Former Texas Rancher, Current Restauranteur
Book Review by Pamela Percival
Although Tom Perini, proprietor of the Perini Ranch Steakhouse in Buffalo Gap (pop. 499), Texas, has gained national fame for his cuisine, he's quick to remind people that he's just a "cowboy cook."
"I don't do any 'plate drawing', where they drizzle sauces to 'paint' your dish," Perini drawls as he pushes back his ever-present cowboy hat. "If you find a leaf on one of my plates, you send it back! I want to do real food that looks good and tastes good and that you can recognize."
From his signature mesquite-grilled, Texas beef to rich and hearty side dishes like Green Chile Hominy and Cowboy Potatoes, Perini's food is down-home Texas cooking with a definite flair. And now Perini is sharing his recipes in a new cookbook, complete with a forward by actor Robert Duvall, who became a frequent diner at Perini's steakhouse while filming a movie in the area.
"After Clint Eastwood and I ate our first meal there, the cast and crew returned for dinner as often as we could," wrote Duvall, who owns a restaurant in Virginia. "I wish I'd had Tom along when I was filming Lonesome Dove, because his is the kind of food my character ate on the cattle drive - wholesome, authentic, delicious food that can be cooked in one pot or over an open fireand it just tastes like the American West."
Texas Cowboy Cooking is a full-color, hardback, coffee table-style edition published by Time-Life Books. Besides a generous collection of recipes, the book includes Perini's folksy tips on everything from how to cook the perfect steak (don't overcook it) to information about the origins of chuck wagon and cowboy cooking.
The pages of the book are as pleasing to the eye as the recipes are to the palate. The volume is peppered with reproductions of vintage Texas cowboy photos and artwork, along with ranching photography by Bob Moorhouse, manager of the Pitchfork ranches.
Though he may have a terrific local restaurant, some people may wonder how this self-professed "chuck wagon cook" ended up with a fancy $24.95 cookbook that he's currently autographing in bookstores all over the nation. The cookbook, along with its author's national fame, is really an outgrowth of Perini's booming catering and mail order food business. Although people around Abilene know him mostly for his rustic steakhouse, situated on his family's real ranch, Perini has hauled his 100-year-old chuck wagon and West Texas mesquite firewood as far as Japan to cater authentic Texas dinners. He's cooked several times for Texas Governor George W. Bush, and rumors abound that if Bush is elected president, Perini and his cowboy caterers will be tapped to work an inauguration party or two.
It was at one of Perini's high profile catering gigs that he was approached about doing a cookbook. "We catered a party for 800 people in Washington, D.C., last June, a Texas-style fund-raiser for the National Arboretum," Perini explained. "It was a good group of people and they gave us a lot of praise. I was standing by my chuck wagon talking to people and a man came up to me and asked me if I'd ever considered doing a cookbook. I said 'no and neither had any of my English teachers!'
"But I took his card and tucked it in my pocket and when I got back to my hotel room and looked at the card, I saw that the man was the president of Time-Life books."
With interest from such a high-powered publisher, Perini decided to take the cookbook idea seriously. He did have a couple of concerns, including his relative anonymity in some parts of the nation. "I was concerned that here we are a little steak house out in Buffalo Gap and no one knows who I am so they're not going to buy the book," Perini said. "I'm not a Stephan Pyles or anybody like that. I'm really a cowboy cook. I'm not one of those big chefs who have gone to all these fancy schools. I just figure food out by doing it, cooking it, tasting it, and saying 'oh that needs more salt.' "
To deal with his other main concern, giving away his "secret" recipes, Perini talked with some renowned Texas chefs who had already shared signature recipes in their cookbooks. "I talked to some chefs like David Garrido of Jeffrey's restaurant in Austin, Texas, and Michael Thompson in Fort Worth, Texas, and asked their opinions. They told me, 'Tom, there's no such thing as a secret recipe. If people really want to find out what's in a dish, they will.' " Even if they have the recipe in hand, most people still prefer to come to the restaurant and have it prepared for them there.
The one signature dish Perini chose not to include in the cookbook is the one for mesquite-grilled peppered beef tenderloin. Production of the buttery-soft beef, coated with just the right combination of coarsely ground black pepper and other spices, has become almost a stand-alone food business. The meat was given a national boost in 1996 when New York Times tasters dubbed Perini's tenderloin their number one choice for best mail-order food gift. Besides direct orders through Perini Ranch (800-367-1721), Perini says the tenderloin is now sold through the Neiman-Marcus and Williams-Sonoma catalogs and is served aboard Northwest Airlines' European and Asian flights.
Perini has also prepared and served the tenderloin three times at the famed New York City James Beard House, which invites the nation's best chefs to showcase their specialties at pricey fund-raising dinner parties. Instead of a white chef's hat, Perini wore his best white cowboy hat while working in the kitchen. On his April 1 visit, Perini wowed the diners with a few Texas-style dishes from his new cookbook, including fried catfish, chicken fried rib-eye steaks with peppered cream gravy, and fresh strawberry shortcakes made with homemade buttermilk biscuits.
Texas Cowboy Cooking is on sale at bookstores nationwide.
Grilling tips from Texas Cowboy Cooking
Perini Ranch Steak Rub
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