When Philadelphia’s famed French chef Georges Perrier announced he would close his iconic restaurant, Le Bec-Fin, scores of fine-diners sadly took note and quickly made reservations for a final meal at the Center City restaurant once widely known as the best French restaurant in America.
For documentary filmmaker and Shipley alumna Erika Frankel ’96, the news inspired much more than dreams of a decadent dinner.
Hungry for a Good Story
“My ears and eyes are always open to an interesting story,” says Frankel, who, after hearing of Le Bec-Fin’s imminent closure, immediately reached out to Chef Perrier to propose chronicling the culmination of the great Philadelphia restaurant.
“Georges took maybe 30 seconds to say ‘yes’,” says Frankel.
“It seemed like something historic that someone should capture,” she says of the restaurant’s closure and Perrier’s retirement. “Growing up within a hundred mile radius of Philadelphia, everybody knew of Georges; the restaurant was such a beacon for the city.”
Now, more than six years later, Frankel has ushered her film King Georges to the big screen, opening to wide acclaim across the U.S. with profiles in Saveur and Eater, as well as stellar reviews from the likes of The Philadelphia Inquirer, the New York Post and the Los Angeles Times—which called the film, "a well-seasoned portrait of autumnal fervor."
A Philadelphia-area native and accomplished independent documentary filmmaker, Frankel was uniquely positioned to helm the production that would record the final chapter of Le Bec-Fin and the retirement of its legendary chef, the film’s eponymous Georges.
For Frankel, there was little question of making King Georges. “I either go after projects that sound interesting to me or—as is the case of the Perrier documentary—if I can’t imagine the film not existing,” she says.
The Path to Personal Success
Trusting her instincts, embracing an independent spirit, and pursuing her passion for film has become a clear path to personal success for Frankel, who attributes much of her deep love of human culture and documentary filmmaking to experiences at Shipley.
A Shipley student of diverse interests, Frankel balanced her focus on academics with numerous activities, but it was the classes that truly had the most impact on Frankel’s future. In fact, she can recall the moment at Shipley that first sparked her curiosity in documentary film.
“When I was in Biology class as a senior with Mrs. Lovejoy, we watched a documentary about Dr. Jane Goodall and the wild chimpanzees in Africa,” says Frankel. “I remember watching that documentary and thinking, ‘I want to do that! I want to run around in the jungle every day and observe life.’”
“Really, I feel like being a documentary filmmaker basically means you’re an anthropologist, but you carry around a camera instead of a notepad,” she says.
And carry around a camera, she does.
Frankel has produced documentaries including Frontrunners in 2008, about the tension-charged race for school president at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, Annie: It’s The Hard Knock Life in 2013 and The Home Team in 2014. Additionally, she’s worked on a number of television documentaries including many in the PBS American Masters series, two shows for PBS’s NOVA scienceNOW and The Discovery Channel’s EARTH 2050.
Now, as both producer and—for the first time in her career—as director of a feature-length work, in King Georges Frankel documents the final years of a Philadelphia culinary institution, the man who was once one the most applauded French chefs in the entire country, and the protégé, chef Nicholas Elmi of Top Chef fame, who would rise to modern-day culinary stardom.
Following a Good Story
“Originally it was going to be a story about the last few months of the restaurant before he closed,” she says, “but then he ended up not closing.” Thus, the film took on an entirely different life than Frankel first envisioned.
“We just kept filming,” says Frankel, who ultimately ended up with around a hundred hours of cinéma vérité-style footage shot over three years that documented not only the end of Le Bec-Fin, but also the rapid rise of Nick Elmi’s career, his winning turn on Top Chef, and a lot of dramatic developments, including the eventual and final closure of Le Bec-Fin. “It’s just present-day life unfolding as usual,” explains Frankel
“In documentaries, the longer you follow your subject, the more interesting it becomes because of the twists and turns of life,” says Frankel. “If you think you have a good story, if you have a feeling about it, it’s worth following through.”
The Original Celebrity Chef
To craft the narrative, Frankel filmed Perrier, Elmi, and their team, in addition to interviewing notable Philadelphia players like Ed Rendell, the former Mayor of Philadelphia and Governor of Pennsylvania, and many of Perrier’s world-famous culinary colleagues, including chefs Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, and Eric Ripert.
“Part of my hope for the film was for it to be a history lesson, but hopefully not a boring history lesson,” says Frankel, whose goal is for King Georges to serve as a record of a huge part of Philadelphia—and the country’s—culinary heritage.
These days, when so many consider themselves to be foodies and Daniel Boulud is practically a household name, Frankel wants food-culture lovers to know about who many consider as the forefather of star chefs.
But, rather than make a film simply about food, facts, and history, Frankel paints a portrait of a “lion in winter” and aims to establish Chef Perrier’s public place within French cuisine in America. “This film really has more in common with films about cultural icons in the final chapter of their career in the arts,” says Frankel.
“Georges came around before the era of celebrity chefs,” she says, “but a lot of people refer to him as the father of French cuisine in America, along with Jacques Pepin. He really is responsible for inspiring the whole generation of chefs.”
With King Georges in theaters, on demand and on tap for international distribution, Frankel may yet help chef George Perrier to inspire yet another generation of chefs, too.
This content was originally published in the Spring 2016 Shipley Magazine. Read more from this issue at http://blogs.shipleyschool.org/category/shipleymagazine/spring-2016/.