Chef Chat, Part 1: Frédéric Perrier of Aura Brasserie and Coco Pazzo

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Chef Frédéric Perrier has owned, co-owned and cooked in Houston area restaurants for more than 20 years. He developed a fan base and garnered critical acclaim with his inside-the-Loop restaurants Grille 5515 and Perrier Café. In time, the rigors of driving to his home in Missouri City night after exhausting night of cooking, as well as having a family, made the idea of opening a small neighborhood restaurant start to look real good.

In 2007, that's exactly what Perrier did. His French restaurant Aura started in a quaint, New England-style shopping center off of Murphy Road. It was the beginning of what would grow into multiple restaurants in the Sugar Land area. Soon after Aura came Perrier's spot, Hoggs n Chicks, where he started fulfilling diners' needs for a fast-casual option as well as indulging his own fondness for the Southern food of his adopted city.

Aura is now located in bustling, trendy Sugar Land Town Square. In its place is Coco Pazzo, Perrier's Italian restaurant. You'd think that would be enough work for one chef, but he's still not done. He has two new projects in the works, which we'll cover in Part 2 of this chef chat tomorrow.

Here in Part 1, we'll look at how he got started in the area with Aura and Hoggs N Chicks, which would soon follow. Perrier is also a father and a husband and we'll delve into his thoughts about introducing kids to fine dining. Finally, we find out if reviews really matter to a chef with a restaurant out in the suburbs.

EOW: When did you decide that what you really wanted to do was open a restaurant in Sugar Land?

FP: My wife and children always lived here in Missouri City, right down Highway 6 from Sugar Land. I said, "Well, I want to be closer to home. I don't want to do the drives at 2 o'clock in the morning. It was an easier way to be able to spend some time with my family even though I was in the restaurant industry.

EOW: Aura's original location is now Coco Pazzo. How did you decide that was where you wanted to first open Aura?

FP: I kept driving by that little restaurant on the way to Houston. Every day, I looked at that little spot. That shopping center is New England-style. It's very strange compared to a Texas shopping center. It looks more East Coast.

I kept looking at that little building and thinking, "It would be cool to have just a good little restaurant." I hate to call it a bistro because that word has been overused and used for things that are not bistros. But really, that was what was in my mind -- just a good little bistro. Nothing that you'd walk in and be blown away by. No bells and whistles. Just a comfortable space that makes you feel like you'd walked into someone's living room and you get great food.

There was a client/friend of mine that owned that little place. It was an Italian place at the time called Bistro Artistico. One day, he called me at 2 o'clock in the morning and said, "I'm getting out of the restaurant! I've got to go back to Europe. I've got a problem. I want to sell the place." I was like, "Sorry, I can't do something about that at 2 o'clock in the morning."

A week later, I drove by the space and saw a sign: For Lease. I was like, "Oh my goodness, the place is closed for sure." So, I went over and looked at it. I called the gentleman that was on the sign.

A week later, I looked at the space and told my wife, "This is it. I walked in there, there's a good vibe and the shopping center has been there since '77, so it's got some history." I've always liked something that's been there already. When you go into a brand-new space, you need to give it a soul. When you walk into something that's been there, it's got a soul. I knew that was the place to do it. Everyone told me I was crazy.

EOW: Why did they tell you that you were crazy?

FP: Because the shopping center was off the beaten path. It's not like here in Sugar Land where we're in the middle of Town Square and people walk by. You had to go there as a destination.

In my mind, that was always the idea. I said, "If I can capture an audience of people coming in this little place and saying, "Wow, the food is incredible!" -- well, we did just that. The word of mouth was just terrific. The business just started booming.

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EOW: Who were your first customers [at the original Aura location]?

FP: A couple of friends of mine and [my wife] Michelle's. We did not do an opening. We did not tell people, "Hey, we're going to open on this day." I said, let's just call some friends, try some food and when I feel like it's time to be open, we can open the doors.

On a Thursday night, we just left the door open to see if people were going to come in. It was a beautiful day like today -- sunny, beautiful, cool weather. People came in. The first night, we had 28 customers that just looked at the space, came in and asked, "Hey, are you guys open?"

EOW: I've noticed that when a restaurant opens in a residential or suburban area, the people watch what's going on and watch for a new place to open. Did you find that happen with you?

FP: Yeah, definitely, and [Aura] was a little different than some of the other places that opened here. In a suburb, you always make yourself child-friendly. We were pretty much the complete opposite. That was a welcome thing for a lot of people. The general atmosphere was like, "Well, everywhere we go you have to be ready to have a bunch of screaming kids."

When I opened, I had no high chairs. No booster chairs. Nothing. I was like, "You know what, you want to bring your kids, they're going to sit in a regular chair and have to act like they know what they're doing."

We did not want a kid menu. We wanted it to be somewhere where people could go for a good meal and not have to worry about having a bunch of screaming children running around.

EOW: This brings up an important point. Don't you think it's important for children to be exposed to good food and a good dining environment?

FP: Well, yeah! There's no question about that. I'm not saying my kids are a bunch of French snobs -- they were born and grew up here -- but they're not fast-food eaters.

EOW: A lot of children like certain types of French dishes.

