Nicolas Fanucci Talks About Rebooting Le Bec-Fin

Nicolas Fanucci dazzling diners at French Laundry
Nicolas Fanucci dazzling diners at French Laundry Photo: Nicolas Fanucci

Next Tuesday, June 12, Le Bec-Fin will once again open its doors, ushering in a new era for the restaurant that put Philadelphia’s dining scene on the map. As you’ll recall, its founder, Georges Perrier, sold the business to his former general manager, Nicolas Fanucci, who left the city years ago to seize the reigns at Thomas Keller’s California landmark French Laundry. It’s been closed since that transfer took place back in early March. Expectations are high, and Fanucci’s been promising to bring the storied restaurant back to its original glory, while updating it for contemporary tastes. Grub Street recently sat down with him to learn more about what’s in store for 1523 Walnut Street. Keep reading to see what he had to say.

How are things going?
It’s a huge undertaking and we are in the last stretch right now. Everybody is training, cleaning, preparing. We still have quite a few more things to do: kitchen equipment in the kitchen is still being installed; we’re touching up some paint here and there; chairs are arriving; tables.

How long have you been plugging away in there?
Since we closed on March 7.

What are some of the changes we can expect?
When we started we just wanted to do some cleaning and painting and everything, but as we moved along, we wound up changing the carpet, changing the fabric, and putting in a new wine cellar. Then we decided to shrink the dining room, and create a bigger entrance space. Then came tuning up the bar space downstairs and creating a butcher room in the kitchen. We changed the layout of the kitchen so we can expedite better. We ended up changing a lot.

Is everything coming together on schedule?
We are a little bit behind, but we’re not going to change the opening date. So, we are on schedule, I guess. If we have to work long hours until everything is ready, we will.

How long has it been since you last worked at Le Bec-Fin?
It was June 2000 that I started working here. So that’s 12 years and 11 months ago I started here. I finished in October 2003.

Back then, did you ever think you would find yourself back here again?
I always wanted to. Maybe one day. But Georges was definitely on top of his game. So no. But later on in my career I started entertaining the idea of coming back to Le Bec-Fin. As the owner. I wasn’t going to come back just to work here again.

Did you go directly to French Laundry after leaving Le Bec-Fin?
No. I went to the Breakers in Florida. It was very short term, because Thomas [Keller] contacted me about his restaurant.

What made you decide to leave Florida?
I stayed there for 18 months, trying to make a fine dining restaurant a five star. It was very challenging.

Do you think your time at Le Bec-Fin prepared you for French Laundry?
Absolutely, yes. That was the main reason I was considered for the job.

What was Georges Perrier’s reaction to you going to Yountville?
Thomas called Georges for a reference check, and he called me and said, “My god, what kind of job did you just take?” He said they asked him questions about things he had never heard of before.

What are you bringing back from your experience at French Laundry?
Well, when I arrived at the French Laundry my main goal was to create a team environment where people would respect each other. You know, a place that was rewarding — not the kind of place that where people struggled with long hours and low pay, and were treated poorly. That’s what I want to bring. I want people to feel comfortable and proud of working here.

Why did you decide to take Le Bec-Fin back to only serving a prix fixe tasting menu?
For the price we’re offering the prix fixe menu ($150), we feel like the value will exceed people’s expectations.

Do you think it will bring a little of the old Le Bec-Fin Glory back?
Yes, I think that’s what people are expecting. One of my goals is to bring everything back to where it was when Le Bec-Fin was very successful, and that’s one of the key steps for us to get there.

So what will $150 get you?
You will have eight courses, a lot of canapes, pre-dessert, dessert, and everybody will also go away with a gift from the kitchen.

What kind of changes are you making to the bar downstairs?
It will have its own kitchen, its own food and its own menu, which is huge difference, because everything used to come out of the kitchen up here.

How about up on the second floor, will that still have the pastry kitchen and chocolate laboratory?
Yes, we will still have pastry production up there and the chocolate room.

What about rumors of a private dining room going in up there?
Not now. If everything goes the way it should, maybe. That was Georges’ plan. We’re talking about few different things. One plan is to possibly open a cooking school. But we’re not there yet.

What will be the biggest differences in how Le Bec-Fin used to be, and how it will be when you reopen it?
It will be less tables. We are setting up our self to be where Georges was when he was at the top of his game. In the end, when they closed the restaurant, they were doing it as a production. You know, Monday was BYOB and 20 percent off, and the happy hours and stuff like that. That’s very hard to deal with, because you are trying to do everything and be everywhere, and we don’t want to be everywhere.

How about the biggest similarities?
The chandelier. The door. The logo. The logo has been on the door for years, and nobody knew it. The respect for tradition, because Georges was great at that.

How would you describe what the food will be like?
Contemporary. You know classic French cuisine is all about cream and butter. We don’t do that anymore. So we are going to do things that are a little more lighter, refreshing and in tune with what today’s restaurant diners expect. Definitely French oriented, and French techniques.

Will you still serve any of Le Bec-Fin’s classic or signature dishes, like the Galette de Crabe?
Yes, absolutely, but we’ll serve it our way, our style. We may call it the Georges Perrier Galette.

Earlier: Le Bec-Fin to Relaunch in June

Nicolas Fanucci Talks About Rebooting Le Bec-Fin