Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 1: Joe Cervantez of Killen's Steakhouse

Ronnie Killen has made a big name for himself, not just in Pearland, where his eponymous Killen's Steakhouse is located, but across the Houston area and the United States. He has been a guest chef at the Beard House and, just within this past week, Killen's Steakhouse was on Open Table's Diners' Choice List of the Best Steakhouses in America. Only 100 restaurants across the country made the list.

Killen also has a barbeque restaurant and spends a lot of time traveling and promoting the merits of Houston barbeque. So, when he selected an executive chef to be in charge of operations at the steakhouse, he left some big shoes to fill.

The man who accepted that role is Joe Cervantez. He looks deceptively young but is, in fact, an industry veteran and Pearland native who honed his skills since he was 16-years-old at places like Hilton Americas and Brennan's of Houston.

In Part 1 of our Chef Chat, we'll learn how Cervantez climbed his way up the ladder to helm one of the country's best steakhouses and the daring action his wife took that helped him on his path to success.

EOW: Are you a native Houstonian?

JC: I'm from Pearland.

EOW: You're a Pearlandian?

JC: Pearlandian, right! I grew up in Pearland and graduated from Pearland High school.

EOW: Wow, so you are seriously from around here!

JC: Yeah, this is my hometown. I actually grew up two blocks behind this restaurant. I've lived here all my life. I would always make the commute to Houston, so when Ronnie called and gave me this job offer, I was like, "Uh, yeah!"

EOW: Did you ever in your wildest dreams when you were growing up imagine, "Yeah, I'm going to be working two blocks away"?

JC: Absolutely not. Obviously, convenience is a big factor, but it's not everything. I'm glad to be in my hometown. I talk to these customers and the majority are from Pearland so we click and connect right there. My older brother's teacher came in two nights ago. I was introducing myself and she said, "You look familiar. Cervantez--I know your last name. What year did you graduate?" I told her the year I graduated and then she's like, "No, I left there in '97." I said, "Well, my brother graduated in '97." She said, "What's your brother's name?" "Ralph." "Oh, Ralphie, yeah!" So right there, the connection clicks. I'm making that connection with the customers as far as being from Pearland, which is a good thing. Pearland is a very proud town.

EOW: Pearland is still a very small town, isn't it? One of those places where everybody knows everybody?

JC: Yes, it is like that but now it's growing so much we have the Silverlake side where the big mall and H.E.B. are on the 288 side. When I was growing up, that was all pastures and trees. That was all undeveloped until I was in high school. When I was in high school, Chili's came up and that was all developing. So, Pearland was a very small town. In Houston, no one knew. "Oh, Pearland? Where's that?"

EOW: Were any of your first jobs with food in Pearland while you were still in high school?

JC: They were. I started cooking when I was 16 years old at a mom-and-pop restaurant here called Classic Café of Pearland, which is no longer around. I actually started in the front-of-the-house. I was seating people at the door and I'd leave out the kitchen through the back door to go home. I saw the cooks flip the saute pans and that interested me a lot. I saw them flipping, flipping. So, I'd go wiggle the pan and try to flip. I asked the chef there, "Hey, can I work in the kitchen? Can I be a cook?" He said, "Well, you're a little too young right now. You have to wait until you're 18 because of the hours and working with knives."

EOW: They were trying to not infringe on the Child Labor Act.

JC: Yeah, yeah! As I would leave through that back door, I was always messing with the saute pans. He came up to me and said, "Look, every time you leave, you're always fooling with the pans. You must want to cook." I was like, "Yeah." So he said, "Why don't you come one Saturday brunch. If you can show me you can flip an egg without breaking the yolk, I'll hire you as a cook."

So, he gave me a whole case of eggs and I started cooking them. I went through half the case and showed him I was able to flip over the egg without breaking the yolk and he said, "You're hired." I was in charge of over medium, over easy, omelettes--

EOW: You were the Eggman!

JC: I was the Eggman! So, I worked my way through the stations there. From there and throughout high school, I went to Joe's Crab Shack, Olive Garden--all those chains and I was just working in the kitchen. Just working to have a job in the kitchen. That was what I knew.

All these colleges started coming to the school and there was a program from the Art Institute to become a chef. It was how I was making money already--working in the industry. They sold me and I said, "This is what I want to do. I want to go to culinary school."

EOW: Did they tell you Randy Evans and Chris Shepherd went there?

JC: I don't know if they were saying that yet. They were just telling me about the program. They may have mentioned that, but at the time I probably didn't know who they were.

EOW: You were like, "Who?" (laughs)

JC: Who? (laughs) So, I went to the Art Institute and I had this old French chef: chef Lear. He was teaching skills class, how to debone turkeys, and he was walking like a sergeant, talking in his accent. I saw the cooks and students cutting and said, "This is where I need to be." I just fell in love. So, I signed up.

I was in pastry class and there was a chef who came in. I asked my instructor, "Who's that chef?" and he said, "He's an executive chef from Hilton Americas. He left flyers for you guys if you want to grab one. He's looking for cooks."

