Chef Chat, Part 2: Chris Loftis of Number 13

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If you've ever had to commute across Houston from one end to the other for a paycheck, you can sympathize with why chef Chris Loftis, a new dad at the time, needed to work in a restaurant closer to home. He left Strata in far northwest Houston and joined the team of a steakhouse closer to Pearland. Ultimately, that restaurant concept would prove to be rather short-lived.

These days, Loftis is at Number 13 Prime Steaks & Seafood in Galveston, one of the few truly fine dining options in the area. It's a great place to have a dry-aged steak and watch yachts bob in the gentle currents of the Gulf.

Yesterday we talked with Loftis about his early start in the restaurant business. In Part Two of our Chef Chat, Loftis explains the journey he made from one ill-fated restaurant to another that was already in its last days and how he'd finally find stability in his position at Number 13.

CL: Here comes Jason Cheney, who was the executive chef at Skyline (where he and Loftis previously worked together). They're opening up the Barbed Rose in Alvin. So, he calls me and he goes, "Hey, I need a sous chef." It's the same thing I heard about Killen's. "Hey, we're opening up this high-end steakhouse in Pearland and I'm thinking, "What?"

And then I hear, "Alvin," and I'm thinking, "Man I've heard this story before, you know?" But Ronnie has the blueprint to make it happen and it was eight miles away from Killen's. So, to me it wasn't the best idea. Killen's is like [in the] top 10 steakhouses in the country and we were trying to open up a steakhouse less than 10 miles away.

So, that's where I ended up: The Barbed Rose.

EOW: The Barbed Rose got a lot of acclaim early on. I never made it out but I just remember reading some stuff. So, it must have taken off when you first got out there.

CL: Yeah, it did. It was it was the first high-end place that Alvin has probably ever had. We were just trying to show people other things. It's hard. In Alvin you have all these places that have been there. Like, Joe's Barbecue been there for over 40 or 50 years. It's hard to compete with us those kind of restaurants that have been there forever because the parents grew up eating it and their kids grew up eating it. It's definitely tough.

EOW: It's steeped in tradition.

CL: Oh yeah.

EOW: You guys were the new kid on the block.

CL: Exactly.

EOW: What talked you into going there? What convinced you it was a good idea?

CL: Well, the drive, for sure.

EOW: A short commute, for sure.

CL: Yeah, that was a big one and I don't know what it is about opening restaurants. Someone who enjoys it is probably a sick individual just because it's tough. There's so much stuff you've got to do, but it's fun. That was another thing that really caught my eye. It was another learning experience.

I got to work with another big mentor in Jason Cheney. It was good to reconnect with him, then we hired Matt Lovelace. He worked there for a little bit. We have mutual friends but I never really worked with him. I kept hearing how he was this hard-core, amazing cook and I was excited about that. So, I got to work him a little bit. It was a good time.

EOW: Do you think when you're a chef and you get to be involved with [the] build-out process of a brand new restaurant, do you think it makes it you pretty heavily emotionally invested? Like raising a child, in a way?

CL: Oh yeah. Our one-year anniversary was December 13. It is emotional because in the restaurant business, you see so many people come and go. You just remember all the--this time last year, I had 20 cooks in the kitchen. I'm trying to teach them how to make hollandaise or, you know, random stuff. They're not here any more.

You know, it's awesome. Everyone does this thing where you open up a restaurant, you start working, then you pick out a couple people, like, "These people are going to be awesome" and then, you know, those people that I picked are still here and I'm so thankful because they make my job so much easier.

We've all been together for like a year and a half now. We're just learning from each other. It's really cool.

EOW: What happened at the end of The Barbed Rose?

CL: Of course I knew that they were closing and I wasn't I wasn't a fan of their new concept because I felt like that was--I mean, obviously we want to give people what they want, but as far as The Barbed Rose, it was the same thing. They were still doing construction there. The building was already there but we were still doing some kind of construction.

Everyone always said, "Y'all are expensive. You can't do this, you can't do that. Why don't you have fried catfish?" That's pretty much what the next restaurant was evolved into and that didn't last long. So, I went to Samba Grille and then two weeks later that restaurant closed.

EOW: Oh, you went there right at the end!

CL: Yeah, so I was just shocked. I was just, like, "Man." I didn't want to go back to The Barbed Rose. I don't care how you cook or how you make your money. Everyone has their own standards and their limit of what they will and won't do and that was just one thing that I really didn't want to do.

EOW: That had to have been a really tough time for you. You just left a restaurant that didn't work out and then you go to another one that closes two weeks later.

CL: Luckily, I was only there for two weeks so, you know, it wasn't like I was for two years like I was at The Barbed Rose.

EOW: What happened after that?

CL: I was at Sweetwater Country Club for about a year and it was totally different than what I thought. I never worked in a country club before. Not that I'm knocking country clubs, but it was very demanding because it was in Sugar Land and these people are paying a lot of money and, you know, they want what they want. When people with money want something, they get it. So, that was interesting.

