The 2016 Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Everyday Award Ceremony was held on 25 October in Johannesburg. Although unfortunately I couldn’t make it as I was in Cape Town at the time, I was still given the opportunity to interview one of the winners. I love Mexican food and so decided to interview one of the owners of the 2016 Best Everyday Mexican Eatery winner – Perron.
Perron has 2 restaurants – one in Illovo at Illovo Junction (this is the branch that won the 2016 Best Everyday Mexican Eatery) and the other in Bryanston at Hobarts Centre. I met with Thomas Hughes at their Illovo restaurant.
Perron is Mexican slang for “awesome” or “cool”. The Illovo restaurant is definitely the epitome of this. I love their vibrant, quirky and eclectic decor.
Before meeting with him though, I decided that I better “test out the restaurant” before interviewing him. I wanted to know for myself why the people of Johannesburg voted Perron as the 2016 Best Everyday Mexican Eatery in Johannesburg. So Husby and I went to have lunch there. Tuesdays they celebrate Taco Tuesdays and so Taco’s are definitely the order of the day. But I couldn’t review a restaurant based only on what they boast about, so we decided to share a starter, each have a different taco that we would split and then share a dessert.
To start we had the Jenny Chow which is a bowl of tortilla chips served with a traditional Mexican 7 layer dip made of refried beans, guacamole, diced tomato, grated cheese, crema, olives and lettuce. The chips were a bit bland on their own, and they served too many chips for the dip. But the dip! By golly was this delicious! Sweet and tangy and spicy and creamy and just so full of texture. I loved it.
For mains we ordered from their Taco Tuesdays Menu. I ordered the barbeque steak taco and Husby ordered the Chicken Taco. We shared the tacos and each had half of each flavour, We agreed hands down that the barbeque steak taco was by far the best of the 2 we tried.
We then struggled to agree on a dessert to share. They have a very interesting dessert menu.
I was naturally drawn to the churros but Husby was not keen as all mexican restaurants sell churros. We settled on Arancini which is a deep fried rice pudding served with poached apples, cream and strawberry. Husby was quite convinced that this was the best dessert he had ever eaten although I didn’t quite agree. It was very good no doubt, but I have had better desserts for my taste buds.
After lunch I casually walked up to Thom who I had been secretly spying out beforehand. A man with a man bun. Hipster through and through. Cool, calm and collected on the outside although I am sure boiling up with an assortment of withheld emotion that goes with the business. He didn’t seem intimidating at all and it helped with my confidence when approaching him. He is a well spoken man with a very cosmopolitan accent (pomish, mixed with some American and rounded off with a South African undertone). Thomas Hughes is 1 of 4 partners who own the business. The other partners are Christa Jakoby, Grant Ansell and Martin Jakoby
tea.eats interviews Thom Hughes from the 2016 Best Everyday Mexican Eatery – Perron
Congratulations on winning such a prestigious award! What went through your mind when you first heard that you had won the award?
We were quietly optimistic when we had found out that we had been nominated because we know that we have a very loyal following. We know that we have done very well. We really set the standards very high. We thought we stood a chance but you know until you actually get the official award, so just absolute delight. I mean its the Eat Out Awards – its the biggest one. For every restaurant that’s the award you want recognition for. It was just the best news we had since we opened.
When did Perron open?
We opened in about mid 2014. This (Illovo restaurant) is obviously the first one. We recently opened up another branch in Bryanston in the Hobarth centre and that we opened in March this year so it’s only about 7 months old.
How is the Bryanston branch doing?
Its doing very well. It’s bigger than this. It’s a slightly more grown up version of this. Its slightly smarter. This is still quite quirky and eclectic. This is more Illovo and the Bryanston branch is more suburban. So that’s a different market. And we are now looking for a third space, Might be Pretoria or Bedfordview. It just depends on what we can find.
Before you opened, was there a dream or a vision? And what was that?
I think the dream and vision was number one just to be successful because it’s so dam hard. Our long term dream was to have a branch within most cities within South Africa. We would love to get down to Cape Town and have 2 branches in Cape Town, we would love to have branches in Pretoria, Durban and P.E. The long term plan is to build Perron into something more than a restaurant. It’s an experience, and we have started making our own hot sauces. We really want to try create a brand and that’s sort of where we want this direction to go.
What was your experience in the restaurant industry, or kitchen?
We are part of a mish mash of partners. I am the only one from this industry. I am the Exec Chef. I have 3 business partners who are all professionals outside of this industry. 2 are chartered accountants which is very useful in this business. And the other is a vet funnily enough.He handles all the mish mash of things that need to be done. The good thing is that they are all family. It’s my business partner Martin and it’s his sister and her husband. I have known Martin for 35 years. So it’s really a very tight knit trust. We all have our own jobs to play and it works very well. Martin and myself have been in partnership since 2006. We came back from the UK and here this is now our 8th or 9th restaurant. We have been around the block. We have seen it and done it all. We know how tough it is and so far Perron to date has probably been the most successful which is great.
Why Mexican cuisine?
