The Next Generation: Le Perigord, NYC
They don’t make them like Georges Briguet anymore. The 76 year-old proprietor of the classic French restaurant, Le Perigord, dons a tuxedo daily to personally welcome each and every patron who walks through the door. A gregarious giant who is as generous with his charm and humor as he is with his service, Briguet learned the hospitality business in Switzerland, working in the famed Baur au Lac Hotel in Zurich, before moving to New York City to work in high-end establishments such as the Waldorf Astoria and La Grenouille. He opened Le Perigord in 1964, and today, Georges runs the restaurant with his son Christopher, 43, often the modest straight-man to his father’s comedic, hyperbolic tendencies. Upon the restaurant’s approaching 50th birthday, we sat down to talk with father and son about the industry, current and past, and the one issue on which they don’t see eye-to-eye.
Georges Briguet: My family were wine makers in the Rhone Valley, for I don't know how many generations. I grew up in a vineyard. My papa, my mama, they worked on the vineyard. We were four kids, playing in the dirt in the vineyard. I was the first to break away from there. My mother, she chased me out! She brainwashed me. She told me, ‘It is a much better life if you go into the hotel industry. Don’t stay here, it’s too much work. You will have a beautiful room in the hotel industry—it will be as if you were always on vacation!’ And it's because of her that I started to work in the hotel business in Switzerland. Years later, I tried everything I could to push my son Christopher out of the business. I didn't want him to suffer here.
Christopher Briguet: Perhaps I don't remember that because I was too young. But I first started to work at Le Perigord part-time when I was also going to St. John's College. I was answering the phone and hanging up coats. I used to work at the bar part-time, also. I was also a cashier. I was a lot of things.
GB: And then, don't forget!
CB: Oh, accounting, too. I did that afterwards.
GB: No, the Wine Institute! The Wine Institute of America! And then he went for the Sommelier Society! So he got two or three diplomas. And what else you forgot to mention is you learned to be a CPA to run the business!
CB: Yeah. I got an accounting degree. So I run the office, too.
GB: And then, what you also forgot is when you met your wife, you went to the French Culinary Institute so you could make good food for her!
CB: Right. I took a class at the French Culinary Institute also. It wasn't a four-year degree, but I took a six-month class. They explained how to make the sauces and everything.
GB: I think he knows the wine and food better than me!
CB: That's not true.
GB: He knows the food very, very well because he got a good education at the French Culinary Institute. And also, how to run the business. Pay the bills. Pay the union, whatever. He does it all!
CB: I arranged the computer system here, also. I'm in charge if something happens to the computer system. I'm the one who fixes it.
GB: Plus he keeps very, very busy arranging all those big, many private parties!
CB: Yeah. I do all the private parties also.
GB: But thank heaven I don’t have any other children in the business! Because there’s not enough food for more here!
CB: But I enjoy the business. I enjoy seeing people. So after college, I preferred to stay in the business. I graduated in 1991, and we were doing quite well. It was a busy restaurant.
GB: But the business has been not good at all since 9/11. And then, when we had the big downhill in the stock market in 2008. That was horrible for three years.
CB: And there was the small boycott against French restaurants. That affected us, too.
GB: He deals with all of this, but I never give him any advice.
CB: He always says just to be happy in what you're doing. And always to smile, show your white teeth all the time, no matter how you feel. And always be happy. Because when you're happy, everybody's relaxed, and that's what makes a restaurant. That's why he's so successful, because of his happiness in the business. And he loves what he does. That's why he's still here.
GB: Yeah, yeah. But we loved it better when business was better.
CB: And I have learned so much from just how he speaks to people. How educated he is, how charismatic he is. He has a special touch that I haven't seen in any other restaurant. I've been to a couple of those “Top10” restaurants, and when you go there, they just serve you. Nobody even talks to you. My father talks to everyone in the restaurant. He's more like an entertainer, in a way.
GB: In 1964 when we opened, Craig Claiborne was a food critic, and he would review mainly French restaurants. And one day I asked him, 'Mr. Claiborne, why do I read only very good reviews in the New York Times from you?' And he said, 'The ones who are very bad, they die anyway. I don't have to kick them.' The man was so intelligent! A restaurant that was no good, he would go there and he would try, but he would not write them up! Because he didn't want to be the one to shut them down, the one who killed that restaurant. Today, some of these critics that come around, it is unbelievable how nasty they could be! That is how it is different today. It is even criminal!
Today, I buy the Dining Section of The New York Times every Wednesday. And probably, I'm not going to buy it anymore because the Dining Section…if I knew somebody from The New York Times, I would tell them, 'Why don't you stop the Dining Section? Because most of the time it is a disgrace what is written in there.' That's how I feel about it. I would not be afraid to tell the whole world that The New York Times really should close that section because there's nothing there. The other day they were writing about the food they serve in the pushcart around Manhattan. Does that belong in The New York Times??!!
CB: But times are different now. One of the hard things now is that we have a clientele at a certain age and they come all the time - they're loyal. But it's hard to mix different generations because the younger generations want music. And if I had music here, it would hurt the business because I would lose all my steady clientele. The older, steady clientele - they don't like music. We're caught in the middle. My approach is not the same exactly because it's a different world now, a different era. I have different ideas.
GB: There is one thing, one of the points that we don't see the same color. You see, I think a fine dining restaurant needs to be a fine dining restaurant. For 50 years, I come here with a monkey suit. I'm one of the people who come in dressed properly. I don't want Dr. Kissinger sitting there and then two people in t-shirts and holey jeans next door.
CB: That's probably the biggest challenge, is dress code here. That's the number one.
GB: Christopher, for him, dress code is not that important. He prefers to have younger people, barely dressed. He keeps saying we should relax the dress code and we just should let people come in as they are. But I want to mention something. You see, we have Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, when they come to New York, they come in, and they always sit down and they love to sit at this table in the corner here. Even though they are young, even though they are actors, they come in and they're always dressed properly. Now, what do you do if next to them you have somebody in sweaty T-shirts? Do you think that is a part of fine dining? I had a couple right here. I had two men who came in that sat next to them. By the middle of the dinner, the guy took off his jacket. The woman came over to see me and said, 'Could I have another table? I did not come here to sit next a man with no jacket!' So, what do you do? You try desperately to put the people who are dressed properly more or less in the same area. And the ones who are very, very casual – which we don't have too many of them, but the few that we have – put them in another area together, because we cannot afford to turn them away anymore.
CB: Well, the hardest thing is the hot weather. When it gets very warm, people don't want to dress. A lot of people in business, they go out to eat and they just have a shirt and tie. And when the weather gets very warm, that's the hardest thing for us because a lot of people want to eat outside. How do you adjust to those months to bring people inside here who don't really want to dress?
GB: But, you see, Chris, what you have to understand is you could have any kind of rule that you want for dress code, but don't mix up the people who are dressed for fine dining with the casual people! Say it is your anniversary. Do you want to have some bum sitting next to you? People don't realize that. But it is so very, very important when it comes to fine dining restaurants!
CB: I get it. I want to keep the same clientele we have, but I do want to have to change a little to succeed the next five to ten years. Some changes have to be made to succeed….