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
Add to Briefcase
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 »
Pai Officially Announces Intent to Scrap Net Neutrality Rules
2 hours ago
Conyers Denies Settling Harassment Claims
2 hours ago
Mugabe Resigns, Ending Impeachment Debate
3 hours ago
White House to End TPS Program
3 hours ago

"The Trump administration is ending a humanitarian program that has allowed some 59,000 Haitians to live and work in the United States since an earthquake ravaged their country in 2010, Homeland Security officials said on Monday. Haitians with what is known as Temporary Protected Status will be expected to leave the United States by July 2019 or face deportation. ... About 320,000 people now benefit from the Temporary Protected Status program, which was signed into law by President George Bush in 1990."

Federal Judge Blocks Sanctuary Cities Order
3 hours ago

"A federal judge on Monday permanently blocked President Donald Trump's executive order to cut funding from cities that limit cooperation with U.S. immigration authorities. U.S. District Court Judge William Orrick rejected the administration's argument that the executive order applies only to a relatively small pot of money and said Trump cannot set new conditions on spending approved by Congress. The judge had previously made the same arguments in a ruling that put a temporary hold on the executive order."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.