Tom Perini grew up in Abilene in the ’50s, but spent weekends on his family’s ranch 15 miles south at Buffalo Gap. He loved cowboying—being outside, working with cattle, and cooking for the hands. Perini was so good at cooking steaks that other ranchers, including Watt Matthews of the famous Lambshead Ranch in Albany, asked him to cater their shindigs. Matthews even steered Perini’s career from raising beef to cooking it. In 1983, Tom Perini turned the ranch’s hay barn, at the end of a long dirt road, into the rustic Perini Ranch Steakhouse.
“The first years were tough,” Perini admits. “You can’t see us from any highway, so we grew by word of mouth, cooking simple, quality food that looks good and tastes good.” Perini grabbed headlines when he catered for George W. Bush in both his governorship and presidency, and he was invited to cook several times at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City. Rave reviews led Tom and his wife Lisa to launch a booming mail-order business. (The signature item is Tom’s mesquite-smoked, peppered beef tenderloin.) The couple also authored the Texas Cowboy Cooking cookbook, established the annual Buffalo Gap Wine & Food Summit in 2003, and opened two guest cottages at the ranch. Last year, 85,000 patrons made their way to the restaurant for steaks, Southern fried catfish, Mexican hominy, and bread pudding with whiskey sauce.
One day, Tom Perini noticed several men dressed in suits, a rarity at his laid-back joint. “They were from a steakhouse chain and asked me what I tried to do to make this place so Texan,” Perini recalls. “I told them, ‘I don’t, and it is.’”
When you’re the real McCoy, you don’t have to try.
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From the September 2013 issue.