New York’s Le Perigord Celebrates 50 Years of Bouillabaisse, Elizabeth Taylor, and Roast Duck
How did they do it?
By avoiding “fusion confusion,” reserving a special booth for their most high-profile clientele, making friends with the U.N., and removing a fish soup from the menu that made one patron so angry that he had to be restrained from attacking the chef (actually, after forty years, that soup has officially made a comeback as of this week).
We’ll let owner Georges Briguet tell you all about it.
You have seen an impressive amount of returning celebrity clientele over the past half-century.
We’ve been lucky to welcome so many very, very famous – and sometimes infamous – people. In fact, it was a picture of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton leaving Le Perigord the year we opened that first put the restaurant map. At the time, they were the most scandalous couple in the world. We still call the curved banquette in the back of the dining room ‘the Liz Booth’ because that is where they always sat. Much more recently, it has been the favorite of Angelina and Brad Pitt. Our one goal, from which we have never deviated, is to serve the food eaten in France.
Of all those people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, I always thought Ronald Regan was the most special, the most charismatic. Until he came in one night with Charlton Heston, who had the best personality of anyone I’ve ever met.
Which dishes have remained on the menu since day one?
The buffet froid as an appetizer, the clams and oysters with sauce mignonette, the cold foie gras with sauterne aspic, escargots in hazelnut butter, and the vegetable tart with tangy butter sauce. For entrées, the sea bass with creamy country mustard sauce; the Dover sole; rack of lamb; veal kidneys; and the roasted duck, carved tableside and served with seasonal fruits, although it did come off the menu for a few months about 15 years ago. So many customers were upset, we had to put it back on. Bob Bradford, the husband of the famous author Barbara Taylor Bradford, told me he would not set foot in Le Perigord until he could order the roast duck again.
Are there any changes to the menu you refuse to make?
All of those dishes that have been on the menu all these years — none of them can come off. When people make their reservations, they know what they’re going to have. They count on those dishes, which are our most popular.
How do you define ‘old-school’ French cuisine, and how do you reconcile it with the ‘new school’ approach?’
I don’t reconcile them. I know only one way, which I think is the right way, our way. We have a new young talent in the kitchen, who is doing exciting daily specials that are more modern, but they still select the more traditional food served in France that has evolved to incorporate a wider palate of spices and ingredients. In fact, soon, we’re going to present a daily tasting menu, probably five courses, of these more contemporary dishes.
What have been some of the most surprising new items?
Calves brains, which is something people either love or just hate the idea of. Word spread we were serving them and we had people calling to reserve them in advance! Bouillabaisse has also been a monster hit. We haven’t served the classic fish soup of the south of France at Le Perigord in well over 40 years; we used to have it on the menu, but one night a gentlemen found an unopened mussel in his, which meant the mussel was bad. He was furious and stalked into the kitchen and had to be restrained from assaulting the chef, Willy Krause. Willy banned bouillabaisse that night and we haven’t served it again – until now, as a special.
What’s the secret to lasting so long?
We never ventured into fusion confusion or tutti-frutti food. Our one goal, from which we have never deviated, is to serve the food eaten in France. That food is always from the best quality ingredients and very, very fresh. We now have a second generation of regulars, the sons and daughters of our original customers, and some of their grandchildren, too. The proximity to the United Nations has been very good for Le Perigord; we are known as the home of the ambassadors and through them we have become known all over the world, attracting Heads of State, too. I still laugh when I remember Imelda Marcus changing her shoes in the coat room in the middle of her dinner!