Georges Perrier, the legendary chef and owner of the Philadelphia restaurant Le Bec-Fin, initially scans as an amusingly precise incarnation of the caricature of the French cook as self-importantly rarefied perfectionist. He’s a short, stout, and virile man, approaching 70 when we see him, given to profane and melodramatic pronouncements in his kitchen. The burning of one of his restaurant’s specialties, crab cakes, is shown to be a sore point for Perrier, and a chef will forget to season a sauce at their own peril. Yet, as Erika Frankel’s King Georges illustrates, Georges is often consciously playing to the clichés of his social position. Cooking for a public is an art of many facets, one of which is show business. And Georges intuitively, chemically understands that his kitchen staff expects to be ridden hard, partially as a gesture of affection, though the chef will occasionally lose sight of his severe temperament in the middle of an outburst, succumbing to empathy.
King Georges provides the audience a fly-on-the-wall glimpse of Le Bec-Fin during the final few years of its operation. Talking heads contextualize the 40-year Philadelphia eatery as an institution that introduced the city to fine dining comparable to the best food anywhere in the world, especially New York and Paris. Georges opened the restaurant as a young firebrand with deep-pocketed backing, as a master saucier determined to bring Americans a taste of palatial luxury. The unapologetic refinement of Le Bec-Fin gradually fell out of favor over the decades, as culture moved toward a casual kind of nice dining, as the word “foodie” became synonymous with a sort of newish pseudo-snobbery to which many would and do aspire.
Frankel maintains a compellingly glancing touch throughout King Georges, allowing the film’s emotional crux to emerge with casual grace. We follow Georges and his right hand, young American chef Nicholas Elmi, as they navigate the routine crises of kitchen life. A walk-in cooler goes on the fritz, a woman orders steak tartar cooked medium to medium rare, spurring a chef to memorably wonder if she would prefer a hamburger. More significantly, a gas leak spreads throughout the restaurant’s main kitchen, forcing the staff to adopt a downstairs facility while preparing a huge meal for the Chaine de Rotisseurs, an influential food club and early supporter of Georges’s work.
Frankel’s grasp of the material is so subtle that, initially, it might not appear as if she’s wielded much control over the final shape of her film. Vignettes unfold with an appealing, self-inherent shagginess, yet they cumulatively yield a portrait of a friendship between an aging master and a protégé who he’s clearly adopted as a symbolic son. Georges and Nicholas share moments of startling intimacy, such as when the former invites the latter to sit at the bar with him after a long shift to drink wine and watch an Eagles game. Or later, once Nicholas owns his own restaurant, after a successful stint on Top Chef, he invites Georges into his kitchen, the elder complementing the younger on his pâté en croûte before sitting outside on the street with his little dog, Isabelle, and smoking a short cigar while enjoying the weather.
Frankel’s documentary is finally revealed to be a story of prolonged adjustment to retirement, and a poignant illustration of sublimated redemption. Georges distanced himself from his own family for his obsessive devotion to his art, fashioning a new family of like-minded artists. King Georges understands the central beauty of the foodie film genre, as well as of cooking itself: Both represent not only sustenance or even a celebration or approximation thereof, but a form of communication for those who might not otherwise engage with humankind so directly. In other words, cooking is love.