Chef Johnny Hernandez is an award-winning, celebrated chef and entrepreneur. A recognized authority on Mexican cuisine, Hernandez operates a catering company, nonprofit foundation, and several restaurants in his hometown of San Antonio. Growing up on the city’s west side, Hernandez got started in the culinary scene as a young boy, working in his family’s restaurant. His passion for food eventually led him to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in New York where he received his formal education. While his roots are in Tex-Mex cuisine, Hernandez traveled throughout Mexico and was inspired to showcase the country’s rich culture and flavors in San Antonio.
During Hispanic Heritage Month, Hernandez shares a bit of his story, some of his inspirations, and cooking tips. Additionally, in a virtual H-E-B cooking class, he shows us a unique twist on one of his favorite Mexican dishes – mole. See the full-length virtual cooking class below.
What inspired you to get into cooking and become a chef?
The family business. That was my introduction into food, working alongside my dad for many years as a kid. That’s what sent me on my path. The restaurant was called Johnny’s Cafeteria. It was one of the first cafes in the neighborhood, on San Antonio’s west side.
What were some of the first dishes you learned to make?
Well, the first thing I remember learning how to make was a flour tortilla. I was a kid standing on a milk crate, sticking my hands in the flour, the manteca (lard), the warm water to mix the dough. I’d get all into it. We made the thicker version. They were the fluffy, powdery ones, for sure.
Cooking in the kitchen with family is a good place to learn life lessons. Do you remember any words of wisdom from your time cooking with your family?
My dad would always give me advice on how to choose my friends, who you hang out with. He’d tell us, “Dime con quién estás y te diré quién eres.” (Tell me who you are with, and I will tell you who you are.) That was one of his dichos (sayings). He also taught us to give from what you have. He was involved with the church community and he was always taking care of the homeless and feeding the kids who lived on the streets in our neighborhood. He was always trying to help improve their lives.
How has your dad’s commitment to community inspired you to give back?
Right now, I’m focused on education. We have our family foundation, Kitchen Campus. The foundation has worked through the Paella Challenge in San Antonio for 12 years, and H-E-B has been a big sponsor of that from the very beginning. Through that project, I try to think of ways to influence and change the lives of young people, to get them to consider our field as a career, not just a job. We also have an initiative focused on helping small businesses, and I’m working to create a culinary apprenticeship program.
At H-E-B our Be the Change initiative is focused on amplifying diverse voices and advancing equity and inclusion within our communities. What does Be the Change mean to you?
My goal is always to help those who struggle the most. That’s the way I grew up. That’s how I was taught by my dad. We have to respect one another. That’s the culture we have to demonstrate and nurture. And that allows people to thrive, no matter who you are. We need a culture of respect where everyone is equal.
Hispanic Heritage month gives us an opportunity to experience the culture, and a good way to do that is through food. How are you telling the story of your culture through food?
I grew up knowing Tex-Mex food. My dad’s family were Norteños from Mexico. We’d go visit but never went too far into the country. Eventually, I traveled to the interior of Mexico with my mom on missionary outreach. I would volunteer and go cook at camps for youth. It was then that I really got to know what the interior of Mexico was, its culture, traditions, and food, and I wanted to bring that to San Antonio. It blew my mind how rich it was and how diverse it was, and how layered it was in freshness, texture, and seasonality. As a Tejano, I want my food to express the flavors of my Mexican culture and heritage.
During this time of year, which dishes do you feel convey that expression?
We’re focusing on Chiles en Nogada (stuffed poblano pepper in a creamy walnut sauce), a celebratory dish and iconic dish of Puebla. And I love a good mole. Right now we’re doing a mole with pistachio and piña (pineapple). Mole is a pre-Hispanic sauce and this is one of our versions. Making mole is not one of the easiest dishes to prepare, but it’s one of those iconic sauces.
Some of these dishes can be elaborate and a little intimidating to make. As a chef, any words of advice for home cooks?
Always use fresh ingredients. Don’t be afraid to mess up. You have to be patient. Take what you already know and feel comfortable building on that. That’s a good way to evolve as a home cook.