Chef Chat, Part 2: Frédéric Perrier of Aura, Hoggs N Chicks and Coco Pazzo

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When we left off on Part 1 of our Chef Chat with Fréderic Perrier, he'd just relocated Aura from a small, quaint, New England-style shopping center to modern, bustling, trendy Sugar Land Town Square. While all the old favorites menu items are there, the experience is different now--not better or worse than at the old space, just different.

However, he's kept one foot in Aura's old space by way of Coco Pazzo, the Italian restaurant he opened there in its place. In this Part 2 of our chat with him, we'll find out how customers reacted to the change and why he's so attached to his original restaurant space. Finally, Chef Pérriér talks about his big plans that are just about to come to fruition for Coco Pazzo and Hoggs N Chicks.

EOW: It's been two years since you moved Aura to the new space [in Sugar Land Town Square]. How did that go?

FP: It goes. It's a profitable business. We're happy with it. Me personally, I still have a heartache about the old place because it's still where my soul is. I just feel more comfortable and more myself inside the space. It's more me. It's more European. It's a little more home. You can't explain how you feel.

I love our clientele here. They're very good people and our business has been very good. My wife is more into this place because she's more a city girl. I'm more a country person. I'm happier at the other place. I don't know how to explain it.

EOW: Both from the clientele perspective at the old location (which is now Coco Pazzo) and at the new Aura location, what was the reaction?

FP: The reaction was about the same. The old clientele was like, "Whoa, wait a minute. This is a more open space. It's louder. It's not as quaint. It's very different." It was to be different because we called it Aura Brasserie for a reason. We wanted it to be a place where you pop in, get a frisée salad, a plate of charcuterie, a couple of glasses of wine, you people-watch and then you walk out.

The other place was more a destination for food. People came in and had an appetizer, main course, cheese plate, dessert and pretty much spent the evening. If someone made a reservation at 6:30 p.m., you were not going to turn the table. Your table was done for the night. The people were eating very much European-style. They came in for a dining experience and left when they were ready to leave, which is pretty much the way I like to eat myself.

Here, it's more of a pop-in, pop-out--just kind of a fast thing. Europeans always take their sweet time to eat. In the U.S., we're always in a hurry. Even myself, when I go back to France, I'm always in a hurry. I'm always like (claps hands) "When is my food coming?"

EOW: (laughs) They don't even know what to do with you, do they? "Calm down."

FP: Exactly! Everyone's like, "Aren't you on vacation? Why don't you relax?"

EOW: So, Aura is more touristy, in a way?

FP: Pedestrian. Touristy. It's more a place where people look at the window, look at the menu and say, "Oh, okay. Let's just pop in and see what's going on."

EOW: It's almost like having a restaurant on the Riverwalk in San Antonio.

FP: Exactly. It's very similar to that. In the old location, every time I went out into the dining room to say "hello" to someone, I'd say that 90 percent of the people were familiar to me. Here, I want to say 20 percent. I don't think it's bad. It's still a hate-love relationship for a lot of our old customers. They come here because I'm here, but they go to the other location most of the time because that's where they feel comfortable. So, they come here once in a while but they don't come as often as they used to when we were at the old location.

EOW: So, they'll go to Coco Pazzo instead. So, why does a chef put an Italian restaurant in his old French restaurant space?

FP: I wanted to put a wood burning stove in [at Coco Pazzo] but it's an old wood building. A friend of mine who's the fire chief said that was a bad idea. Italian food in France has always been very big. We eat a lot of pizzas, believe it or not. It's very different than here. Very thin crust with very different ingredients on top of it. You can eat a simple pizza with a couple of fresh tomato slices. There's less sauce. There's less cheese.

Pastas are a big thing in French families, also. Pretty much every mom cooks in France. It's not as true now as it was before, but when I grew up, everybody cooked. You went to the restaurant for special occasions. It was not the way we're going out now. The pasta was always a big thing. There was a leftover pot au feu. My mom chopped it up, made a really good sauce with tomatoes from the garden. She'll make them into a pulp and freeze them for the wintertime. She'd pull some of that out, cook the beef in the tomato sauce, cooked some pasta, tossed it in and that was just a good, healthy meal.

EOW: That was a good, easy dinner.

FP: It was always something I looked forward to having. I love pastas. So, for me that was a natural thing. Italian was the way to go, even though I love barbeque and other things.

