Johnny Hernandez is in the kitchen of his San Antonio home slicing melon, pineapple, and papaya into perfectly symmetrical strips when the memory of his first restaurant job makes him laugh out loud. It’s a warm, rich laugh that surfaces easily and often—and it’s contagious. “When I was 14, I got hired at a Marriott downtown to cut up fruit for their brunch buffet,” he recalls. “I thought I was a big deal because I was finally getting to wear a starched white chef’s coat and tall hat. I was so proud; I would even wear the uniform home!”
It might have been his first time in a toque, but Hernandez had already spent most of his life in restaurants. When he was growing up in San Antonio, his parents ran a small one that served “a wonderful combination of Mexican and Texas comfort foods,” he explains. His earliest memories involve the foods and fragrances that surrounded him: chorizo frying with eggs, chiles toasting, and tortillas cooking on a comal (a flat Mexican griddle). So it’s no surprise that he was seduced by a career in the kitchen.
After graduating from The Culinary Institute of America in New York and working several high-end cooking stints around the country, he was pulled back home by a yearning for family. Since returning, he has created a growing empire and become a driving force in the city’s red-hot culinary scene. His restaurants have distinct identities, but they’re all anchored in the heart and soul of Mexico. La Gloria serves street food like Tacos al Pastor; El Machito is Hernandez’s shrine to wood-fire grilled meat; and The Frutería riffs on Mexico’s colorful produce stands with fruity cocktails (served along with tostadas and tortas).
With more projects on the horizon, the chef shows no sign of slowing down. But he always makes time to toast Cinco de Mayo at his historic hacienda. His menu is typical of both the holiday and host: colorful, casual, and fun. He says, “I love to cook, but there is something more meaningful to it when you’re cooking for friends in your home.”