We all travelled a lot. I fell in love with Mexican food when we lived in the States and I was cooking in Aspen and I cooked with a ton of Mexican chefs. It just peaked my interest in Mexican food as American life is full of Mexican food. Living in the UK, Christa and Grant also had this love of Mexican food and Mexican food was just starting to become a thing. We literally thinking the same thing living in Johannesburg. We were thinking “Let’s do a Mexican restaurant”. We didn’t have the funds or partners and Christa and Grant came back from London and were actually thinking along the same lines and we just said “Lets do this” and this space was available as we owned The Griffin upstairs and the Mexican wave is huge. We like to think of ourselves as one of the few that actually started the wave. There are obviously a couple in Johannesburg the last few years but we feel that we were at the beginning of the real trend. I hope it’s not just a fad and that it has some longevity. But I think if the food is good, there is no reason it shouldn’t.
Why do you think you won the award and not some of your direct competitors?
We are food first and foremost. We pay a huge amount of attention to detail on the food. We live, eat, breath and sleep the food in this restaurant. My job as an exec chef is I literally go around refining recipes, tasting and tasting and training. That is literally all I do all day long. It is just about trying to maintain consistency and trying to maintain a high standard. We have created a menu with varying options. We have got main courses and salads and side dishes. The small dishes is what really has been successful. Mexican food is informal. It’s not stiff upper lip white table cloths. Its sharing. Its noisy. I think people enjoy sharing food in this place and I think that’s one of the reasons that is has been so successful.
Does your team work well together? What makes your team work well together?
I think our team works exceptionally well together. I think Christa and and Grant have bought more of a business mindset as Grant and myself are slightly less business orientated and more creative. Christa and Grant have brought an immense amount of seriousness and professionalism which is important when working in a team. We never really had this before. Our kitchen staff are incentivized. They know that the better job that they do, the better they do financially. Also its a symbiotic relationship. We are not the shop owners that say whatever money we make goes into our back pocket. We do try encourage all of our staff, waiters, bartenders, managers, kitchen staff. They are all incentivized. In order to grow something, everybody has got to perform at the top of their game.
In future you said there would be more branches?
Yes, no franchises though. More like a group of restaurants where every restaurant will be different based on it’s surrounding area and target market. They will have the same philosophy about food, about drinks, about fun, about design and everything else.But the restaurants will be owner operated and controlled by us. So hopefully in the future we see perhaps getting up to the 12 or 15 outlets.
Was there an A’ha moment that made a difference in the way that you function here.
That’s a tough question. I don’t think there was an A’ha moment. I think what happened was that we were fortunate in that we opened and that we were successful from Day 1. We came in at the right time. We had a good location. Our menu was good. We managed to get the food right relatively quickly which is always a challenge for many restaurants. Never eat at a restaurant as soon as it opens because it’s problem solving from day 1. I think we managed to settle the shop down pretty quickly. Of course there are always problems but I think even the success of this store surprised us in the beginning. It wasn’t an A’ha moment, it was a Pinch-Myself-We-Are-Actually-Doing-Exceptionally-Well Moment and then how do we keep it on that same path of success. It has been an enormous amount of commitment. Christa bore the brunt of the hard work and the stress in the beginning. We all had other comittments and jobs and Christa was here at all god-forsaken hours. It has got to be an obsession. It’s attention to detail. The moment you become relaxed and think the shop is ok and running itself is the moment you are on a slippery slope. That’s where 4 partners has been good. We keep motivating each other, we keep pushing each other. We have to answer to each other. Which means we can’t skive and take a little bit of easy time. It’s worked very positively for us.
Is there a motto that you guys run on?
I think if anything we are 4 people who believe in what we do. We believe in life, we believe in fun. We believe that you should celebrate things. Food, wine drinks, tequilla. Being social. That’s really who we are. We are 4 very social personalities. 4 very different people. But 4 people nonetheless who understand how enjoyable it can be sitting around sharing stories, getting drunk, eating lovely food and having fun together. It’s just about having fun and doing something that we believe is valuable.
Is life different since you won this award?
It’s nice because everybody needs validation that what you are doing is being noticed by people. Its good for me as a chef. I turned away from fine dining as I have done a lot of fine dining in my life. And I look at the Eat Out Awards. I have worked all over the world. I have cooked in every continent. For me it was difficult transition moving into this style of restaurant where sometimes I feel like I am perhaps not challenging myself enough. I need to realize and remember that this is a business., This is food and it’s successful so I am really nitpicking. So that’s been really great for me as a chef. It’s just wonderful to know that what we are doing – people are recognizing us and that we just need to continue doing what we are doing.
Lastly, any final words to the readers of this interview and review?
Watch this space! We are constantly evolving. If we stop evolving its the day we start getting boring. There is so much more to come from us with regards to the brand. We are looking at doing a delivery service as well as manufacturing sauces and there might even be a clothing range coming out.
Thank you to Eat Out and Mercedes Benz for this opportunity to interview Thom.
**Disclaimer: I was invited to attend the award ceremony but could not attend due to my being in Cape Town. They extended the invite to me to interview any of the winners. I paid for the meal myself, the images and opinions are my own. The interview is from a recording I have between Thom and myself and has been accurately transcripted**
The other winners of the 2016 Eat Out Best Everyday Eatery Awards were: