Philadelphia Freedom

Le Bec-Fin's Georges Perrier breaks away from the constraints of classic French cuisine
"I have to stay slim, or the women won't look at me," says the perennially rakish Georges Perrier, chef and owner of Philadelphia's legendary Le Bec-Fin, explaining his recent embrace of low-fat cooking techniques.

While it might not seem surprising to hear a Frenchman cite an ability to charm as his reason for calorie control, it sounds nothing short of heretical to hear this particular one cite a preference for less butter and cream. Few people cooking in America today are more fully synonymous with classical French technique than the redoubtable Perrier. (Sweetbreads in brioche crust and terrine of duck foie gras are two of the recipes in his newly released cookbook featuring favorite dishes from the restaurant, Le Bec-Fin Recipes, published by Running Press.) 

But time and circumstance, as Perrier acknowledges, have worked subtle changes in both his culinary philosophy and his culinary practice. "I'm not 23 anymore," he concedes, "And I've found that if I wanted to be healthy, if I wanted to stay fit, I'd have to change what I ate and the way I cooked. I couldn't eat today what I was cooking 30 years ago." 

Francesco Martorella, Perrier's partner and chef at Brasserie Perrier, his second, equally successful Philadelphia restaurant, voices a similar low-fat philosophy, though his cooking is of a very different sort. "I call my cooking modern French with Asian and Italian influences," says Martorella, pointing out that he is more likely than his mentor to make use of ingredients such as ginger, lemongrass and sesame oil. 

Still, no matter how different their cooking styles, the two men share a deep and mutual regard for each other's abilities. "Francesco could create a new dish every day of his life," confides Perrier. Martorella simply says of the man credited as the city's greatest culinary ambassador, "I don't try to outshine Georges. I know I never could." 

So when the two chefs planned their dinner party at Perrier's house in suburban Philadelphia, the menu became a meld of the techniques of both men. The dishes they created were rich in flavor yet remarkably low in fat. 

Admittedly, the evening's eating began on a slightly indulgent note. Perrier prepared hors d'oeuvres of sautéed leek tartlets, each topped with thinly sliced smoked salmon and a heaping spoonful of caviar, protesting that a small measure of excess scarcely constituted a headlong plunge into hedonism. "They were very small--less than the size of a half-dollar," he notes. 

Martorella took over for the first two courses. He began with a shellfish dish that emphasized intense flavors in place of fat--sautéed scallops coupled with lobster and steamed shrimp in a garlic-cilantro-lemongrass broth. His next contribution was a delicate spinach cavatelli topped with a coulis of fresh and sun-dried tomatoes. According to Martorella, "The pasta was made with a lot of spinach and very little egg." 

Perrier rose to the challenge with poached boneless chicken breasts accompanied by wild mushrooms. This turned out so well that he decided it deserved a place on this winter's Le Bec-Fin menu. "I used a very strong chicken stock, clarified with chicken meat and vegetables," says Perrier, allowing that in the past its richness might well have come instead from a generous helping of heavy cream. 

The benefit of his change in technique became especially apparent to Perrier as dinner drew to a close. "When I got up from the table, I felt so slim, so light," he marvels. "It was as if I hadn't eaten at all."

PUBLISHED January 1998

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