FP: If your child likes meat, there's nothing wrong with going to a fine restaurant and splitting a filet mignon. I understand it may not be the same exact budget as if you go to McDonald's, but it's part of the education. It's part of growing -- knowing how to use a fork and a knife and getting some manners.

Being European, it's very important. When the children go to France and spend two months with their grandparents, the grandparents are all over how they hold their fork and knife and how they behave at the table, so it was kind of an important thing.

EOW: It's part of preparing them for adulthood. How long ago did you open Aura in the first space?

FP: We opened in 2007.

EOW: What are some of your best memories from that space?

FP: I don't have a lot of bad memories, to be honest. In my career as a chef, or as a cook (I like to call myself a good cook), I have had disappointed customers or people complaining about this or that. At Aura, I had a 99 percent ratio of happy people. I'd go into the dining room and talk to people and see the extended return customer base. [Aura] seemed like a place for happy people to come here and enjoy themselves.

EOW: Since you are a suburban restaurant owner, are reviews very important to you?

FP: Yes, the reviews are very important. The thing that is disappointing in some ways is the way that suburban restaurants are treated versus city restaurants. I'm not speaking for myself. It's a general overview.

When it's not rush hour, it's literally only a 15-minute ride to get here from The Galleria. People say, "Oh, you're way out in Sugar Land! It's so far!"

People treat you in a different way. It doesn't matter how good you are or how much ratings you get from national publications or guides. For some reason, the food reviews are always like, "Well, they're in the suburbs."

EOW: So they get a pass or something.

FP: Exactly. So, you don't get the credibility that you deserve. Really, you can be just as good as a restaurant as anybody else. The clients and the reviews are different. The clientele looks at you and goes, "Well, it's right next to my house." They're not going to spend the same amount of money. They're not going to give you the credibility because, "If you really want to go somewhere, you've got to go into town."

Aura's original location created something very different. On Fridays and Saturdays, we had a huge number of people coming in from Houston to dine with us. It was completely unheard-of before. I'm not trying to be rude, but I don't think there was anybody in this area that used to bring out the crowds. That was a very positive thing.

EOW: So, the suburban restaurant label discredits the hard work that a chef puts into his establishment. They really should be treated on the same basis as anyone else.

FP: In some ways. It makes you do things that you perhaps wouldn't always do. It makes you do things that are suitable for the suburbs that maybe you wouldn't have to do in the city because people are a little more adventurous. They'd give you a little more credibility, whereas here you have to give them what they like to eat.

When you're a suburban restaurant, you have to remember these things, because if you really go off the beaten path, you're going to find out really quick that the clientele is not there for it. They'll come on Fridays and Saturdays, but during the week you're going to have a hard time getting business.

EOW: They're going to be a little alienated.

FP: They'll be a little, "Wow, this is a special place!" or "They have strange food." You don't want to be a special-occasion restaurant. You want to be a restaurant for all occasions.

EOW: Your next move after Aura was the first Hoggs N Chicks location. How long after Aura was that and why did you open it?

FP: Hoggs N Chicks was me thinking of what needed to be done in a suburban area. We're right in front of Sienna Plantation on Highway 6. It was me thinking, "What do we need to do to bring in good food but in a casual setting that is very kid-friendly? How do I have a restaurant that people can go to four times a week but not break the bank? How do I have a restaurant where the menu is big enough that they can have four different things during the week? They go there for brunch, get something for takeout one night, go there with the kids and then the wife and gentleman can go, sit at the bar, have a glass of wine and have a bite to eat?"

The choices here in the suburbs are very limited. There are a lot of chain restaurants. There are a lot of fast-food restaurants. [There are few] restaurants owned by individuals that live in and hire employees from the neighborhood. We wanted to create real food made from scratch at a very reasonable price in a fast-casual setting.

EOW: Was Hoggs N Chicks successful right out of the gate?

FP: Yeah. We opened Hoggs N Chicks in a very small location that was 1,400 square feet. We had lines out the door, literally. My partner at that location called me three days after we opened and said, "You need to get here right away. We have a big problem." I said, "Oh my goodness, what's going on?" I was shopping for the restaurant and doing a few things because we were so busy. I show up and there were probably 80 people waiting outside the door. Just overnight, the word spread.

We started thinking, "We're going to need a new space. This just isn't going to work out." There were people waiting and keeping the door open so the air conditioning wasn't sufficient. People would walk in happy but "hangry." They couldn't sit down. There was just too much business.

Someone got unlucky and we got lucky. The barbecue place at the end of the shopping center closed. It was two and a half times the size. We spoke to the landlord and switched to that location and that was it.

EOW: Was the next move relocating Aura?

FP: We did a little butcher shop called "Meat and Greet" which was next to Aura. We used that kitchen to do catering, and in the front we had European cuts of meat and cold cuts. We did very well, but unfortunately, I couldn't clone myself. I tried to find someone who had all the European experience of making cold cuts, charcuterie and making sure the cheese were ripened the way they should be.

That was a bit of a task, so we decided that instead of having a small place we were going to relocate Aura. Honestly, it was because [regular customers] kept telling me, "If you move to Sugar Land, you will get a different clientele. People are more sophisticated, even though it's only five miles away." My wife and I got convinced and decided to give it a shot. There was a space [in Sugar Land Town Square] available and here we are.

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