Chef Chat, Part 3: Ronnie Killen, from the White House to the James Beard House and Beyond
Ronnie Killen Killen's Steakhouse 2804 South Main St., Pearland 281-485-0844 www.killenssteakhouse.com
Chef Killen has done a lot to change the dining scene in Pearland, having first transformed himself, and is now looking to expand his horizons -- to Houston, the literary world and beyond.
And although he certainly could, Killen hasn't been resting on his laurels. He talks about constantly trying to improve himself, his restaurant, his palate and his employees' skills.
Over the past two days we have learned a lot about Killen: his early years, how they influenced what kind of chef he is today, his pedigree and what he is doing now. This next part is about his future and what we can expect from him.
EOW: Where do you see yourself in five years and in ten years? Killen: In five years, I want one or two more Killen's -- one to be like the steakhouse I have now and one to be a little more modern so I can be more creative. True chefs have to have creativity or they become stagnant. In ten years I don't want to get so big that I'm just putting my name on something because I can. I will not sell my name to the highest bidder; so probably the same as in five years.
EOW: What dishes would you like to offer but you don't think Pearland is ready for them? Killen: I will always be a steak guy. I love how we do steaks but I would enjoy adding more creative dishes. Like the dishes at the wine dinner the other night; I served hamachi crudo and some marinated beef cheeks. In a wine pairing dinner, I am freer to add in more adventurous dishes that I couldn't put on my menu. I don't think Pearland is ready for hamachi crudo and beef cheeks just yet. I'll keep working at it though.
EOW: Are you interested in writing cookbooks? Killen: Definitely. I want to first write a healthy food book. I think I have a different take than what is already out there and I am daily living proof that healthy food works. Diets don't work, lifestyle changes do. The second book I want to do is a book based on my restaurant and the recipes I enjoyed growing up.
EOW: Would you go to the White House now if asked? Killen: No. My time for that has passed. Although I didn't get the Executive Chef position, I was offered the Assistant Executive Chef position. It just wasn't for me, but it was a huge honor and a fascinating experience to go through the process of being vetted.
EOW: What restaurant do you want to eat at that you have not done so? Killen: Well, I would have liked to have eaten at El Bulli; other than that, Fat Duck in London, Alinea in Chicago and Girl and the Goat, also in Chicago. [A friend recently tried to get reservations at Girl and the Goat and they have a waiting list until February. Maybe Killen's name holds a bit more clout.]
EOW: What are the best and worst meals you have eaten? Killen: Best would definitely be the meal at Meadowood in Napa. I still think about that meal today. The worst is a little trickier -- you know, I am in this business. I will tell you that when I lived in Dallas, I loved Spring Creek BBQ. Their barbecue chicken and rolls were something I craved. It was the best barbecue chicken I have ever had. When they opened in Pearland, I couldn't wait to get me some barbecue chicken and rolls. Turns out that was the worst meal I ever had. The chicken actually hurt the back of my throat it was so dry. I can't forget that meal, but for all the wrong reasons. Beyond Spring Creek, I will just say again that The French Laundry just didn't live up to their hype. Great food but not $1,200 for two people great.
EOW: What is your dream for yourself? Killen: I want to be remembered as someone who cared about what they did and took pride in what they did. I want to live long enough and excel high enough that I am nominated for a James Beard Award. Most importantly, I want my guys (his cooking team) to surpass me. I want to make them better. [Killen was invited to The James Beard House to cook at the Steakhouse Holiday dinner December 20, 2011.]
EOW: What would your last meal consist of? Killen: Without hesitation I want my grandmother's Easter meal I told you about: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn and green beans. If she could come back and prepare it and share it with me would be perfection.
Killen appears to be a chef dedicated to his craft, his staff and to making his little space in the world better. He's a combination of egotistical, competitive chef and humble, generous, Southern gentleman. It's impressive and interesting to watch a man in the middle of his career who has already achieved so many accolades, awards and achievements face his future with the energy, enthusiasm and expectations of a young chef who just got his first garde manger job.
Killen's Steakhouse was an interesting place to be as I waited for Chef Killen to arrive. It was 3 p.m. and mostly quiet, but a lot was happening. The restaurant is a well-oiled machine: Every piece of glass and flat surface was being dusted and shined; I could hear faint chopping in the kitchen and the faint hint of smoke was in the air; the smell of things to come. The stemware was sparkling as sunlight streamed in. Staff moved silently throughout the restaurant but tirelessly attended to every detail of a restaurant that would open in two hours. I've been in many restaurants pre-opening and it is usually bustling, noisy, clanging and frenetic, with voices carrying throughout the dining room. Nothing like the calm, zen-like atmosphere at Killen's Steakhouse that Killen has clearly cultivated.
Today, Chef Killen is getting ready to head to New York to compete in the Wal-Mart Choice Steak Challenge. Walmart is conducting a multi-city search for the chef with the best steak-grilling skills in the country; the steak challenge will determine who grills the best steak in town. Each chef had the chance to fire up grilled rib eyes, allowing shoppers the chance to decide which chef moved on to the New York City finale on May 22.
One finalist from each of the eight cities -- which included Tampa, Miami, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, St. Louis, Nashville and Atlanta -- was selected to compete in New York for top honors in a contest judged by champion pit master Chris Lilly and other food experts. Ronnie recently beat Bryan Caswell of Reef for the spot in the New York finals. He competes May 22 at 1 p.m. It is open to the public and will be held at Hudson Terrace.
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