Chef Johnny Hernandez never stops moving. The chef met The Rivard Report Tuesday at the beautiful new hacienda he now calls home. After a warm greeting, he quickly walked through the grounds, pointed out various projects and future plans for the massive courtyard, only slowing down once he reached the vegetable garden.

“I was worried about them,” he said, brushing away dirt from his tomatoes. “I’m always traveling.”

Hernandez has just returned from his most recent slew of travels including a trip to Washington D.C., where he served as a celebrity chef for President Obama’s final Cinco de Mayo Celebration at the White House.

Chef Johnny Hernandez picks produce from his home garden. Photo by Scott Ball.
Chef Johnny Hernandez picks produce from his home garden. Photo by Scott Ball.

The once-in-a-lifetime experience allowed him to work with the White House’s chefs, walk through every garden, and catch a glimpse of life at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

“There’s only been a handful of visiting chefs … to ever curate the menu and really be part of the celebration, so that was quite special,” he said.

Hernandez and his team, along with White House staff, prepared a Puebla-inspired menu featuring dishes such as ceviche verde, chicken tinga (shredded chicken served on tostada), chiles en nogada (stuffed chiles with walnut sauce), and his signature salsas and guacamole.

The toughest challenge was tortillas, Hernandez said, but “everything else came together well. They’re the White House, they can get anything.” An assortment of sweets, including torta elote and tres leches served with a tequila mango compote were featured at the table as well.

The taqueria station proved popular among the nearly 500 individuals in attendance, including Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio), and famed music producer Emilio Estefan. Vice President Joe Biden stopped by the kitchen before the event to enjoy the pineapple and vanilla empanadas. Everyone enjoyed margaritas.

“We were swamped, people were just clawing at the food,” Hernandez laughed. “They loved the flavors – our signature is flavor. Mexican food, when it’s well done, well executed with the right ingredients, the flavors are bold. The White House was no exception.”

Though this was Hernandez’s first trip to Washington, he didn’t have too much time for sightseeing. Instead, he enjoyed a private tour of the White House and hung out with Maná in the Oval Office.

Chef Johnny Hernandez stands on the Great Lawn at the White House. Image Courtesy of Johnny Hernandez.

“It was a moving experience,” he said of the trip. “To be where so many decisions that shaped our country were made. To be a part of that is something I will never forget.”

Hernandez is happy to be living in San Antonio, where he grew up cooking with his family in his father’s restaurant. But there’s more work to be done.

Hernandez noted the incredible growth in Southtown, where he lived for the last seven years, and expects that area to explode with development over the next few years. He is getting ready to announce a new project in Southtown, as well as the BlueStar and LoneStar areas in the next 30 days.

“As a chef and a business owner, I always want us to have a strong, strategic position –whether it’s La Villita, downtown Hemisfair, the old part of the river, I’m constantly looking at opportunities in and around our core,” he said. “If I see an area that isn’t as progressive as I want our city to be known for, I’m going to go plant myself in that area. I’m going to challenge everybody.”

Hernandez has built a culinary empire in San Antonio – La Gloria at the Pearl, El Machito, The Fruteria in Southtown, and True Flavors Catering – but he’s looking forward to expanding its reach on a local, regional, and international scale.

There are plans to expand La Gloria outside of San Antonio to locations in Austin, Houston and Dallas. But Hernandez is looking to be a part of the growth occurring in San Antonio’s Southside, particularly near the World Heritage Missions. The missions are an important part of the city’s story, but a critical element of that story will be told through food.

“I really want to see not only myself, but a handful of local chefs really position ourselves in critical areas in our historical downtown to raise the profile of our cuisine,” he said.

Chef Johnny Hernandez stands for a photo in his home. Photo by Scott Ball.
Chef Johnny Hernandez stands for a photo in his home. Photo by Scott Ball.

Hernandez’s heart is always close to San Antonio, but his next major step will take be an international venture. He will travel to Mexico Thursday to oversee and secure the shipment of artwork, bound for his work in London.

Though the city has embraced and celebrated flavorful cuisines of countries such as India and Turkey, there are few restaurants or eateries that celebrate the unique foods of Mexico. Chef Hernandez is currently testing different dishes and adjusting the wording that will best introduce authentic Mexican food experiences to the United Kingdom.

There’s no word on how many restaurants Hernandez will be opening in the United Kingdom, but he said they will all include quality, fresh ingredients and recipes that are executed with respect.

“I’m not just representing the city, but I’m representing the style of food that we’re known for,” Hernandez said. “It’s not just my restaurants, but it’s the cuisine and the culture that is at the very foundation of where our city began, and what shaped our food scene.”

Hernandez is currently searching for local producers, and recently located a small producer of stone ground corn in Ireland. The stone ground corn is essential to making authentic tortillas, and something that he hopes will translate to the UK palate.

“I see our restaurant and our style of food very appropriate and well received in other communities,” Hernandez said. “But I especially see it when I travel.”

There’s a lot on his plate, but Chef Hernandez has never been one to back down from a challenge.

Top Image: Chef Johnny Hernandez stands for a photo at his home. Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Lea Thompson

Lea Thompson, a former reporter at the Rivard Report, is a Texas native who has lived in Houston, Austin and San Antonio. She enjoys exploring new food and culture events.