The Reboot Part Deux: Chef Walter Abrams Talks Le Bec-Fin

Jennifer Smith and Walter Abrams in the kitchen at Le Bec-Fin
Jennifer Smith and Walter Abrams in the kitchen at Le Bec-Fin Photo: Collin Keefe

Last week we chatted up Nicolas Fanucci to learn a little bit about the changes he and his crew were bringing as they reboot Le Bec-Fin. With a new kitchen, new staff, and a recently refreshed dining room, the flagship of Philly’s once mighty original restaurant row goes live tonight. And at the helm of her kitchen, French Laundry alum Walter Abrams will steer the restaurant as it ventures into new, uncharted territory. We caught up with Abrams and his fiancee/pastry chef Jennifer Smith to find out more about what’s in store for the kitchen and menus (check out tonight’s here). Keep reading to see what they had to say.

How long have you been here in Philly?
Jennifer Smith: Since Monday, May 21.

Walter Abrams: We drove across the country. One of our plans was to get an R.V., because we have pets, but it’s NASCAR season and there’s isn’t an R.V. to be found from California to the East Coast.

So, it sounds like you guys literally hit the ground the running?
W.A.: Yeah, we came in and had a bunch of stuff we had to do waiting for us. We’ve been busy, but everything’s going real good. We’re getting it all together, finishing up and getting the kitchen up to speed. It was kind of a madhouse getting all the new equipment, but it all looks a lot better today. We’re pretty confident that we pulled a really good crew together.

Did you make serious upgrades and changes in the kitchen?
W.A.: Oh yeah, we re-tiled the entirety of it. We bought some pieces of new equipment.

Will you still make all your desserts upstairs?
W.A.: In the past, all the pastry production happened upstairs. We put in a pastry department in the main kitchen for service.

What’s the reasoning behind that?
W.A.: It creates a better camaraderie between the hot, savory kitchen and the pastry kitchen.

What happens to the space upstairs?
J.S.: The bulk of the prep work will continue in the main pastry kitchen upstairs. When it’s time for service, we’ll bring stuff down and set up in the pastry section of the main kitchen.

Nicolas Fanucci told us you were overhauling the kitchen, and incorporating a more modern, European approach its operation.
W.A: Ideally that’s kind of how most chefs would want their kitchens. It gives you more surface area to plate dishes, instead of everyone just facing the wall. Unfortunately, one of the most expensive pieces of equipment back there is the hood, which we left, because it’s fairly new, and in great working condition. So there is still a traditional hot line, but we created, like, a faux island that we can utilize for plating during service.

How’s Philly been treating you so far?
W.A.: It’s humid.
J.S.: We are not used to this heat. He’s originally from Florida, but I’m a California girl, born and raised, and used to the cool and dry mountain air.
W.A.: It’s going to take us a while to get acclimated. Like you just said, we came in and hit the ground running. We’ve spent most our time in here working. We can’t get into our apartment for another 10 days. We’ve been living in a hotel. It’s been a little challenging, but we think there are really good parts about living in Philly, and we look forward to taking it all in. Eventually.

What do you have planned for your menu?
W.A.: We’re going with a prix fixe tasting menu with between six and eight courses. That will be for the dinner setup. For lunch, we’re still going to serve a tasting menu, but we’ll abbreviate it to accommodate an hour lunch. It’s going to be contemporary with a lot of French influence and showcase a lot of our local purveyors.

If you’ve just gotten here, how is it that you’ve already connected with local purveyors?
W.A.: We’ve made a lot of little trips here in recent months. One of the main things we’ve been doing when we’re here is developing relationships with farmers.

Did either of you get a chance to dine at Le Bec-Fin before it closed?
J.S.: Unfortunately no.

What role will Georges Perrier play in the restaurant going forward?
J.S.: He’s very famous for his sauces.
W.A.: I keep telling him that I’m going to put him on the schedule, and he can come in and help us out.
J.S.: We have jobs for him. We’re going to keep him busy.

Do you plan on mimicking his menu, or are you starting over from scratch?
W.A.: We definitely want to be able to create a good experience for guests that will be familiar with this restaurant, what it looks like, and what it’s supposed to be like. You know, like, very traditional, and very elaborate, and very refined, but there has to be some kind of evolution. Otherwise you’re just stuck in the past.

Will your tasting menu be set in stone each night, or will there be some flexibility?
W.A: The idea we have is to offer several options for each course. So you still get to have a choice, but you’re still getting a tasting menu. We’ll also be offering a separate tasting menu that showcases vegetables.

Is that for people who don’t eat meat?
W.A.: More for someone who wants to experience what seasonal vegetables are available to us at any given moment. Some of the dishes might have something meat derivative in it. But surely we’ll be able to accommodate anyone who is vegan or vegetarian.

What do you bring from your experiences at French Laundry and Spruce to Le Bec-Fin?
W.A.: Maybe more of a local and seasonal approach. In following this path of evolution, and bringing this restaurant to the next level, we really want to be able to set a standard in Philadelphia for a really sustainable way to a running a restaurant. I’ve noticed that recycling and compost are lacking here. To us, that idea of not composting is crazy. We’ve worked out a deal with some of our framers to take all of our compost. Hopefully some of the other restaurants and businesses around here will get it into that too. It’s gotta start somewhere.

Earlier: Nicolas Fanucci Talks About Rebooting Le Bec-Fin

The Reboot Part Deux: Chef Walter Abrams Talks Le Bec-Fin