Editor’s note: This article first published in the Fall 2022 issue of Beyond the Meeting Room, ALHI’s printed magazine, a luxury lifestyle publication focused on sharing compelling, inspirational and educational stories from beyond the four walls of a meeting room.
Johnny Hernandez wanted to be a chef for as long as he could remember.
He had his first taste of the business as a kid, scrubbing pots while his father, Johnny Hernandez Sr., cooked meals in the family’s backyard.
By the time he was 5, his father had opened a restaurant, Johnny’s Cafeteria, on San Antonio’s West Side, and on weekends, would cater meals for weddings and quinceañeras, or make tacos to sell at the local newspaper.
When it was clear the younger Hernandez would follow his father’s career, his dad had this advice:
“I don’t want you making tacos your whole life,” Hernandez recalled. “You’re going to be a chef and we’re going to send you to the best school. Either you dedicate your life to helping people be very successful or you help them with the wealth that you build. That’s what I want you to think about.”
While his father would not live long enough to witness his son’s success, Hernandez did go to one of the best culinary schools in the country, the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in New York. He would eventually return to San Antonio, where he has become a successful restaurant owner, caterer, entrepreneur and advocate for the city, including helping with plans to reinvigorate downtown’s La Villita.
In honor of his father, he founded Kitchen Campus, an organization that encourages middle and high school students to pursue careers in the culinary arts through the Paella Challenge. It’s now in its 12th year.
Joel Salcido, a San Antonio-based photographer and author of “The Spirit of Tequila,” met Hernandez when he moved to the city several years ago.
“In spite of his high profile, the ‘Chef’ remains humble and incredibly accessible,” Salcido said. “He has become the undisputed poster child of San Antonio’s Mexican and Tex-Mex food scene. He not only is a formidable visionary, but also has a robust business track record that anchors his reputation both nationally and internationally.”
Hernandez’s life has come somewhat full circle. After graduating from CIA, he worked at resorts such as The Mirage hotel and casino in Las Vegas. He returned to San Antonio in the mid-1990s, where he’s become one of the premier Mexican cuisine chefs in the country, appearing on several food shows including the Food Network’s Beat Bobby Flay.
In 2016, Hernandez was honored by being invited by President Barack Obama to showcase Mexican cuisine for Cinco de Mayo at the White House. So, what did Hernandez tell them he wanted to serve?
“I would really love to serve tacos,” he said. “We’ll set them up beautifully and I’ll bring my corn tortillas, but I wanted to make tacos in the White House. It really was an intentional request, you know, of serving tacos in the White House because I remember my dad saying, ‘I don’t want you making tacos,’ but can you imagine being able to serve tacos to the president.”
Shortly after the White House experience, Hernandez and his team found themselves across from Buckingham Palace in London, once again preparing tacos as part of the menu.
From Tacos to Paella
The influence of his parents factored into the evolution of Kitchen Campus, which Hernandez launched in 2014. His father was constantly helping neighbors and others who simply needed a meal or a couple of dollars while his “feisty” mother, Theresa Paleo Hernandez, now 82, was active in the church. She often took her son on missionary trips where he would cook at camps. Hernandez was so moved that he started going back on a yearly basis, organizing kitchens and cooking meals throughout Mexico.
The Kitchen Campus mission is to connect youth to culinary opportunities through education and advocacy. The program teaches middle and high school students about food, nutrition and cooking through hands-on cooking classes, lectures, field trips and guest chef workshops.
One of the most high-profile events is the Paella Challenge Cookoff, featuring about 30 chefs’ interpretation of the classic Spanish dish. The students from various high schools go head-to-head in a competition to create the most impressive and tasty paella dishes. This year, young chefs from Mexico joined in the competition. The event has raised more than $350,000 for scholarships over the years.
For Hernandez, it has been a labor of love and of need to help students—many from low-income families—consider culinary careers as a path to financial growth.
“I would go to visit the high schools and introduce myself because the students need to have instructors that are from the industry and that have worked in the industry because these kids need mentors and they need advice,” he said. “It makes so much sense for us to have a program that develops and nurtures culinary talent. We would love to focus on those that have the greatest need and need the most help financially, and exposure to this wonderful industry that has been a blessing to me and a lot of the chef community here in San Antonio.”
Hernandez said many of the students have never been on a plane, much less to New York, so the winners of the challenge are awarded a trip to New York and a visit to the Culinary Institute of America.
“Cooking food is one of my most favorite things to do in the world,” said student Tiffany Aranda. “I love being able to make something for somebody, especially from scratch. And this is what I get to do at this paella competition. Making food is kind of amazing.”
“What I love about cooking is I can create what I love and play with my food and hopefully people love it,” said Bryan Ordonez, another student. “One day, later in the future, maybe I’ll have my own restaurant or a couple of restaurants.”
A Champion for San Antonio
Hernandez’s commitment to the community goes beyond the classroom; it’s felt throughout the city.
“Representing both heritage and our future is Johnny Hernandez, a terrific partner to Visit San Antonio and advocate for our city,” said Marc Anderson, President and CEO of Visit San Antonio. “Being a native, he brings a deep understanding of the spirit and heritage of our city to his projects, and with his classic training and board involvement at CIA, a national and international perspective to our offerings. Johnny is a visionary, from his restaurants to convention center role, to festivals he’s produced. He’s always reinventing offerings that enrich the meeting delegate and leisure visitor experience.”
Hernandez established the city’s Culinary Task Force in 2015, but one of his efforts that endeared him to the city was his work in 2017 to designate San Antonio as a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) Creative City of Gastronomy. San Antonio is one of only two cities in the U.S. with such a designation—the other is Tucson, Arizona.
“The designation highlights San Antonio’s culinary legacy as a confluence of cultures, and further enhances San Antonio as a distinct cultural experience for our visitors,” said Anderson.
Salcido said Hernandez’s community roots and desire to help others helped him achieve the monumental task of gaining the designation.
“His leadership on this project reflects his love for San Antonio and his Mexican heritage,” Salcido added.
Hernandez is firmly entrenched on the food scene, first with his True Flavors company, which has been part of a five-company group cohesively catering San Antonio’s Henry J. Gonzalez Convention Center. He partners with the San Antonio Spurs professional basketball team at the AT&T Center and Toyota Field and has a presence at the San Antonio International Airport.
Then there’s his company Groupo La Gloria, which has restaurants and culinary ventures such as La Gloria, the Fruteria y Botanero, Burgerteca and Tortilleria Las Gloria, plus a slew of other projects and ideas in the works, including the revitalization of La Villita, site of San Antonio’s first neighborhood. The area, near San Antonio’s River Walk and convention center district downtown, is an arts village that includes several restaurants.
“Our team is excited about his new restaurant opening at La Villita, which will not only harken to the cultures that settled San Antonio, but offer new choices and culinary amenities,” Anderson said.
Yes, Hernandez’s father told him not to make tacos all his life, but he returned to his first love when he came home, in part to help his mother. Part of his inspiration was driven by all the salsas and flavors he learned while on his mission trips to Mexico, or what he learned from French, German and Austrian cuisine or working in resorts and hotels in Las Vegas and California, and even in the pastry department.
His father died while Hernandez was attending the CIA in New York.
“He didn’t get to see me graduate,” Hernandez said. “He’d been ill for a while and he sacrificed so much to get me there. I remember telling him I really wanted to do international food. But when I came back home, I started my catering company and, you know, I wanted to do it different and better than everybody else, right?
And what would Hernandez’s father think of all he has accomplished?
“Don’t let it go to your head and make sure you’re giving at least 10% to the church,” he said with a laugh. “I mean, I’m sure he’d be very proud. I learned a lot from him, like work ethic and how everything’s got to be perfect, and that was every day. Yes, he’d be proud.”