EOW: I noticed when I dined at Coco Pazzo several months ago there are still some of your [French] classics on the menu, even though it's Italian now. I believe your apple tart is over there. I think there's still escargot. I had to kind of laugh, because I bet these are dishes your customers are still coming in and expecting to see.

FP: Exactly. That's been one of those things. I should call the place, "Nostalgia." It would be the right name. By example, there's an escargot dish from Piedmont prepared with wild mushrooms, garlic butter and gnocchi made with chestnut flour. I loved it and made a take on that. The regulars came in and said, "Well, where is YOUR escargot? Can we get the old-fashioned escargot?" So, what do you do?

When you're a small restaurant, you try to please the customer. You try to give them what they want. It's very important in a world that's so competitive. There are restaurants on every corner of the street. If you don't offer that flexibility, someone will. This is what I'm here for: I'm here to cook. I'm not one of those people where if you want to substitute spinach for asparagus, I'm going to tell you, "No, this is the way it comes." To me, that's a big no-no in this business.

EOW: Can we talk about the new things you're going to do?

FP: Yes. I have to keep one little secret about the location until the thing is done, which will be very, very shortly.

EOW: But we can say for sure there's a second Hoggs N Chicks coming.

FP: Very, very soon.

EOW: Is it in the same area as Coco Pazzo?

FP: I should have been able to tell you today. The first of November was my due diligence date, but yes, it is coming in the very near future--before the end of the year for sure.

EOW: And you're also about to start a 20-seat tasting menu restaurant within Coco Pazzo!

FP: I've been just dying to do something that I like to do. Just be creative. Just have fun with what I do. I'm happy to see that in Houston there are a lot of very talented chefs who are finally living up to what they like to do. Before, everything was trended around what's selling--what's going to work, what's not going to work, whatever--and everyone was afraid of showing what they could do.

As I said, in the suburbs it's difficult. You need to be very small and have the clientele that sponsors you. The fact that Coco Pazzo is split into two rooms--there's a room to the left with an itty bitty bar and then the larger room on the right--so my dream is to transform the comfort of the chairs, table and settings. The left side is something that I'm going to call "P.M." because it's only open at night and because my wife is Michelle Perrier. (It's her initials backwards.)

My wife is a phenomenal help in my business. I would not be where I am without her, so it's a dedication. [P.M. will be something that I like to do--exactly what I want to do--and nothing else.

EOW: When is P.M. opening?

FP: The middle of this month--by the 15th.

EOW: And it's prix fixe?

FP: I'm trying to make it so it works for everybody. Basically, it's three-courses and up. You can start with an appetizer, main course and dessert if you want, or two appetizers and a main course. It doesn't have to include a dessert. After that, every course that you add will be in small increments so we can give people the option of being able to try a lot of different things.

EOW: I've always thought your tasting menus were some of the best deals in town. Are you still doing tastings at Aura and Coco Pazzo?

FP: Thank you. Yes. $55 is a five-course meal. We try to use some of the best and most fun ingredients around. We've had clients who have dined with us over 300 times and eat here every Saturday lunch. Every Saturday, they do a tasting menu.

We have many customers who have been big sponsors of the tasting menus. They never look at a menu. They're like, "We don't even know what you have on your menu! We've been coming here for eight years. We have no clue what's on your menu!" We always try to change [the tasting menu]. Even if I use the same ingredient, I'll change the proportion, the presentations--that's what makes it so interesting for me.

EOW: Is there anything else you want people to know about you or your restaurants?

FP: Whatever I do is with love. Really, there is a love relationship between food and what I do. If I [wanted] to become wealthy, I'd be in the oil and gas business. I just love what I do and it's so rewarding for me when people are happy. It destroys me to know someone didn't have a good experience. I want to become an advocate for people to be honest. Honesty in this business is such a necessary thing. Don't be shy or try to hide something. Don't say, "Yeah, everything was good," and then the next day, I hear from someone, "Yeah, they didn't really care [for] it."

I wish people would just say, "Yeah, this [dish] was great, but this [other dish] was not so good." I pride myself in using the freshest ingredients. I like to butcher everything myself. I don't even like for my employees to deal with any of that because it's something I want to make sure is done the right way. I love what I do and want the people to know we try to do it the best, use the best ingredients and give them the best experience.

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