So, me and my best friend, Chris Loftis, who is executive chef at Number 13 [at Pelican Rest Marina in Galveston] right now--we grew up and went to high school and then culinary school together--grabbed two of the flyers. We called them, got interviews and both got jobs at the Skyline [restaurant] on the 24th floor of the hotel. That was my third quarter of culinary school.

EOW: My gosh. You went into hotel [service] really young. A lot of times, chefs work their way up to that because of the scale of service. You were thrown into the fire.

JC: I started off there. I started culinary school as soon as I graduated high school. I didn't take a break. I dove right in. Skyline was a fine dining restaurant. We did a lot of drawing on the plates and things like that, which caught my eye. I worked there for three-and-a-half years and eventually because chef du cuisine.

During the recession, they started to do away with Skyline. We had different outlets at the hotel: Skyline, The Café, which was the main restaurant where guests would go eat, Spencer's For Steak and Chops and the banquet. They decided to do away with Skyline, the fine dining restaurant, and make it a banquet facility. They started booking weddings and parties.

They told me, "We would like you to go downstairs and run The Café." They asked me to be a fresh set of eyes and revamp the menu a little bit." I implemented some things I wanted to do and worked there for a year-and-a-half at The Café.

EOW: Did this slump come after the Super Bowl?

JC: Yeah, it was dead. It was right when the recession hit the hardest and everyone was freaking out about their jobs. We had some composed dishes at The Café but it wasn't as intricate as Skyline. It was more of a mass-produced restaurant. We'd do 1,000 covers in a day. Tickets are coming from the ticket machine and literally hitting the floor. I'm looking around like, "Uhhh..."

EOW: It was like Olive Garden all over again. (laughs)

JC: Yeah! So, I was like, "Wow!" The food and beverage directors are standing there with their arms crossed like, "What is he going to do?" I was just like, "Guys, let's go," and we started pumping the tickets out. That's when I started growing. I learned how to do mass production in that hotel. I went from fine dining to mass production and put hours and hours of time in at the hotel. We were a 24-hour-operation. I had an overnight kitchen, so if cooks called in [sick] I had to cover the shift.

After doing that a couple of times, my wife got fed up with me working at that restaurant. I had a Nextel that would go off on my days off, it would go off when I slept and it would go off at 2 a.m. about issues at the restaurant.

Without me knowing, she sent my résumé off to Brennan's. She saw their ad on Craigslist.

EOW: Are you serious? Your wife sent your résumé to Brennan's? That... is awesome!

JC: She saw that Brennan's was hiring when they reopened after the fire.

EOW: Your wife is a sharp lady.

JC: They were looking for kitchen staff. I got a phone call on my day off. "This is Cecily [Nichols] over here at Brennan's of Houston. I have your résume sitting in front of me and I'd like to set up an interview with you so we can talk about a position we have available." So, I was like, "Uh, okay. All right." I'm not going to blow this so I get off the phone and I go, "April, did you send my résumé to Brennan's?" She said, "Oh, yeah, two months ago they were looking for kitchen staff when they opened back up, so I shot it out."

So, I ended up going in, doing the interview and I ended up getting the job there. I got hired as the banquet chef and was in charge of all their weddings, all their banquets, all their big parties--everything that came up. They put two-and-two together. I had worked at a hotel. Brennan's actually does a lot of banquet events and needed someone to take over that operation.

EOW: How many people come to these banquet events?

JC: The most we had was close to 300 people and that took up all the upstairs. We also have private dining rooms downstairs, so that was three more rooms where we could seat more people. So, we could do 300 and also four or five other parties at once.

EOW: After doing 1,000 at the hotel, were you like, "300 covers. I got this."?

JC: See, the difference at a hotel is it's a set menu so everyone gets the same kind of thing. Everyone gets your filet, your rice, your asparagus and sauce. You just assembly-line it. At Brennan's, you'll have five different menus of different things and the customers order as the servers walk by. You'll have a menu and customers have a choice of turtle soup or Brennan's salad, three to four entrées and a choice of dessert. It's a limited a la carte menu.

EOW: So, it's complexity times 10.

JC: Right, so that took some getting used to and everything has to be fresh as it goes out. We didn't put anything in hot boxes. It literally came out the oven, we let the meat rest, we sliced it and it went out. It took me a little while and once I learned and organized it, I flew through that. So, in not even a year, I got promoted to their sous chef and that's how I spent the remainder of my time at Brennan's, which was about five years.

EOW: Who were you working with and for at that time?

JC: I took Bobby Matos' place. He's now sous chef at Ciao Bello. Then, we had Jose Arevalo, who has been there for 30-plus years at Brennan's. He is Brennan's, literally. We had Javier Lopez from Pesce who worked under Mark Holley as his chef du cuisine and also worked in Commander's Palace with our executive chef, Danny Trace. We had a pretty stacked crew and then we also had Carl Walker as [general manager], who was also a great mentor. I worked with a great group of people.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2 to find out how Cervantez went from Brennan's to one of the most prestigious steakhouses in the United States.

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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook