Chef Chris Loftis is the executive chef at Number 13 Prime Steak & Seafood. It's located off the northwest tip of Galveston Island, just as you're coming in on I-45 South from Houston. The sunny back porch backs up to a harbor full of boats and the interior features a big rectangular bar and a high alcove that leads to a skylight.
Number 13 has a serious dry-aged steak program and Loftis certainly has had plenty of experience in that area. One of his first jobs was as the original cook at Killen's Steakhouse.
In Part One of this chef chat, we'll learn how Loftis came to the United States with his German family when he was just a toddler, why he got into cooking and the first restaurants he worked in before ultimately moving to Number 13.
EOW: Where were you born?
CL: Wiesbaden, Germany.
EOW: My goodness. OK, why were you born in Germany?
CL: My parents were there.
CL: So, my grandmother--my mom's mom--she met an American soldier there and so they got married. My mom grew up, then she had me and we moved to Colorado Springs when I was real young. We lived in Colorado for maybe three years and then my dad got a job in Houston. We've been there ever since. We live in Pearland, now.
EOW: Do you have any memories of living in Germany or were you too young by the time y'all moved?
CL: I was still pretty young. I remember vaguely the flight here because we got stopped in Customs and I had to get an Alien Identification Card. So, I vaguely remember that just because it took forever. We flew in from Germany to Dallas and then Dallas was where we got stopped.
EOW: OK. So, you ended up in Dallas. Did you stay there?
CL: No, I just had to get my card, so I have this picture. I'm like two or three years old and it says Alien Identification Card. It's like little me just being a little three-year-old. I had to have that to get back to Colorado. That was the first time we'd gotten to the States.
EOW: What was it like after you arrived in the United States?
CL: I would say it's like anyone else. [My parents] didn't bring me up speaking German and I still give them hell for that. I want to learn a language, you know? Working in a kitchen, I picked up on my Spanish pretty good. I'm proud of myself on that one. My parents still speak German and I still don't.
My grandma cooks German food all the time when I see her. She still lives in Colorado. It's always good to go back and she makes awesome German food.
EOW: When did you first start getting into the kitchen?
CL: I would say about six months before I graduated high school. I guess it's that parent duty to say, "You need to figure out what you want to do with your life." All through high school, on weekends I'd want to barbecue or be outside and just do something with food. I don't know why, but it was fun to me.
My parents were like, "Well, why don't you go to culinary school?" I was like, "What is culinary school?" "Well, it's cooking school. They teach you how to cook and then you go get a job in a restaurant, stuff like that." So, I did a little research, and it seemed really cool. I just fell in love with it. I've always been around it but I didn't think that you could actually do it for a living.
EOW: Where did you go to culinary school?
CL: Art Institute of Houston. I did that with Joe [Cervantes].
(Author's note: See our previous Chef Chat with Loftis' childhood friend and fellow Pearland resident Joe Cervantes, who's currently the executive chef at Killen's Steakhouse.)
EOW: Why did you choose the Art Institute?
CL: It seemed at the time that it was the one to go with. Like I said, I didn't have that much time to do the research on it and, you know, they got me with the commercials and all that stuff. It was fun. I learned a lot of different stuff. Obviously, they can't teach you everything. You've got to go in the kitchen. You've got to burn stuff. You got to mess stuff up.
EOW: I remember talking to your friend Joe Cervantes, who's the executive chef at Killen's Steakhouse now, and how [the Art Institute] got him just from looking in the windows at the labs and everything looked so cool.
CL: I remember that day. I think we were in baking and pastry class and this sous chef [from the defunct Skyline restaurant at Hilton Americas Houston in downtown] came in. He was talking about them needing people and me and Joe, we were like two peas in a pod, we were just like, "You know, let's go do it," but then we started thinking, "Okay, so what if you get hired and I don't?"
Luckily, we both got hired. That was my first professional taste of everything. The one thing I never knew was how do people know what to cook in the back? Like, how do the tickets work and all that stuff? So, I was going from school cooking for four people to doing 200 covers on a busy night. It was wild.
EOW: I know from talking with Joe that they closed Skyline and then he worked different places in the Hilton from there. Did you make the same path?
CL: No, because from Skyline, he went downstairs and that's when I went to Killen's. That's right before Killen's opened. One of my friends, who was friends with Ronnie, said, "Hey, there's this new steakhouse opening in Pearland and you need go to check it out."