EOW: So, when did you end up here at Number 13?

CL: I got hired a little bit after I left [Sweetwater Country Club] but I did a personal chef thing for one of my friend's old stepdads. I did that for a little bit just for money and I had actually applied with The RK Group [who owns Number 13] about six months before. I interviewed for the catering side of our company and I never got a call back and I was like, "Okay, it is what it is." And then I was doing the personal chef stuff.

I got a phone call from our director personnel and she said, "Hey, we're looking for a sous chef." This is when they started taking over the bistro at Hotel Sorella. I was like, Oh, okay," because I knew [executive chef] Rolando [Soza] when he was at Bistro Alex. So, I'm like, "It might be cool." I've worked in a hotel before in a restaurant.

I interviewed with the vice president, director of personnel and the executive chef over the catering and they're talking to me and they're looking at my resume. They're like, "So, you worked at Killen's [Steakhouse]," and I was like, "Yeah." They asked, "Well, how you like working at steakhouses?" and I said, "Man, I can't get enough. That's pretty much the only place I want to work. That's where I've spent most of my time, really."

He told me, "Well, how would you like working in Galveston?" I was like, "That would be cool. I love the Island." He was like, "Well, we're about to open a super high-end steakhouse. Would you be interested in that?" and I was like, "Oh, yeah, that would be really cool."

They said, "Well, we're not quite ready for you down at 13, so you're going to have to hang out at the bistro." This was when Radio Milano was going to happen last October and everyone knows how that goes.

EOW: Oh, right. (Author's note: historically, the permitting process takes much longer than anyone ever thinks or hopes it will.

CL: So, I was there maybe a month and then finally they were like, "All right, you to start going down to Galveston." That was August of [2013] and I've been here ever since.

EOW: So, you opened in August?

CL: No, we opened in December! There were a lot of setbacks.

EOW: That's typical. Like you said, that story always goes the same way.

CL: Yeah. Luckily, we were still able to prep food and stuff like that. We just couldn't actually be open to the public so that gave us an extra three weeks of training, with the staff, the kitchen and just get familiar with everything. We had to start the dry age room because we [age the beef] 28 to 35 days, so we had to stock it up.

EOW: There really aren't very many steakhouses that actually do a dry aging program.

CL: Not that I know. I think Pappas [Bros. Steakhouse] does and there might be one other one.

EOW: I know other places do a wet age.

CL: We still do a wet age, too, but the dry age thing definitely takes getting used to. It shrinks so much so the butchering is a lot different.

EOW: And I think you have some trimming you have to do.

CL: Yeah, so you lose a lot. The meat shrinks and then you've got to trim all the the dry age off, but it's fun though. It's really cool, because people love it. People either love it or they hate it.

EOW: What was the public reception like when Number 13 opened?

CL: I would say that people were not shocked, but they're like, "Oh, it's this kind of restaurant." We're definitely different than a lot of places in Galveston. I'm not knocking any of them. There are so many different things in Galveston that you can go get. We just wanted to be another option. We didn't want to come in and be better than anyway, because we knew. There are places that have been here for years and years and shut down after a hurricane.

It's hard to compete with stuff like that. I think even today people are still coming in and trying us out. We still get first-time diners all the time, so that's good. We've definitely made changes. I started out as a sous here and then they promoted me at the end of July. So, I've definitely been trying win back people. We're not perfect. I don't think any restaurant is. We're trying to make the people happy. As long as they're talking, we're going to listen. We're trying.

EOW: Where does your meat come from?

CL: We do get some meat from 44 Farms in Cameron and then all of our dry age comes from Meats By Linz in Chicago. It's a good company. We get them once a week and they actually come on an 18-wheeler from Atlanta. The main place is in Chicago and we get our stuff from Atlanta, so that's pretty cool.

We get it once a week, take it out of the wrapper, put it on the shelf. We reorganize it all because you have to know which one's ready or what's not. So, everything gets tagged on the date it came in, then you just add 28 to 35 days and it's ready.

EOW: Is there anything else in particular you'd like people to know about you or about Number 13?

CL: I think Number 13 is definitely a place to come try. I know we're far away from Houston and everything like that, but I'd put our restaurant up with any of the other restaurants. I think we're just as good as some of the best restaurants in Houston, and not just because I'm here, just because of everything. Our staff has gotten so` much better. We're all learning to focus on the details, from the plate, product coming in, cleaning, tables. I mean, just look at this place.

EOW: It's lovely.

CL: You have to have an eye for details, because if you don't, someone's going to call you out on it. The last thing you need is a guest saying, "Hey, my knife's not sharp," or "Can I get some water?" You know, stuff like that.

So, it's definitely worth the drive. We get our seafood pretty much every day from Katie's [Seafood Market in Galveston]. I like to build the relationships with the people in Galveston and with the local people because they are the guys who don't get any credit. I don't need the credit. I don't like being in the spotlight. I'll push that on them every single time.

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