Chef Chat, Part 2: Joe Cervantez of Killen's Steakhouse

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After four-and-a-half years at Brennan's of Houston, Joe Cervantez made a bold move, accepting an executive chef position at Killen's Steakhouse in Pearland.

Yesterday in Part 1 of our Chef Chat, we talked with him about his very early start in restaurants and what it was like to work in a hotel. In Part 2 we'll find out how that came about, his seasonal focus and one of the advantages of being in Pearland. Also, and perhaps most importantly, we'll discover how he plans to incorporate the seasonal, produce-driven perspective he learned at Brennan's into Killen's popular, meat-centric menu.

EOW: How did you end up coming to Killen's as an executive chef?

JC: I got a phone call one day. I wasn't looking for a job or looking to go anywhere. I was happy learning and continuing to build Brennan's up. I'd just come back from vacation and on my first day back, I get a text message from Ronnie Killen. It said, "Hey, call me when you get a chance." I'm thinking he needed a reservation for somebody, so I called him back and said, "Hey, how are you? What's going on?" He said, "Hey, how are you? I don't know if you've heard, but I have an executive chef position available. I've heard a lot of good things about you. I know you've been at Brennan's for quite some time. You're the man I want to come over and be executive chef. We can sit down and talk about this position I'm offering you." I said, "Absolutely," so we set up a date and time.

I had a lot of things racing in my head. I have a family and a mortgage. For me to go anywhere is a big step but there were way more pros than cons. He interviewed me and it went really well. We talked for two hours and probably would have talked longer if I hadn't have had to leave to go to work.

I had to let the guys [at Brennan's] know, which is probably the hardest part. It's almost like breaking up with a girlfriend.

EOW: It's like the Brennan's family.

JC: Yeah, I'd been with this great family for so long and had to let them know I was leaving them. My chef was a little hurt, but he was happy that I was leaving for an executive position and not another sous chef position somewhere else.

EOW: I've heard that Brennan's likes a legacy, so moving up is okay.

JC: Yeah, if you're moving up, it is. If you're not, it's like, "What's wrong?" or "Are we not teaching you enough?" So, since I was leaving to be an executive chef, they were happy for me.

[Danny Trace] asked me if I could give them a month so they could bring someone else in and I could work with them. I had so much responsibility there I didn't want to leave them cold. So, I gave them a month's notice. They hire from within there, so I worked with a chef who was a lead cook. I didn't check out. I left them the way I'd want to be left if I were in their shoes.

EOW: Ronnie Killen, of course, is a larger-than-life figure around here. This is a steakhouse with his name on it and he's strongly identified with it. What was it like stepping into those shoes?

JC: It was and still is a lot of pressure to maintain the quality and the name. If we had a bad night, of course it's going to be me. Yes, it's Ronnie Killen's name, but I'm the new chef. If something is slightly off, I'm going to be the one that takes some heat from it. So, it's a lot of pressure. I knew that coming in so that's why I want to do to the best of my ability to work with the guys on the line and implement--well, you know, his steaks are the best around. So, I want to implement more dishes that are not steaks: seafoods, appetizers and kind of lean towards that way and make it an even better establishment.

Coming from Brennan's, we did great seafood, so I want to implement more along those lines. I'm glad to be working for Ronnie. Like you said, he's big and he's got a lot of buzz going on, so what's not to love about that?

EOW: I haven't seen the kitchen here, but I have to assume it's smaller than the kitchen at Brennan's.

JC: Just a little. (laughs)

EOW: What was it like transitioning from the Brennan's kitchen to a normal kitchen?

JC: We've got the same stoves and ovens. The workspace was a little challenging. You've got to think about where you're going to move and where you're going to work. You have to be well-organized in this kitchen. They do big numbers here and it's a well-oiled, organized machine so it just takes a little getting used to. You have to adapt.

EOW: Not to offend you, but you look young. How old are you?

JC: I'm 27 years old.

EOW: So, you are young!

JC: Yes, but I've had a management role since I was 19.

EOW: Yeah, you've been in the industry for 11 years now. You started at 16.

JC: Yeah, at Skyline, I was a sous chef at 19 years old.

EOW: That is amazing. What are some of the differences you've noticed in the clientele at Brennan's versus the clientele in Pearland?

JC: Although [Killen's] is an upscale restaurant, it's more casual. You see people come in jeans. It's comfortable for everybody. I'm not saying Brennan's isn't casual, but you are required to have a dress code. People just dress differently.

EOW: This is definitely further out in what I'd call "the country." I grew up as a country girl and recognize that.

JC: I wouldn't want to stereotype my clientele as "country," but it is. (smiles) Not one hundred percent but we are in the country. It's a steakhouse and we love our meat and potatoes over here.

EOW: Absolutely. Is the menu the same since you started?

JC: I've changed a few things on the menu already. I've added a stuffed flounder dish [with blue crab and spinach stuffing, roasted red pepper smashed potatoes with Absinthe and roasted fennel cream]. I've added an oyster bread pudding dish and a venison chop dish. The reason why was, one, to liven up the menu as far as local produce. Froberg's Farm down the street from my house in Alvin, so it helps me create my menus based on what they are growing.

I introduce these new dishes also to help me prepared for this wine dinner. (Author's note: this interview was held after a dinner held in conjunction with Massolino, an Italian winery.) I was able to practice platings and see what guests like. So, I killed two birds with one stone: [prepared for the] wine dinner and added something on the menu.

EOW: So, in a way you have an advantage in being here because you are close to produce farms. You don't have to have someone truck your stuff to your restaurant. You can just go down the road.

JC: Absolutely. Like this morning, Moondog Farm in Santa Fe called me two days ago and said, "Hey, I have some produce left over from the farmer's market. Do you want to meet up?" So, we meet up at the Home Depot, put it in my truck and I bring it to work. Then I drove to Froberg's, called Alfred up and asked, "What do you have growing in two weeks?" and he said, "I've got some Satsumas. We're going to have kumquats, Meyer lemons and cabbage."

So, then I'll start writing my menu and planning dishes based on the availability of produce.

EOW: And you get to build relationships with the community here. Do you have anything to do with Killen's Barbeque?

JC: I don't, not yet. Once I get the gears running here [at the steakhouse], of course I want to go there, play around with Ronnie and pick his brain [on barbeque] a little bit.

EOW: We all do. 'How long do you smoke it?'

JC: How long do you smoke it? You marinating it?

EOW: What's that temperature again? 225?

JC: I mean, why not, you know? Ronnie's very talented so why not absorb everything I can get from him and help him out? I'm actually going to do this pop-up in Austin with him. (Note: Ronnie Killen had a pop-up at Foreign and Domestic in Austin this past Monday that featured his barbeque.)

EOW: What's something important that your experience and skill set brings to the table here?

JC: When creating a dish, I think about seasonality. I think about plating. I think about color and texture. Killen's is great for its steaks and sides, but I want to put some more pizazz and wow to the other dishes. Great presentations. That's what I want to bring to the table.

EOW: Is there anything else you would like for people to know about you or Killen's Steakhouse?

JC: We have a lot of regulars that come to Killen's and I want to give them new things to try. Customers have come here and asked if we're going to add new sides and other dishes. So, that's my goal, to change the menu seasonally. That's what we did at Brennan's, I'm already used to that and I just want to bring good quality. I want to try and modernize and evolve some of the dishes we do here and bring them to the next level.

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