Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 1: Frédéric Perrier of Aura Restaurant

Frédéric Perrier, the chef/owner of Aura Restaurant in Missouri City, first came to Houston in 1997 to open Grille 5115, the restaurant inside the then-new Saks Fifth Avenue in the Galleria. Before that, he worked for several years as a chef in New York at such well-known French restaurants as La Cité, F•Stop, Le Chantilly, and La Bohème, as well as serving as the private chef for two of France's Ambassadors to the United Nations.

Chef Perrier's formal culinary education began when he was a 13-year-old boy in France and decided he wanted to become a chef. He enrolled in a yearlong pre-apprenticeship at the Michelin-starred restaurant Les Trois Dômes in Lyon, France: working Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at the restaurant and attending Jesuit school the rest of the week. The next year, he began a formal apprenticeship with legendary restaurateur Georges Blanc, and his culinary career began in earnest.

In Houston, Perrier has also served as the executive chef at Café Perrier, Perrier Seafood Company, and the Grille at Sienna Plantation Golf Club. In November of 2007,he opened Aura Restaurant, a 50-seat gem tucked in a sleepy Missouri City shopping center, and last year, he opened the instant classic Hoggs n' Chicks in the same shopping center. Eating Our Words recently sat down with Chef Perrier to discuss his cooking philosophy, working in suburbia, and much more.

EOW: When you were growing up in France, did you ever imagine you'd be running a restaurant in a Houston suburb?

FP: In a Houston suburb? Probably never. A lot of French people stay home. I'm originally from a few miles outside Lyon, a little town called Villefranche-sur-Saône, the capital of Beaujoulais. My family had been in the restaurant business for generations, so no, I didn't think that Houston was going to be the place that I was going to land one day.

My great-great-great-grandmother had one of the first places in France granted the right by the king to charge people for food. It was called Café Perrier, in Ardèche, in a little town called Baix. We have a picture -- the restaurant isn't there any more, but the building still stands and looks exactly the same. In France you know, there's an old tradition of "Les mères lyonnaises"; most chefs, up to the early 1900s, were all female.

Actually, being in the restaurant business skipped my parents' generation. For me, the love of cooking came from my grandfather. He was a cabinetmaker -- artistic design, handmade stuff -- but also a great cook. I spent every summer vacation with him in the country, and every night would be a different cooking experience.

EOW: What brought you to Houston?

FP: My wife was born and raised here. We had met in New York -- she was an actress/model at Circle in the Square -- and when she became pregnant we decided we didn't want to raise a child in New York City. There were two choices: Houston or France. It was about even, but since she wasn't so familiar with France we decided to see how it went in Houston. I had had a lot of contact with the executives from Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, because La Cité was right down the block. When they heard I was moving to Houston, they said they were opening a new Saks there with a beautiful restaurant designed by Jeffrey Beers. I was friendly with some of the people that worked for him, so I started participating in the design of the restaurant that became Grille 5115. But the Houston Saks representatives had already negotiated something with Ruggles, so when I moved here it was like, oops! So we ended up doing a partnership.

EOW: Was that awkward?

FP: It was very awkward. That's why I didn't stay. We had fantastic reviews and great business, but it's always difficult when you have two chefs, two egos, two people thinking different ways, and just one business. I'm not saying anybody was right or wrong. Ruggles was making great food, and had great success, but it just didn't fit with what I had envisioned to match the avant-garde decor.

EOW: What had you envisioned?

FP: Something a lot cleaner, more straightforward, maybe a little more New York-ish with a Texas twist. Don't get me wrong, people like spices, things done differently. I thought it should have been a little more geared toward women. Ladies love a shrimp salad, but they don't always want mango jalapeno ranch dressing. Maybe they want extra virgin olive oil and some aged balsamic vinegar so they feel like they had a light lunch. It's not a criticism -- everybody's got his own style. It just wasn't my vision.

EOW: The Aura website describes the food here as "innovative American with an 'inch' of French." What does that mean?

FP: It's what we wanted to be. If 99 percent of the French restaurants in Houston served only what you eat in a true French restaurant, they wouldn't be able to survive. The successful restaurants today need to be innovative American -- to me, that means taking great-quality ingredients, cooking them in the best fashion possible using all the French techniques, and then giving it a little French flair to it, especially with the sauces.

A perfect example is our buffalo sliders. It's a cute little burger with everything on it, and we add pan-seared foie gras. We sell more foie gras here than I ever sold anywhere. Probably because people know that in Sugar Land no one else has foie gras. And I'm going to be a jerk and say that there's nobody that knows how to cook foie gras. Even if you go to a nice, non-chain restaurant, they don't have a formal person who knows what to do with it. They know the basics of what the menu tells them, they just don't know how to go the extra mile. We do. For instance, we might have someone who comes in and orders vol-au-vent with sweetbreads like they had on their honeymoon in France. And I'll say, absolutely!

EOW: So do people come in and order things that aren't on the menu?

FP: Yes, and that's what we wanted to be known for. We wanted to be a cozy place that people can come in and say, hey, can you do bouillabaisse tomorrow? And we'll say, absolutely, we'll be happy to. I've always had tremendous respect for places like Tony's just because of what they offer the customer. Obviously we don't have every ingredient, but I tell the waiters all the time that if a customer asks for something and we have it in the house, we're going to do it for them. It's that simple. By example, last night, we served 80 people and we sold probably 25 or 30 tasting menus. The menu says, tell us what you want to eat and let the chef do his thing. But we never have anyone request anything except to say they're gluten-free or dairy-free or whatever. It's very soul-satisfying because I finally realize that our customers trust us. We have many people who come in every week and have the tasting menu. Sometimes they'll open the menu and say, Wow! We didn't even know what was on the menu!

Tune in tomorrow for more with Chef Perrier.

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