I was barely in college. So, I walk in there and I see Ronnie and Deedee [Killen] are in there, and Ronnie's mopping the floor, and I'm like, "Hey are you looking for kitchen help or anything like that?" Ronnie's like, "Yeah," and of course the standard, "What's your experience?" and stuff.
For some reason he was like, "Yeah, let's do it." For a couple of months, it was just me and Ronnie. It was a lot of hands-on experience and a lot of me and Ronnie together. (laughs)
EOW: So, you were the original sous!
CL: I was the only cook the first couple months. So, Ronnie did all ordering. He did everything. He did all the butchering. I just kind of sat back and watched him. He'd tell me when I did some wrong and I'd try to not do it again, because he's kind of an intimidating person, so--he kind of grows on you after a while. He's a good guy. I owe him a lot for putting up with a 17- or 18-year-old kid in culinary school, thinking I know everything and everything like that. I definitely owe him a lot.
EOW: He's a great guy.
CL: He is.
EOW: Do you remember what year this was?
CL: I think it was 2006. Somewhere around there.
EOW: How long did you stay at Killen's?
CL: I was there on and off for the first two-and-a-half years. It was my first steakhouse. I also understood that there was a lot of money. I still didn't have the experience that I needed for a place like that but luckily Ronnie was patient with me. I think every young cook goes through this phase where, "I don't know if this is the right thing for me. I don't know if I need to work in a steakhouse." Stuff like that. I went through that phase with Ronnie.
But he was always really cool about everything and it was just was a good experience. I'm still cool with him today. I talk to him. If I have a question, he's the guy I go to.
EOW: So, he really has been a mentor for you.
CL: Yeah I think more than he knows.
EOW: Well, he may know after this interview.
CL: Hopefully! Eric Nelson is also one of my mentors. He is the vice president of Number 13 and designed the whole restaurant.
EOW: So, where did you go after Killen's?
CL: After Killen's, I went to a place called Strata.
EOW: Strata in Vintage Park?
CL: Yes. I opened that restaurant because the sous chef from Skyline who came in and poached me and Joe, he left Skyline and went to open that restaurant. So, I was his sous over there for the first year-and-a-half.
It was bit of a drive but it was fun reconnecting and keeping those good relationships with the people you work for. I learned that a long time ago. You don't want to burn any bridges because you never know if you're going to need a job. If you keep screwing people over, no one's going to want to do anything for you.
EOW: It's a very small industry.
CL: It's super-small.
EOW: Yeah, everybody knows everybody.
CL: Oh yeah.
EOW: What was the focus of Strata?
CL: To me, I think it was something different, because Vintage Park was still--when we were there, there was only two or three restaurants, maybe four, but it was all like corporate: Mia Bella, a burger place, and I think Brio.
EOW: Yep, that's the wine bar and Cheeburger Cheeburger is the burger place. That's my side of town.
CL: Yeah, so we were different. We weren't like a big, corporate place. We did stuff from scratch. It was a learning curve because that was my first construction--building the restaurant. So, it was really cool to see all the equipment getting delivered, stuff not showing up on time, inspections--all that stuff.
EOW: Now, I have a question for you since you were at one of the original restaurants that opened in Vintage Park. That center, I think, was slow to grow and one of the reasons I heard is because there are no loading docks over there. Does that make it difficult to get product into the restaurant?
CL: Yes, because one thing you don't want is a big 18-wheeler in the front of your restaurant blocking the front door, taking up parking and stuff like that. And, it just doesn't look good. So, that was definitely one of the big things.
EOW: Of course, eventually the place--it took a couple of years I think--but now they're full. They've surmounted that difficulty.
CL: I think they changed the people who ran it--not the owners, but they switched management companies. That was another hard part, too, because it was empty for a while.
EOW: Now, who were you working for at Strata?
CL: John Ly.
EOW: OK. What caused you to leave?
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CL: Well, at the time I was engaged. I was expecting my first child and I lived in Pearland and driving to Spring every day was not the best idea for me.
EOW: How long of a drive was that?
CL: Anywhere from 50 minutes to an hour and that's with no traffic.
Yikes. With that drive not being sustainable over the long term, where would Loftis go next? Join us tomorrow for part two of this Chef Chat to find out!