How Johnny Hernandez Became San Antonio’s Top Chef

For this small-business owner, it all started in his dad’s kitchen.

Chef Johnny Hernandez outside his first restaurant, La Gloria, in San Antonio, Texas.
National Journal
Sophie Quinton
June 30, 2014, 8:52 a.m.

This pro­file is part of a weeklong Next Amer­ica series on the ex­per­i­ences of minor­ity small-busi­ness own­ers in the United States.

When Johnny Hernan­dez was a little boy, he used to help out in his dad’s kit­chen. Stand­ing on milk crates to bring him level with the coun­ter­tops, Hernan­dez would chop in­gredi­ents, make tor­til­las, and stir bub­bling pots. His par­ents owned a neigh­bor­hood eat­ery in San Ant­o­nio that spe­cial­ized in South Texas com­fort food: meatloaf, mashed pota­toes, chick­en-fried steak, carne as­ada. When the three Hernan­dez chil­dren wer­en’t in school, they were in the res­taur­ant, work­ing.

“I loved it,” Hernan­dez says. Now 45, he’s one of San Ant­o­nio’s most fam­ous chefs. Hernan­dez has an easy chuckle, a round face, tre­mend­ous per­son­al warmth—and a pas­sion for food. Oc­ca­sion­ally, he told Saveur, he likes to stuff a cow’s head with thyme, wrap it in ba­nana leaves, and roast it in a pit in his back­yard.

To un­der­stand how Johnny Hernan­dez Jr. came to preside over an em­pire of nine res­taur­ants, a ca­ter­ing com­pany, an event ven­ue, and a con­tract at the San Ant­o­nio con­ven­tion cen­ter—with more ven­tures on the way—you have to un­der­stand Johnny Hernan­dez Sr. and his small res­taur­ant. You also have to real­ize that al­though Hernan­dez has Mex­ic­an grand­par­ents, he didn’t grow up eat­ing the fla­vors he now serves.

Hernan­dez’s fath­er de­cided to open a res­taur­ant partly be­cause he loved to cook, and partly be­cause he didn’t want to be a mi­grant farm­work­er like his own im­mig­rant par­ents. He wanted his son—who also loved cook­ing— to reach even high­er. “He wanted me to learn fine din­ing,” Hernan­dez says. For Johnny Sr.’s gen­er­a­tion, European cuisine and white-gloved waiters were the pin­nacle of culin­ary suc­cess. “He was con­stantly on me—where are you go­ing, what’s out there, you have to find a chef school, I don’t want you work­ing in a res­taur­ant like this your whole life,” Hernan­dez says of his dad.

Johnny Sr. also taught his chil­dren how to man­age their money. He al­ways paid them for help­ing out at the res­taur­ant, even if it was just a dol­lar a day, and would en­cour­age them to save what they earned. Hernan­dez found he loved this, too. He once asked per­mis­sion to use some of his earn­ings to sell candy at the res­taur­ant on week­ends. His dad agreed, and helped Hernan­dez set up near the cash re­gister.

Johnny Sr. died when Hernan­dez was in middle school, and the fam­ily busi­ness fol­ded soon af­ter­wards. But Hernan­dez car­ried his dad’s les­sons with him to the Culin­ary In­sti­tute of Amer­ica in New York, and then to the kit­chens of the Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Ve­gas and the Four Sea­sons Bilt­more in Santa Bar­bara. Hernan­dez saw each job as a step to­ward his goal: open­ing a high-end ca­ter­ing com­pany in San Ant­o­nio.

After Santa Bar­bara, Hernan­dez came home and took a job at a res­taur­ant group called the Old San Fran­cisco Steak­house. He was only about 25, but he had a man­age­ment po­s­i­tion that in­volved travel all over Texas. “After a year of that, I said: You know what? I got this. I’m ready to do it for my­self,” Hernan­dez says. He opened his ca­ter­ing com­pany, called True Fla­vors, in 1994.

“Start­ing off was not that dif­fi­cult for me, but it was be­cause I in­ves­ted six years of my ca­reer in edu­ca­tion and learn­ing this in­dustry,” Hernan­dez says. One res­taur­ant in town, im­pressed by Hernan­dez’s résumé, ren­ted kit­chen space to him at a low rate. The big­ger chal­lenge was learn­ing how to bal­ance what cus­tom­ers wanted (and could af­ford) with the repu­ta­tion he wanted to es­tab­lish. If a bride on a budget asked True Fla­vors for a not-so-fancy menu, Hernan­dez would still try to make his dishes look and taste like something served at the Mirage.

Around this time, Hernan­dez star­ted join­ing his mom on ser­vice trips to Mex­ico. They’d vo­lun­teer at a sum­mer camp in Aguas­cali­entes, 12 hours from the Texas bor­der. “I really fell in love with the people, the cul­ture, and the food. I had nev­er been ex­posed to that,” Hernan­dez says. He star­ted put­ting to­geth­er menus, tak­ing pho­to­graphs, and re­search­ing the fla­vors of in­teri­or Mex­ico—fla­vors he felt wer­en’t really be­ing show­cased in his ho­met­own, a city fam­ous for tour­ist-friendly Tex-Mex.

Hernan­dez opened his first res­taur­ant, La Glor­ia, in 2010. The menu was Mex­ic­an street food: small plates of ta­cos, tor­tas, and tlay­u­das (the menu help­fully de­scribes tlay­u­das as “Mex­ic­an Pizza”). Texas Monthly, in a re­view, said La Glor­ia was “not your fath­er’s Mex­ic­an res­taur­ant.” Hernan­dez def­in­itely wasn’t serving Johnny Sr.’s menu. He also didn’t open his res­taur­ant on the His­pan­ic west side of the city, as his par­ents had done. In­stead, a de­veloper re­cruited Hernan­dez to the Pearl Brew­ery com­plex, a hip­ster-friendly spot just off the high­way between San Ant­o­nio’s down­town and its wealthy, north­ern sub­urbs.

Hernan­dez’s res­taur­ant ap­pealed to Anglos and Mex­ic­ans alike, and aligned with a big­ger food trend: au­then­ti­city. Busi­ness took off. In 2013, he opened a café and bar, The Fru­ter­ia, in­spired by Mex­ico’s fruit stalls. He opened a second La Glor­ia loc­a­tion in the San Ant­o­nio air­port. He opened two more Fru­ter­i­as. This year Hernan­dez is busier than ever. He opened a res­taur­ant called El Machito, which serves Mex­ic­an-style grilled meats. His com­pany partnered with three oth­er air­port res­taur­ants. And today, Hernan­dez man­ages a staff of some 250 em­ploy­ees. He’s one of the 13 busi­ness lead­ers fea­tured on San Ant­o­nio’s city web­site, and has been a guest judge on the real­ity tele­vi­sion show Top Chef.

“People say, ‘How did you start off?’ I say, well, I star­ted off a long time ago!” Hernan­dez says. He showed me a sepia-tinged pho­to­graph of him­self and his dad at an event he helped cater. Little Johnny looks like he’s about 6 years old; he’s dwarfed by big Johnny, who’s sport­ing a very 1970s mous­tache. They’re stand­ing side by side, wear­ing match­ing white jack­ets, and smil­ing the same smile.

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