Malvern's Nicolas Fanucci Takes on Revamping Philadelphia's Le Bec Fin

What will it take to restore the Walnut Street restaurant to the standards of its heyday? The answer lies in Fanucci’s expertise.

Le Bec Fin owner Nicolas Fanucci in the dining room of his new acquisition. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)
The call came at 2 p.m. Could Nicolas Fanucci and his staff handle a party of 40 from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School for a four-course meal? Oh, and they wanted to eat at 10:45 p.m. That night.

What else could Fanucci say, other than, “Come on in”? It didn’t matter that no one left the restaurant until 2:30 a.m. “At the end of the day, that’s our future,” he says.

Twenty-five years ago, when Center City gastronomic landmark Le Bec Fin was at its truffle-infused apex, imperious proprietor Georges Perrier might have laughed at the idea. His dining room was consistently full, and the stars, bells and diamonds from reviewers all over the world were piled high like the delectable offerings on the dessert cart that tempted diners nightly.

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But this isn’t 1988, and Le Bec Fin is no longer the grand fromage of the American restaurant scene. It isn’t even among the finest local establishments.

That’s why Fanucci felt compelled to welcome the Wharton 40 on a chilly mid-January night. He’s struggling to rebuild LBF’s reputation, which deteriorated in Perrier’s last years there and reached its nadir after a brutal 2012 review by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Craig LaBan. No longer can Le Bec Fin count on a steady flow of visitors from the Philadelphia area and beyond. It must chart a new course in a cutthroat restaurant climate with a dizzying array of options for those looking for a remarkable dining experience.

Fanucci is the guy who helped Le Bec Fin reclaim its fifth star from Mobil in 2003. He purchased LBF from Perrier last year, settling in Malvern. So far, he’s redecorated the place, refined the menu and torn down the wall (literally) between diners and the kitchen. He’s also launched an aggressive marketing campaign that has gone door to door in search of business. “What we’ve found is that Philadelphia has not been happy with what Le Bec Fin has become,” he says. “We ask them if they will come back, and they say, ‘No.’”

After a slow several months following the June 2012 opening, business has improved at LBF. But thanks to the likes of Marc Vetri, Stephen Starr and Jose Garces, Philadelphia’s fine-dining scene has exploded during the past decade. And the increasing emphasis on casual options and bring-your-own flexibility—especially in an economy that can be hardly described as robust—has made a formal space like Le Bec Fin feel dated. Returning to Philadelphia after a successful six-year stint as general manager of the world-renowned French Laundry in Napa Valley, Calif., Fanucci knew from the start that Le Bec Fin would have to look to the future.

“We’re rebuilding the brand to attract the new generation,” he says.

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It would certainly make a great story if Nicolas Fanucci’s path to Le Bec Fin began with an immersion in the culinary arts in some seasoned relative’s French country kitchen. The reality, alas, is far less romantic.

Attending high school in Southern France, Fanucci was an unenthusiastic student. Upon graduation in 1988, his “very strict Italian father” (Fanucci’s mother is French) gave him 48 hours to find a job. The next day, he went to a local restaurant and asked for work. When he reported the next day, he was handed a bucket and mop and told to clean the bathroom. Beginnings don’t get any more inauspicious than that.

Fanucci worked 90 straight days, enduring verbal and physical abuse. “I was cursed out and pushed,” he says.

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One afternoon, the restaurant’s renowned chef, Roger Verge, brought a film crew to the restaurant and asked Fanucci for some help. The young man dutifully aided Verge. In the process, he was unable to do his real job, which enraged his supervisor. Fanucci thought he was finished. Instead, his work with Verge had earned him a promotion.

But there was no pay increase—and then there were the taxes. “I told my mother that I didn’t like so many taxes being taken from me,” recalls Fanucci. “She said, ‘Find another country.’”

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After a year of compulsory military service, where Verge helped him get a job as a maître d’ on a ship, he landed in Monaco. There, he worked at Le Louis XV for another famous chef, Alain Ducasse. “I really learned a lot,” Fanucci says. “It’s the best restaurant in the world.”

Though he was there less than two years, Le Louis XV gave Fannuci a strong foundation. A subsequent itinerant stretch took him to London (“I hated it. They called me Froggy.”). Then it was on to Orlando, Fla. (“I made quite a bit of money.”), and New York (“I was in the worst restaurant ever, and my visa expired.”).

It was in New York that Fanucci met Fazilet, who would become his wife in 1994. Born in Turkey, she came with her family to the United States at age 6. The couple had known each other all of three months when they wed at city hall, in part for visa reasons. “Her family found out and disowned her,” says Fanucci.

A year later, they had a “real wedding” in France but returned quickly to the U.S., settling this time in Syracuse, N.Y. “with $300 in my pocket,” Fanucci says.

After a bit more bouncing around (New York City, Chapel Hill, N.C.), Fanucci answered a trade magazine ad in late 1999 and came to Philadelphia to meet Georges Perrier. Le Bec Fin had just lost its fifth star from the Mobil Travel Guide, and Perrier wanted it back. “When you interview someone, you see their authenticity,” says Perrier. “Plus, Nicolas worked in Monte Carlo with Alain Ducasse. When you work with Alain, you can’t be bad. He wouldn’t have you.”

Fanucci first served as LBF’s dining room manager, then general manager until October 2003, helping the restaurant get back to five stars. When then-governor Ed Rendell came to congratulate Perrier and his staff, it was a big moment.

“When Nicolas was with us, we had the best service in the city,” Perrier says. “And people commented on it.”

In late 2003, representatives from Palm Beach’s luxe Breakers resort tapped Fanucci for advice on how they could regain their lost star. Sensing that Fanucci was the missing ingredient, they wooed him and Fazilet with a weekend at the resort. While his wife enjoyed spa treatments and the like, Fanucci was grilled about the role he played in retrieving Le Bec Fin’s lost Mobil star.

At the end of the weekend, the  Breakers made Fanucci an offer. Perhaps surprisingly, Perrier was supportive. “It was good for him to see other places,” he says.

Fanucci liked the idea, too. So he and the family headed to South Florida, bought a house and prepared for big things.

He lasted 18 months. At the Breakers, even changing the silverware prompted a board meeting. “I quickly realized I would be very challenged by the politics,” says Fanucci.

By 2005, he was interviewing with renowned chef/restaurateur Thomas Keller for a position with the French Laundry in Napa. He accepted the GM role that July, and after a sometimes-humbling 90-day training period, he went to work. When Michelin announced it would be coming to Northern California to rate the spots there, Fanucci doubled his efforts, even climbing onto the roof to clean it. Michelin came, was dazzled and awarded its highest honor: a three-star rating. “It was an incredible moment,” Fanucci says.

He’ll now try to recreate that magic at Le Bec Fin. Fanucci is hoping his vision of timeless French cuisine will energize Philadelphia diners and lure them back to Walnut Street. He’s revamped the downstairs bar derided by LaBan as “an airport lounge” in his scathing review. He’s brought calm to the kitchen, introduced an iPad menu and worked hard to recreate the flawless service that prevailed during his stint at GM.

As for his former boss, Perrier doesn’t think Fanucci should keep the name. “It’s too related to me,” he says.

But the goal has always been to return the restaurant to its former glory. Even if that means sticking around until the wee hours of the morning.

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