Houston Chef of the Month for April: Ronnie Killen

Ronnie Killen
Ronnie Killen

HOUSTON – Our Houston Chef of the Month for April 2019 is Ronnie Killen, according to Good Taste.

Ronnie Killen began cooking at the age of eight, and he’s never looked back. By age 23, he owned his first restaurant, Killen’s Kountry BBQ, and opened Killen’s Sports Café five years later. However, it was while working part-time at the Brownstone, a fine dining establishment in Houston, that the desire to pursue a career in culinary arts emerged.

In 1997 Killen enrolled in the renowned Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Institute in London, which trained such noted people as Julia Child, Ming Tsai and Martha Stewart. None of these celebrities, however, achieved perfect scores across all of their disciplines as Killen did, ultimately graduating from the prestigious culinary academy first in his class and with the Honor of Distinction.
Since graduating from Le Cordon Bleu, Killen has added numerous accolades to his resume, working at such fine hotels and resorts as The Omni Mandalay in Irving, Texas; Big Cedar Lodge in Ridgedale, Missouri; and The Ritz Carlton in Rancho Mirage, California. 

You can’t keep a native Texan away for long, so in 2003 Killen returned to his roots, accepting the post of executive chef at Brenner’s Steakhouse. During his tenure there, Killen helped the steakhouse achieve the title of “Best Steakhouse” by the Houston Press and Houston Business Journal. Then, in February 2005, Killen received the opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to be The White House Executive Chef. He was chosen as a finalist and ultimately was invited to interview for the title of Assistant Executive Chef. He still considers this honor to be one of the highlights of his illustrious culinary career. 
2005 proved to be a banner year for Killen, who was also named Certified Executive Chef by the American Culinary Federation, an honor held by only about 1,200 chefs across the country. He completed all of his examinations for that title in just five months, a whirlwind feat compared to the typical year or more of preparation.

Killen’s love of fine dining brought him even closer to home as he opened the acclaimed Killen’s Steakhouse in his hometown of Pearland, Texas in 2006. Since its inception, the restaurant has gained numerous awards and achieved resounding praise. Accolades include being named among “Top 10 Best Steakhouses in the U.S.” by Travel & Leisure, “Best Steaks in the U.S.” by Food & Wine, “Top 10 Steakhouses in the U.S.” by Gayot, “Best Steakhouses in Texas” by Texas Monthly and as “Best Steakhouse in Houston” by Houston Chronicle and Houston Press, among others. Additionally, the restaurant was named “Top 100 Restaurants for Best Service” by OpenTable.com and Killen’s signature dessert, Crème Brûlée Bread Pudding, was named one of the “Top Ten Dishes in the U.S.” by Food & Wine in 2008. “America’s 50 Best Steakhouses 2015” in The Daily Meal named Killen’s #13 and Zagat named the Jumbo Lump Crabcake at Killen’s Steakhouse #1 of the “10 Best Things We Ate in Houston in 2015”. Alison Cook’s Top 100 Restaurants 2015 list named Killen’s Steakhouse #14 in the Houston Chronicle. The Houston Press Best Of issue named Killen’s the “Best Steakhouse in 2015”. It was fitting that Ronnie Killen was named “Restaurateur of the Year 2015” at the My Table Magazine Culinary Awards in October 2015 after being named its “Chef of the Year” the year before. 

In 2014 Killen came full circle, returning to barbecue once again to open the much buzzed-about Killen’s Barbecue in Pearland, located in a former school cafeteria and a stone’s throw from the high school in which he graduated. For the year leading up to its opening, Killen hosted barbecue pop-ups every weekend, first at the steakhouse, and then on the grounds of his future barbecue joint. During that time, he perfected the art of smoking meats Central Texas style, sourcing top quality cuts rubbed with salt and pepper and cooked over indirect heat using local wood. Word spread quickly, and patrons queued up for Killen’s brisket, pork ribs, turkey, housemade sausage, and giant, succulent beef ribs.

Killen’s tremendous dedication to his craft paid off with Killen’s BBQ receiving a rare four-star review from Houston Chronicle Restaurant Critic Alison Cook, along with a 4.75 ranking (out of 5) by Texas Monthly Barbecue Editor Daniel Vaughn, placing it among the top five barbecue restaurants in Texas. The restaurant has also been named one of GQ’s “25 Most Outstanding Restaurants of 2015” (#10), ranked #2 Best BBQ in America by Food Network, ranked #4 in Alison Cook's Top 100 Restaurants 2015, received “Best Ribs” in 2015 by Houston Press, and was included among “The 16 Hottest Barbecue Restaurants in the U.S.” by Eater National, “Best New Restaurant 2014” by CultureMap, “24 Most Important Barbecue Restaurants in Texas” by Zagat and “Top 10 Restaurant Stories of 2013” by the Houston Chronicle.

Since then, the chef has far from sat on his laurels—in fact, in November 2015 he reopened Killen’s Steakhouse in a new location just down the road and with four times the space of its original location, only to begin work on leveling the original steakhouse to build a long-awaited burger joint, Killen’s Burgers, in its footprint. With a retro diner vibe and straightforward, expertly crafted burgers, fries and milkshakes, the restaurant has seen lines out the door since its grand opening in May 2016. It earned a spot on Texas Monthly’s list of the “50 Best Burgers in Texas”, along with numerous other accolades.
As if propelled by some otherworldly force, in addition to adding two Killen’s Barbecue outposts to NRG Stadium to much fanfare, the restaurateur expanded his culinary empire to Houston proper, where he has opened his fourth restaurant—the third in a year—Killen’s STQ. Named to denote the focus, which will blend live-fire steakhouse cooking with barbecue techniques, Killen’s STQ is the chef’s most personal concept yet. The menu is inspired by dishes Killen has developed and served at culinary competitions over the years—those bites and preparations that have earned him wins at such events as 2016’s Go Wagyu and Taste of the Texans, as well as the cuisine Killen served at his “Art of Smoke” dinner at the famed James Beard House in New York City in 2012. Amid the rustic elegance of the 60-seat, open-kitchen space, Houston area fans finally get to enjoy Ronnie Killen’s elevated comfort food in their own backyard.

Click here for a recipe of Chef Killen's BBQ warm potato salad.