Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: Frédéric Perrier of Aura Restaurant

In part one of our Chef Chat, we discussed how Chef Perrier came to Houston and his vision for Aura. Today we'll talk about working in the suburbs and his other venture, Hoggs n' Chicks.

EOW: Talk about the challenges of having a place in Missouri City.

FP: One challenge is gaining credibility, both from the Inner Loopers and the people out here. People really get categorized; there's a belief that if you live in the suburbs then you eat at Chili's and that's a special event. It's true in a certain way, because people will come in and say, "Oh, you serve ivory king salmon - how is that different from the salmon they serve at P.F. Chang's?" Well, there is a difference of $17 a pound, how about that? But that may not justify the price of the dish to them, because on a certain level it's just salmon. So there's the challenge of gaining the credibility that you're not just Joe, the cook that has worked at Panera, Chili's, and Black-Eyed Pea and then decided to open a restaurant down the street. There's a little pride in me that says, "Hey, this is what I've done all my life and I love what I do. I'm not doing it for the money, or else I'd be selling oil and gas."

I think we're inexpensive--very inexpensive--for the quality we're giving. But you still have to make people understand that this is not Chili's. People ask if I buy from Sysco. I say no, I don't buy from any place where the bleach and the filet mignon come on the same truck. There are enough quality people in Houston who distribute meat, fish and vegetables. To me, it's important to stay proud of what I serve and not sacrifice quality just to be part of the regular network and get more business, simply because I'm serving frozen fries and charge a dollar less.

And the good thing is that our customers are understanding the process. But the biggest challenge of all is making people understand that this is not a special occasion restaurant.

EOW: How do you mean?

FP: To me, a restaurant should not be a special occasion restaurant, but a restaurant for any occasion. People see that we got great reviews and they'll say, "Oh, let's go to Aura for our anniversary." But to have them come in only once a year really sucks. Thank god we've converted enough believers who come in regularly. It's difficult having the reviews we've had and making people understand that they can come in for lunch and get a cup of soup, a salad and a glass of wine, and spend ten dollars, and you know what? Thank you very much for being here. We really appreciate your business. You don't have to come here and eat a five-course meal. But because we're categorized as a good restaurant, people think they have to wait for a special occasion.

EOW: Has the sunset prix-fixe menu been a success?

FP: Yes, it's doing very well. It drives a lot of business on weekdays, although it's also available on weekends. I couldn't eat at 5 p.m., but it fits the niche for the crowd who eats early. And it's a bargain: a three-course meal for $24.50, how can you beat that? It's kind of a win-lose situation, but it's actually worked out. Sometimes we'll have 30 couples come in at 5:30 p.m. on Friday or Saturday, but only five or six will get the prix-fixe. We're famous for our specials, and people come on a regular basis because they know my specials are never the same. Never. And I buy small quantities. Sometimes people will get upset -- "What? You have no more halibut?" No, I'm not going to buy 60 pounds of halibut. I'm going to buy one 20-pound fish, filet it, and when I run out I run out. That is why it's called a special. It's not a sale, where you buy large quantities for a good price, freeze it, and then serve it for ten days. I go to places where the specials have been the same for years, and to me that's not special.

EOW: You've also opened two Hoggs n' Chicks, with the idea of building up the brand and maybe even franchising it. Is that still the idea?

FP: My basic idea was to do something mainstream that people would want to eat every day, all day long. At Aura, we close at 2 p.m. and open at 5 p.m., because it's not the kind of place where you drive around at four in the afternoon and say, "Hey, let's go eat at Aura." No. You'd go to Five Guys Burgers and Fries. But I was tired of the same fast food that was to me, atrocious. You don't know how it's made or where it comes from. Everything tastes the same, and it's all got MSG in it even if they say it doesn't. Hoggs n' Chicks is fast food with real food. Everything's made from scratch. The one exception is when we can't get something of steady quality. In the summertime, sweet potatoes get very dry and have so much starch that if you fry them they just fall apart. So in that case we'll buy frozen sweet potato fries made by people who have a consistently good product. But everything else - the pulled pork, the sliders - we grind our own beef and we make food the way I would want to eat it.

Personally, I want to be behind the concept and keep the integrity of the product. After that, maybe someone will want to buy the brand and take it to a bigger level. We have several people interested now, even though there are only two locations. But I'm not sure about franchising it myself, because I'm not a big corporate person, and once you franchise, you need to enforce. You need to be the ruler and regulator of what goes on, and I don't want to do that.

EOW: How important is it to have a glass of wine with every meal?

FP: To me, being French it's part of the religion. You don't really conceive of a meal without a glass of wine. I do understand that here in Texas, because of the heat, it can go to your head a lot faster than in France. But as a general rule, it's a lot more enjoyable to drink a glass of wine with a meal than ice tea.

Tune in tomorrow when we sample some of Chef Perrier's food and hear the stories behind the dishes.

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Matthew Dresden
Contact: Matthew Dresden