Chef Johnny Hernandez is a proud Texan with a special love for San Antonio. He grew up there in a Westside neighborhood where some of his earliest memories are the scents of freshly made tortillas, handmade tamales and savory barbacoa. Hernandez's father taught the budding foodie the value of education, encouraging him to further his passion for cooking by attending the Culinary Institute of America in New York. His career has taken him all over the world but Chef Hernandez’s love for San Antonio is deeply rooted within him, which is why he opened several restaurants within the area, including Villa Rica, his newest venture. The sure-to-be-hot-spot boasts a menu of fresh, vibrant dishes that include a variety of tacos, tostadas and ceviches inspired by Veracruz, Baja, Sinaloa, Yucatan, and the Pacific. We chatted with the entrepreneur about food, familia and what keeps him inspired.
Describe your new restaurant, Villa Rica, in three words.
Costal, authentic… Mexican-inspired seafood. Mexico is my driving inspiration. All of the gulf has different styles, it's complex, so it’s hard to say in three words. The majority of the menu is rooted in Veracruz, so I would say authentic Veracruz seafood cuisine.
Why is food such a huge part of our identity?
Food is such a powerful and essential part of our lives, we obviously have to nourish ourselves every day. It’s a great voice, a great outlet. If we could preserve our heritage through food and traditions, it's good because it stays with you. It is also a great driver of our local economy for tourism. As a business owner I have to think of these things as well.
What’s your favorite dish that’s served at Villa Rica?
It's tough because the menu has a nice variety of many tastes. If I had to pick one [meal] and never get tired of it, it’s probably our "rosa tumbada" (rice “tumbada” style), a seafood dish with shrimp, fish, octopus, clams and made in a rich seafood broth with rice. It is an iconic dish of Veracruz.
What do you love about San Antonio?
I’ve been able to travel all over the world and you get to see what’s unique about your city when you start comparing it against others.
I love our Latino heritage; our Mexican heritage is what gives it a strong sense of place and what makes us unique. It's definitely what I appreciate the most about San Antonio.
We live in a very exciting time, there’s a lot of energy and effort going into preserving traditions and cultural traditions. This community comes together to preserve them.
What’s your least favorite food to eat?
There’s just a lot of bad fast food, Mexican fast food. What I love to do is fresh and at the other spectrum of my universe is Mexican fast food. It’s a cuisine that’s been commercialized in a bad way.
What’s your favorite dessert?
I love ice cream!
I’m known for my tequila. However, my favorite cocktail, since I’m working on Villa Rica, is a mojito because it goes well with Mexican seafood. Right now, I’m digging cocktails that are made with a very special rum that I brought for Villa Rica. I purchased a barrel of four-year old aged rum that's awesome and creates beautiful mojitos.
Favorite ingredient to cook with?
I tell everyone that seafood is my favorite category. That’s a tough question, I can say fish and there’s a whole world of fish. I’ve been wanting to open a [seafood] restaurant for forever but it’s tough because I appreciate and love it, but as a business you have to be careful about setting sights on a theme that not everyone is ready to dive into. You want to love what you do, but you have to be careful of your audience. If I had to give up everything else in the world, I would be sitting by the beach eating seafood.
Biggest lesson you’ve learned in the kitchen?
Patience. You have to have a lot of patience and discipline in so many different areas. Something that I am definitely very aware of is that some things require time. As you get older, you start working with bigger teams and you’re trying to develop restaurants at a higher level so you can’t force anything. You have to do your homework. Opening a restaurant is so competitive and [now] everyone expects a chef to own several. As an owner and entrepreneur, you want to do different and do better. Understanding the market, the consumer, the location, the menu all these things take thought, critical thinking, and asking for help and advice. It’s a big deal.
What’s a simple, delicious Mexican meal that anyone can make?
For the adventurous—there’s nothing easier to make then a great fresh ceviche. It all begins with the right products, fresh seafood. If you enjoy fresh seafood there’s not a whole lot you have to do to it because it’s a delicate protein. You don’t want to mask it with a lot of things. A piece of fish usually takes 10-15 minutes to cook, you're not slaving over it like a stew.
What, or who, inspires you?
My career has been dedicated to learning everything I can about Mexican heritage. Mexico is my inspiration as a creative chef, and so much of my life centers around that. I spent time in Yucatan at the end of the year to get reacquainted with the area.
People of Mexico inspire me because if I visit a city, a mercado, I see the fisherman that bring in the seafood they caught that evening. Seeing the hardworking people they are, the simple life they live, ours is so complex and we run like crazy people over here and they are chill and laid back. Mexico inspires me, people inspire me. That’s been plenty to motivate me.
Back home I’m truly inspired by my employees. The people that work for us are so dedicated. I want to encourage them, to help them grow in their own respective fields and push them a little. I see the ones who are hungry for it and want to grow.
Fill in the blank: As a chef, I probably shouldn’t admit this but I love to eat: probably Cheetos and big red together. Sometimes when I’m headed home and it's late, I’ll grab some Cheetos and big red.