(Photo courtesy Christine Le)

Chef Spotlight: Johnny Hernandez

Chef Johnny Hernandez, owner of San Antonio’s Mexican street food hotspot La Gloria Ice House and catering company True Flavors, is everywhere these days. With appearances on Bravo’s Top Chef under his belt, Hernandez also hosts cooking workshops for the Culinary Institute of America (he’s a proud alumni), mentors aspiring young chefs and consults on new culinary products. In between gigs, the talented chef and third generation Mexican-American spoke to NBC Latino about his love for backyard grilling, his must-have kitchen staple (hint: it’s spicy!) and how he’s teaching Americanos to read a menu in Spanish.

NBC Latino: How did your family and culture influence your love of cooking?

JH: I grew up in the restaurant business. My father had a small Mexican restaurant that was right next to a mom and pop place where they made fresh corn tortillas. The first thing I learned how to make when I was extremely young was flour tortillas. I also learned how to make carne guisada, puerco verde and something really popular in San Antonio: breakfast tacos. As a boy, I would stand on a milk crate in the restaurant scrambling eggs with chorizo, tomatoes and onions. I spent all my time before and after school at the restaurant. As a 3rd generation Mexican, I really identify with those flavors of my childhood. My grandparents on my father’s side grew up in and around San Antonio. My mother’s side and grandmother came from Mexico. So I identify with Tex-Mex just as much as Mexico.

NBC Latino: What’s your go-to dish to make at home?

JH: I don’t have the chance to cook at home very often, but when I do, I cook freestyle – I never plan a menu in advance. I go to the farmers market, and pick out beautiful produce and then get pork or veal, or a fresh fish.  And I love Mexican food best at home, when it’s done on the grill outside. I have a grill in my patio and when I fire that up, it’s usually to make pollo asado, carne asada or cabrito, which I’ll serve with homemade salsa or mole. And whenever I cook, it’s for a group, never just for me. Food is for families!

NBC Latino: What has been your biggest challenge in bringing classic Mexican street food to American diners at La Gloria Ice House?

JH: The first challenge was to write a menu in Spanish. I felt I had to so people could understand the restaurant. I didn’t give in about that, and wrote a glossary on the back of the menu as a translation. It was a way to set a precedent and say “we are a Mexican restaurant and want to immerse you in the culture as much as we can.”  Also, we serve a lot of simple things that people identify with like quesadillas, tacos and ceviches. But once you have the quesadillas, you realize it’s a little different: the ingredients and techniques stand out. Mexican food has a lot of depth and a huge amount of variety with its flavors, textures and techniques across the country and regions. Timing is critical and in San Antonio, and really, across the country, people are ready to learn what Mexican really food is.

NBC Latino: What are a few staples home cooks should keep around for use in Mexican cooking?

JH: For me, the ultimate staple is something as simple as an adobo. An adobo is Mexico’s pesto. You make it by dry roasting chiles on a comal or skillet, soaking them in a little bit of water to make them pliable, and then pureeing them with toasted cumin, garlic, salt and pepper. This makes an adobo that can be rubbed onto whatever meat or vegetable you’d like. Think of it as a blend of spices you create that’s unlike any other.

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