Chef Chat, Part 1: Ronnie Killen, a Shy, Silent and Determined Chef with Symphonic Food
2804 South Main St., Pearland
Pearland, 20 miles south of Houston, is a place many call the land of pears but it actually has more history as the land of rice. Pearland used to be mostly rice paddies, but it is now the most demographically diverse city in the state. It also has more Mexican restaurants per capita than any other city. But Pearland has a hidden treasure -- Ronnie Killen and Killen's Steakhouse. Chef Ronnie Killen was raised there and continues to call it home. What people don't know about Ronnie, his restaurant and his pedigree would blow their Texas boots off.
Chef Killen is painfully shy in a group, but if you get him by himself, he will talk your ear off with the passion and enthusiasm of a young chef just starting out...except Ronnie has been at this for 30-plus years. The cooking bug bit him at age eight and has been under his skin ever since. I sat down with Ronnie the day after a wine pairing dinner he hosted and we talked about his life now and his future.
EOW: So how did the wine dinner go last night?
Ronnie: I think pretty well. I didn't like talking to the group, introducing the dishes, but I enjoyed going from table to table and talking one on one. Everyone seemed happy, and I think the wines paired really well.
EOW: Do you cook at home, and what do you eat now that you have lost over 200 pounds?
Ronnie: I do cook at home. I enjoy it and because I am not here every night. I'm around to cook at home. I cook healthy food, but I can pretty much eat anything I want, because I know I will burn it off. It's no longer if I am going to the gym, but when I am going to the gym. It's my way of life now.
EOW: Where do you eat out in Pearland?
Ronnie: I enjoy a local Vietnamese place, Thanh Phuong, our local barbecue, Central Texas (I love their brisket and turkey), and some chains. I go to Thai Spice, Salad Express or Chipotle. The only fast food I eat is Whataburger or Chick-fil-A, and I have a real weakness for Shipley's. There's just something about those donuts! Food is exciting to me -- from a fancy meal to a donut, it's all an endorphin rush.
EOW: What food luxuries do you splurge on? And non-food luxuries?
Ronnie: There is no limitation on food, it's my inspiration. I am fortunate enough, now, that I can go where I want, when I want. As for non-food, well, that's easy, my Camaro. (Ronnie's eyes light up.) She's three years old with 4,000 miles. She sits in the garage and looks fast. I love her, and I swear if she had female parts, I wouldn't need anything else. (He grins coyly.)
EOW: Do you use molecular gastronomy?
Ronnie: I think too many people use it just to say they use it. That's wrong. It does have its place, though, if given the right application. For instance, when I went to The French Laundry, I was expecting to be wowed. If it had just lived up to its hype, it was going to be an amazing meal. I had read the cookbook ahead of time so I was all primed for this meal. Sadly, I got dishes straight from the cookbook. Don't get me wrong, they were great dishes, but nothing had changed or grown from the cookbook. The lobster was done perfectly and I was most impressed with and remember the raspberry sorbet. Just because you can use molecular gastronomy doesn't mean you should. The meal I had the next night at Meadowood was what I was envisioning having at The French Laundry. It was impressive and memorable. The molecular gastronomy enhanced the meal; it was not the star of the meal.
EOW: As a chef, do you aim for a Michelin Star or do you just cook your food?
Ronnie: Honestly, it's not even on my radar. It would absolutely be an honor and of course I believe we deserve to be recognized, but no, I don't aim specifically for that.
EOW: When you walk in a restaurant, what is your test of how good they are going to be?
Ronnie: I'm a first-impact guy. I start my impression with the host. Then I want a great glass of water, good bread with spreadable butter. Nothing bugs me more than cold butter that doesn't spread. I've been accused of using margarine, but because I pay attention to the butter at other places, mine had to be great. We take real butter, whip it and then pipe it onto small serving spoons. It is real butter that is spreadable and delicious. Lastly, being from the South, the iced tea has to be done right. Nothing is worse than a bad glass of tea.
Tomorrow you will hear about Ronnie's food memories, teachers and mentors and how he got such a heightened palate.
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