Chef Johnny Hernandez is living proof that you can come home again. He grew up in San Antonio, where his father, a Mexican migrant worker with a second grade education, owned Johnny’s Cafeteria and Catering. An entrepreneur even as a child, Johnny would take breakfast tacos from his dad’s restaurant and sell or barter them at school. Recognizing Johnny’s spirit and drive, his father urged him to get the best culinary education he could and become a chef. His first stop was the CIA in Hyde Park, NY—where he entered the associate degree program in culinary arts. He took that degree back home with him to San Antonio, and has never looked back!
After graduation, Johnny worked at the Mirage in Las Vegas, NV, and the Four Seasons, a boutique property in Santa Barbara, CA. Returning to Texas, he worked as corporate chef at the Old San Francisco Steak House. He was only 25 years old, but had a management position that involved travel all over Texas. In 1994, Johnny started his own business with the opening of True Flavors, a successful catering and special events company in San Antonio. 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,” he says.
Today, Johnny has an empire of nine restaurants, an event venue, and a contract at the San Antonio convention center. In 2010, he opened La Gloria, which highlights Mexican street food at the Pearl Brewery complex. “The site selection for La Gloria was a strategic and well-thought-out process,” Johnny says. “We considered other locations but I was convinced that positioning La Gloria next to The Culinary Institute of America at San Antonio would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Knowing the reputation the CIA has built in the culinary world, as well as its relationship with a developer that is devoted to culinary excellence, I felt the possibilities of success were limitless.” Johnny has opened three additional La Gloria restaurants: at San Antonio Airport International Airport’s Terminal A, in the Dominion neighborhood on the northwest side of San Antonio, and at the Forum Food Court at Caesars Palace Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, NV.
In 2012, Johnny opened The Fruteria-Botanero, which literally means “green grocer,” at the Steel House Lofts in the Southtown section of San Antonio. The casual space inspired by Mexico’s fruit stalls serves fresh fruit cups, smoothies, tortas, and tostadas during the day, and tapas and cocktails at night. The Fruteria has two outposts, one at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston and another at The Gardens of the Gods at Caesars Palace Hotel and Casino. During pool season, a Fruteria cabana is open to serve Caesar’s eight massive resort-style pools.
Casa Hernán, opened in 2012 and exclusively catered by True Flavors, is an airy, welcoming facility with full event planning and coordination that embodies Johnny’s commitment to honoring and celebrating the graceful elegance of Mexico.
In April 2014, Johnny debuted El Machito near the Alamo Quarry Market. A celebration of all things meat, El Machito specializes in mesquite-grilled meats prepared in the traditional style of northern Mexico and Guadalajara. The heart of El Machito is without a doubt the handcrafted asadero. The open fire mesquite grill, framed by a wooden altar, provides a window for diners to admire the skills of the specially trained grill chefs who masterfully control the heat to prepare every variety of meat. Continuing his trademark commitment to authenticity, El Machito’s art and décor has been sourced from artisans and families throughout Mexico. Johnny’s restaurants employ 250 people and he is a partner in the RK Culinary Group that handles the food service contracts at the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center.
It’s Johnny’s trademark fresh and flavorful food that is the foundation of his brand. “Street foods provide a strong central theme for people to connect to,” Johnny says. “I brought my favorite tastes from my travels through Mexico to San Antonio. The foods are authentic, accessible, and easy to understand.” He has appeared as a guest celebrity chef on food and travel network shows like Top Chef, Man Fire Food, Simply Ming, and Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, as well as garnering lots of ink in magazines like Bon Appétit, Saveur, Travel & Leisure, and Texas Monthly.
On May 5, 2016, Johnny was invited to be the guest chef at President and Mrs. Obama’s White House Cinco de Mayo celebration. More than 500 people were on hand to sample his authentic Mexican fare and signature margaritas. “It’s one of the highest accomplishments of my career,” he explained. “I’m very excited to share the authenticity of Mexican cuisine with the White House and to bring the culture of San Antonio to a whole new place.”
As an active alumnus, Johnny has been a guest presenter at the CIA’s Latin Flavors American Kitchens, the Worlds of Flavor® Conference, and a commencement speaker at a Hyde Park and San Antonio graduation ceremonies. His annual Paella Challenge, held at the CIA, San Antonio, funds culinary school scholarships to the CIA. This year the event raised $70K and sponsored an all-expenses-paid trip for four aspiring high school age chefs and their teacher to the CIA’S Hyde Park campus. “It’s my goal with the Paella Challenge to help nurture San Antonio’s future culinary leaders, and it’s important to me to give back to the community that’s always been so supportive of my businesses,” says Johnny.
Johnny’s bachelor’s degree from the CIA has given him a strong foundation upon which to build his growing business. The advice I would give to aspiring chefs is to invest in your education; it will pay dividends many times over,” he explains. “Don’t ever consider this career unless you absolutely can’t imagine doing anything else. If it seems like hard work, it is…the hours are long, but the joy that comes from doing what you love most is immeasurable.” When asked about the future of Latin cuisine Johnny explained, “The evolution of Latin cuisines is in its infancy. I feel it’s a specialization that will evolve in the next 10–15 years and will create career opportunities for those who have mastered the nuances of this relatively undiscovered cuisine.”