a mousse … You know, I did a mousse with lobster. But it was too expensive. I said, ‘I’ve got to change that.’ I did a mousse of shrimp, and I mixed it up with the crab meat, and I put Dijon mustard, and I put Worcestershire sauce, and I put Tabasco. I sold so many of them, you couldn’t believe it.
No. I have no regrets whatsoever. If I do it again, I hope I would do the same mistakes and do it the same way. I have a beautiful life. I don’t regret nothing. I got a lot of friends who love me, a lot of nice people. I consider myself a very lucky guy.