When it comes to "bests" in Houston, Ronnie Killen comes to mind. The Pearland-based chef operates on all cylinders with Killen's Steakhouse, Killen's Barbecue, Killen's Burger, and now in Houston, Killen's STQ. Since opening his steakhouse in 2006, he and his restaurants have received copious awards and landed on several "top" lists from national publications — Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, Texas Monthly to name a few. Team Killen's regularly places high if not straight out crushes in cooking competitions. In fact, just last week at the 2018 Rodeo Uncorked! and Best Bites Competition they took home three first place awards.
Killen is detailed in the process and execution of his product, but most importantly, he knows who his audience is and how to cook for them. Note, he finished the top of his class at Le Cordon Bleu in London.
We've all felt that special anticipation upon locking down plans to visit one of Killen's establishments. The mere whisper of, Killen's Barbecue, elicits smiles and twinkling eyes. I'm confident if we were to sit down all of the world leaders and feed them racks of Killen's ribs we just might get more accomplished.
Because I knew I was interviewing Ronnie Killen the next day, my doctor recommended I stop eating solid foods by 10 p.m. the day before since my plan was to hit Killen's Burger and Killen's Barbecue all in one afternoon, and then probably never need to eat again.
Settled at a made-to-feel-old-timey diner table in the middle of Killen's Burgers I looked up at the sound of a loud muffler as Killen pulled into the parking lot in his lifted white F-250. Time was of the essence as he was in the middle of preparations for The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo World Championship Bar-B-Que contest that would take place the next day…
HP: Congratulations on your recent James Beard nomination! It seems like the final feather in your cap that is overflowing with feathers…
RK: I was expecting something last year and was kind of disappointed that we weren't [nominated], not that, that defines who you are, but I just thought for sure, with the opening of [Killen's STQ] and the way everything was going it was going to happen. This year I wasn't really [expecting] it and got the nod. I'm happy. I tell my staff we're in the division one playoffs. To be in the finals would be really good, to go to Chicago, that would be excellent.
HP: Had you not become the most powerful steak and barbecue warlord in the United States, what other passion would you have pursued?
RK: Ah, warlord, that's funny, (laughs.) I don't know? I mean, there was never really anything other than cooking that I thought I would do. It's just something I've been doing since I was a little kid. Honestly, I don't know.
HP: I read that you started cooking when you were eight years old. Where was that?
RK: In my mom's kitchen, in my grandmothers' kitchen, my aunt's kitchen. I always wanted to be involved in cooking because I hated washing dishes and if I cooked I didn't have to wash dishes. I just remember my grandmother cooking [for] two or three hours and the passion, the love, the care that she put into her food, and how good it tasted. It was always a treat to eat her food. (Pauses) It's always been cooking.
HP: You've built a strong team around you, what is your leadership style?
RK: Well, first of all, I don't micromanage. I treat people like I [want] to be treated. I don't really have a style, it's just me. I'm not going to yell. I get my point across, but I don't beat you with numbers or anything. (laughs) I don't know, you need to ask Graham (Laborde) my style. Once we get people to work for our team they very seldom leave.
I used to work with Gordon Ramsay and he was a yeller and a screamer. He would keep people from going outside of their box. I think, you can never get the most out of somebody if they're scared of having their head chopped off. My guys know when I'm serious, when we need to tighten up.
HP: Have you ever pulled an all-nighter cooking barbecue?
RK: Oh of course, I'm getting ready to pull one this Friday. That's what we do. My last time was two weeks ago at the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo cook-off.
HP: How'd that go?
RK: When I went there (pauses)… a lot of people want to know, did you win? I don't really go there to get [the] judges approval, if that makes sense. I cook for myself because I want to know if I'm tender, how it's tasting. I go and cook [there] as a tune-up for Houston.
HP: Tomorrow, you compete at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo World Championship Bar-B-Que, how are barbecue competitions different from restaurant competitions?
RK: It's not the same at all. Restaurant food [on your] plate is typically half a pound. Eating half a pound of competition meat would be almost impossible because one, it's very rich, and two, it's very salty. One bite is all you'd want to eat. In competition, in that one bite, you have to wake up the palate to get them to understand "whoa, this is good."
