Chef Chat Part 2: Ronnie Killen -- He's Just a Big, Sensitive Guy
2804 South Main, Pearland
As I talked more with Chef Ronnie Killen, a picture emerged of a man who is humble, soft-spoken and sensitive, with high integrity. He is also intensely competitive. We talked about his leadership style and how he believes yelling doesn't motivate people. Ronnie has a fiercely loyal staff at Killen's Steakhouse, and he treats them well.
We talked about his early years in the business and his childhood growing up with his Aunt Margie and Grandmother Millie. They helped form the man and chef he is today. His eyes get a little misty when he talks about the life-changing accident his son had and its effect on both of them. I spent a fascinating afternoon with Chef Killen and learned he is quite a paradox and very gifted when it comes to all things food-related.
EOW: What is your most memorable food experience?
Ronnie: Fried chicken at my Grandmother Millie's at Easter. I remember it like it was yesterday. The chicken was put in a paper bag with flour, salt and pepper and shaken. She then had rendered pork fat in a cast iron skillet. She got it crisped and then finished it in the oven. Grandmother served mashed potatoes with a kind of brown, velouté gravy. Not a cream gravy, but man, it was delicious. Then she had fresh green beans from the garden and corn off the cob with simply butter, salt and pepper. I remember watching her kill the chicken the day before. (I asked if that traumatized him as a kid.) I was always seeing chickens run around with their heads cut off, and then they were just gone. I never put it together that it was the same chicken I ate the next day.
EOW: How did your son's accident affect you?
Ronnie: He inspired me to lose weight and save my own life. My son was stepped on by a horse and was on a feeding tube for over four months. I refused to eat in front of him so I would send my wife and daughter away to eat and I would stay with Cameron and drink a protein shake. My son was only six years old, and his accident made me realize that we really aren't guaranteed tomorrow and it showed me the reality of finality. I wanted to get healthy and be there for him and my daughter. The stress I was under at the time also added to my weight loss, but I learned exercise was a great stress reliever and that healthy options are out there, and I can make them taste really good.
EOW: While you were at the hospital, how did you take care of the restaurant on top of all that was happening?
Ronnie: I have a great team. They are very loyal, and they know my expectations. I have a book of my standardized recipes, and they know how I want things executed. I also make them very happy. If you work for me 20 hours or more, you get full benefits, and I pay 70 percent of those benefits. I don't know anybody else in this industry doing that. I treat my people well, and they treat me well. We are a family here. I don't yell. It doesn't motivate people to step out. I give my team a creative path. I want my guys to surpass me. I want to make them better than me. My main chef was a dishwasher here. If I asked these guys to go lay in the middle of the street, they would. They would think I was stupid, but they would do it. I don't take that loyalty lightly, and I depend on it.
EOW: Who are your food mentors and teachers?
Ronnie: My Aunt Margie and Grandmother Millie. I never had famous chefs or anybody like that. I never got to work with them because I was overweight. I had the talent, would apply, almost be hired and then HR would meet me and suddenly I didn't get the offer. I was too much of a risk. People assumed because of my weight that I was lazy, was going to complain and was a health risk. I know for sure I didn't get jobs at the Ritz-Carlton and The Four Seasons because of my weight.
EOW: So with no professional mentors/teachers, how did you get to where you are today?
Ronnie: Well, I learned how to barbecue from my dad, and I learned all the home cooking from my aunt and grandmother. I owned my first restaurant, Killen's Kountry BBQ, when I was 23, and then five years later I had Killen's Sports Café. I decided in 1997 that I wanted to go to culinary school and enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in France. I didn't speak French and although I had a translator, I felt like I was missing a lot. I transferred to Le Cordon Bleu in London and was much happier. I went to class six days a week for 13 hours a day. There were only eight of us in the class. I went to school with a purpose. I was going to learn everything I could and pick everyone's brain. I graduated with the highest GPA in the history of Le Cordon Bleu. Julia Child, Martha Stewart and Ming Tsai went to this school, but none of them had perfect scores in every discipline like me. My pastry chef, who made Princess Diana's wedding cake, told me that I should be a pastry chef. I have an innate understanding of the science behind pastry cooking. The rations, measurements and specifics of pastry come very easy to me. I told her that while it may be intuitive in me, it is not in my heart. Savory cuisine is what is in my heart and is my passion. I am also proud that because of my distinction at Le Cordon Bleu in London, I was instrumental in bringing Le Cordon Bleu to Austin. I was able to get The Texas Culinary Academy to be taken over by Le Cordon Bleu. I am very proud we have them in Texas now.
EOW: When did you learn you had such a heightened palate?
Ronnie: I've been cooking since I was eight years old with my grandmother and aunt, and I've always had a great sense of smell. Even in high school I could duplicate restaurant dishes and then in Le Cordon Bleu, I really developed my sense of smell and palate through wine tastings. My grandmother also taught me to cook from the heart. It is important that the people you care about are enjoying the food you put so much passion into. I learned very early on that if I wanted a girl, I knew to cook from them. Cooking comes from the heart, and girls love that.
EOW: You recently celebrated your six-year anniversary at Killen's Steakhouse. Why do you think you have lasted this long?
Ronnie: The first six to eight months were very tough. I told my staff that if they just trust me that this restaurant will be a success. I knew if I stuck to my gut, worked hard and treated my team well, then I could succeed. I'm not scared of change, and I don't believe in resting on my laurels. I always want to grow and get better and allow my team to grow and get better.
Tomorrow we will hear Chef Killen's plans for his future and the future of Killen's Steakhouse. We will also talk about what his last meal would be and his dreams for himself.
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