by abe chu
“I think I am way better off as a chef!”
Chef Paul weaves through the bustling dining room, his silver mane highlighted by the incandescent blue of the starry lights overhead. Infectious laughter bounces around the room. Tonight’s crowd is brimming with energy, and the patio is filled with guests enjoying a welcome reprieve from the recent bout of rain.
The Peli Peli team opened this location (its second) in the middle of 2015 to much acclaim, serving Houstonians its unique South African fusion cuisine. Chef Paul’s experience both in the kitchen and the front of house gives his larger-than-life personality a chance to fully spread its wings.
He winks as he passes our table, and flashes a huge smile to guests on the other side of the room. He’s in his element.
I catch up with Chef Paul the next afternoon to reflect on his journey from the kitchen of his mother’s Johannesburg home to Peli Peli.
Who has really influenced your cooking most?
Everything I learned about cooking, I learned from my mom. From early on in my childhood, I would be in the kitchen while she cooked, and I learned a lot just from observing her passion for cooking.
Other than mom, nobody else has come close! I’ve never received any formal training. I have just learned over the years from experience and by developing a palate that understands what people would enjoy.
Did you always work in restaurants when growing up?
No, when I was younger, I actually thought I would get into dress designing! I know that sounds crazy now, but it’s what I wanted to be when I was a child. I spent Saturday mornings selling clothes in a clothing store. It was unbelievably boring! I guess I’ve always had a creative mind, and I was just seeking an outlet to be creative.
I think I am way better off as a chef!
My uncle had a restaurant, and I ended up working for him. I learned a lot about restaurant operations and eventually became manager at a local South African concept called Mike’s Kitchens.
How did that experience help you later as a restaurateur?
I’ve always felt that in order to become a truly successful front of house manager, you must understand the inner workings of the kitchen, and vise versa. They go hand in hand. If you don’t know what’s going on in the kitchen, you won’t have the tools necessary to do your job effectively.
My time being in the front of house was impactful because I learned the nuances of true customer service and also the business aspects of running an efficient and profitable restaurant.
What’s the thing you love most about owning your business?
Making people happy is definitely number one! I love meeting my customers and sharing my story about my food. And the look they get on their faces when they try it… there’s nothing like it.
What have you focused on that sets your business apart from others?
Not copying anyone but creating my own flavors. That’s how I’ve become me. That’s what has allowed my creative side to shine while also keeping me moving and constantly creating new things.
The other thing is that I’ve been both a restaurant operator and a chef so I feel I understand the different aspects that come together to create a successful experience for customers. And one thing that can be exhausting but is so important is the importance of training. You can never stop training and teaching your team because each day in the restaurant is a new day. You are only as good as the last meal someone enjoys, so you can’t stop repeating yourself and reinforcing your ideals to the staff. It’s 24/7, but it’s what keeps everything running.
If you could give one piece of advice to your 20-year old self, what would it be?
Take time every day to smell the roses! When I think about my biggest rewards and regrets in life, the journey is what it has been all about. It’s easy to say, but you must have balance in order to recognize and appreciate it. I spent too many hours on my career and being in the restaurant, and I did not spend enough time with my family. I have four kids, and they are my greatest achievement. But I wish I could have had more time to spend with them when they were growing up. Fortunately, they have grown up to be wonderful people in spite of me, and I am very thankful for that.
The other thing is, I recommend people to start as a dishwasher and work your way to the top. It’s not the only way to do it, but it gives you a great handle on the business. That way no one can fool you.
If you were not doing this, what would you be doing?
I love playing golf. I go to the driving range when I need to relax and unwind. If I didn’t have the restaurant, I’d be on the golf course every day trying to become a professional golfer!
Who has really helped you along the way?
My two partners in Peli Peli are Michael Tran and Thomas Nguyen. It’s been quite an adventure with a lot of ups and downs for all of us, and we have learned a great deal about life and business from each other. We have complementary personalities and strengths and weaknesses, and that’s how you build a great team. They have helped provide me with more balance and I have learned from their unique skillsets.
What’s next for you?
We’re looking to expand Peli Peli to more locations, and we have some new sites in mind.
Also, Peli Peli Kitchen is our new fast casual concept that we will be launching later this year. That’s very exciting for us, getting to introduce South African food to a different and broader audience. We received great feedback after our appearance on the show Restaurant Startup, and our first location will open up this Fall in Houston near the Energy Corridor.
Final question… what’s your favorite Disney movie?
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