HP: It makes sense, you've got one shot to impress the judges…
RK: Yeah, you're doing everything to wake up the palate. I call 'everything,' balanced food. It's got to smell good, it's got to look good, those are judging points. It has to be tender, if it's rib it has to be sweet. Everything has to work together [and be balanced.] I mean that's food. In competition cooking it has to be a little bit more overdone in a way. When I go to [cooking competitions] my expectations, and I know it sounds cocky, is, I'm bringing my A-game, and I'm not going there to practice.
HP: What kind of wood do you barbecue with?
RK: We use post oak, we use a lot of pecan, as far as barbecue we use things that are not overpowering. Mesquite is very overpowering, but I like to use it to grill chicken or steaks because it creates coals faster. We use a lot of mesquite at [Killen's] steakhouse and STQ, and pecan, oak and a little bit of hickory at our barbecue places. Because with barbecue, when you cook for the general public, you have to [use wood] that's neutral. We like post oak because it isn't harsh, you aren't going to be reminded of it all day.
HP: When hardship hits, what life preserver do you reach for?
RK: Well, it was my dad. My dad was always that person that kept me grounded. There's times that [I] really miss him and stuff, especially with the cook-off this weekend. [I'm doing it] for my dad.
I won the Gonzales Go Texan deal, because that's where he's from. He's cooked in that cook-off since the second year [it started], but he's never cooked under his own name. He [was always] the helper. So, I signed up with his team name and won. This year's cook-off is very special to me because I'm representing my dad's team name and the only goal is to win.
HP: What's his team name?
RK: It's J.K. Cookers for his initials, Jerry Killen.
HP: You're racing to a cooking competition, late, but you're prepped and know that your dish is fire, what song are you blasting?
RK: Ah. Maybe Frank Sinatra? (laughs.)
HP: I like that…
RK: Some Frank Sinatra… New York, New York [or] My Kind of Town… stuff that's relaxing. With cook-offs I know my product is good, I'm always calm and relaxed.
HP: If Pearland could be transported to a tropical island or the base of a stunning mountain range, which would you prefer?
RK: Huh. It's funny because I'm actually going to Switzerland after the Rodeo to ski the Swiss Alps. So, I'm looking forward to that. I don't know, I've been to St. John, St. Thomas, I love those [places.] That's a hard question because I love to snow ski, I love Vail, Europe…
HP: All the good places…
RK: I have a really strong bond with London. London is very dear to me because I think [living there is what] made me who I am. Even though I don't practice a lot of what I learned [at Le Cordon Bleu], it's helped me to understand food better. You think of an artist having eight colors to work with and then going to culinary school…it gives you100 colors to work with. You evolve into [someone] that has a better understanding.
HP: You graduated first in your class at the Le Cordon Bleu London, didn't you?
RK: Uh huh.
HP: How'd you do that?
RK: I had the highest GPA the London school had ever had. You know, the thing is I don't look at it like being anything special. Before I went to cooking school, I owned three restaurants. I knew the basics.
HP: If you were a rodeo carny, which part of the rodeo would you work?
RK: Umm (pauses), probably, in the bull riding area.
RK: It's funny. When I went through a divorce [I] was just sort of [in] self-destruct mode…I started riding bulls. I did it because I was on a mission (pauses) and very few people know this about me, but I remember this one bull I drew. I was getting ready putting on my rigging and they go, "Oh, you're on a different bull, your bull is over here." So, I went behind the chutes and walked down to get to [my] bull.
[When] I got there I looked up at this bull, and I'm like going, "what the eff am I thinking." If I [were to] fall off this bull and it were standing still it would hurt, much less it trying to throw me off. That was the last time I rode.
HP: Did he throw you off?
RK: He did throw me off.
HP: How long did you last?
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RK: Not very long, because I didn't want to be on it anymore. A lot times when you're around the bull, you're above, you don't really realize how big they are. But when you're walking on the ground level and its back is eight feet high. I'm like going, "I'm done."
HP: How did you get off the bull, did you just jump and land on your feet?
RK: Oh yeah, I didn't land on my feet, but I launched myself off and away because I didn't want to get stepped on. When you're riding it happens so fast. Eight seconds on the back of a bull is a long time. You're basically trying to figure out what it's doing and how to react. I remember I got off so fast that I cut the bull with my spurs. I saw it in slow motion as I [was] going off.