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.

What We're Following See More »
TAKING A LONG VIEW TO SOUTHERN STATES
In Dropout Speech, Santorum Endorses Rubio
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

As expected after earlier reports on Wednesday, Rick Santorum ended his presidential bid. But less expected: he threw his support to Marco Rubio. After noting he spoke with Rubio the day before for an hour, he said, “Someone who has a real understanding of the threat of ISIS, real understanding of the threat of fundamentalist Islam, and has experience, one of the things I wanted was someone who has experience in this area, and that’s why we decided to support Marco Rubio.” It doesn’t figure to help Rubio much in New Hampshire, but the Santorum nod could pay dividends down the road in southern states.

Source:
‘PITTING PEOPLE AGAINST EACH OTHER’
Rubio, Trump Question Obama’s Mosque Visit
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

President Obama’s decision to visit a mosque in Baltimore today was never going to be completely uncontroversial. And Donald Trump and Marco Rubio proved it. “Maybe he feels comfortable there,” Trump told interviewer Greta van Susteren on Fox News. “There are a lot of places he can go, and he chose a mosque.” And in New Hampshire, Rubio said of Obama, “Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims.”

Source:
THE TIME IS NOW, TED
Cruz Must Max Out on Evangelical Support through Early March
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

For Ted Cruz, a strong showing in New Hampshire would be nice, but not necessary. That’s because evangelical voters only make up 21% of the Granite State’s population. “But from the February 20 South Carolina primary through March 15, there are nine states (South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina) with an estimated white-Evangelical percentage of the GOP electorate over 60 percent, and another four (Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri) that come in over 50 percent.” But after that, he better be in the catbird’s seat, because only four smaller states remain with evangelical voter majorities.

Source:
CHRISTIE, BUSH TRYING TO TAKE HIM DOWN
Rubio Now Winning the ‘Endorsement Primary’
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Since his strong third-place finish in Iowa, Marco Rubio has won endorsement by two sitting senators and two congressmen, putting him in the lead for the first time of FiveThirtyEight‘s Endorsement Tracker. “Some politicians had put early support behind Jeb Bush — he had led [their] list since August — but since January the only new endorsement he has received was from former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that fueled by resentment, “members of the Bush and Christie campaigns have communicated about their mutual desire to halt … Rubio’s rise in the polls.”

Source:
ARE YOU THE GATEKEEPER?
Sanders: Obama Is a Progressive
1 days ago
THE LATEST

“Do I think President Obama is a progressive? Yeah, I do,” said Bernie Sanders, in response to a direct question in tonight’s debate. “I think they’ve done a great job.” But Hillary Clinton wasn’t content to sit out the latest chapter in the great debate over the definition of progressivism. “In your definition, with you being the gatekeeper of progressivism, I don’t think anyone else fits that definition,” she told Sanders.

×