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Chef's Corner: Jose Hernandez

Dai
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Jose Hernandez

JOSE HERNANDEZ From Mexico City to Houston, executive chef Jose Hernandez lands on both feet with Lucienne's Mediterranean menu at Hotel Alessandra.

Watching chefs rise through the ranks is a satisfying food novella. Toques call this the school of hard knocks.

A perfect example is Manuel Pucha, the gifted 43-year-old Ecuadoran-born chef who opened Maison Pucha Bistro on Studewood last year, but worked for years with French master chef Philippe Schmit. Another is Jose Hernandez, another talent who arrived in Houston with Schmit in 2004 to open the defunct Bistro Moderne. Fast-forward a decade-plus later, and Hernandez is now the head kitchen honcho at the 64-seat Lucienne of the posh Hotel Alessandra (1070 Dallas Street).

Here, Hernandez shares his story of growing up in a small town about an hour from Mexico City and his greatest challenge as a chef.  

Prior to Lucienne, you helmed CityCentre’s Radio Milano at Hotel Sorella, also owned by Alessandra’s parent, the Valencia Group. Milano’s emphasis is on modern Italian. How would you describe the food at Lucienne?

Modern Mediterranean. The name suggests French, but I didn’t want to be constrained. Mediterranean allows me to do more things. When the Valencia Group approached me about Alessandra’s restaurant, they said, “In terms of food, you can do whatever you want.” It’s nice to work for a company who has faith in you.

When you turned 7, your father and four siblings left Mexico City for Texcaltitlán after your mother died?

It was a town of about 3,000. My family farmed, mostly pinto beans and corn. Everyone bartered there. There, people would say, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” So, every morning, I would wake up at 5 to feed the animals and then worked in the fields. When I was young, I learned from my grandmother and aunt how to make our bread. We did everything by hand – mixed the bread, ground up the corn for tortillas, etc.

Your resume includes Orsay in New York, La Balance, Etoile Cuisine et Bar, Philippe Restaurant, Trinity and Scott Tycer concepts (Aries, Gravitas, Kraftsmen Baking). Did you always want to be a chef?

No. The plan was to attend college and go into business, but I had a cousin who was in charge of a bakery in Mexico City, so I started working with him. Three years later, I went to work for the Intercontinental Hotel. That’s when I fell in love with the kitchen. The hotel had two pastry chefs – one who specialized in Mexican pastries and the other in French and Viennese pastries. We were making chocolate and ice sculptures. It went beyond baking. I felt challenged. That’s when my passion for pastry started.

You built a reputation at the exclusive Club De Industriales in Mexico City, winning top baking competitions. You’re an exception, talented in savory dishes and pastries and desserts. Often, it’s one or the other.

With cooking, you have a little room to play with, but with baking, you must be very accurate, very exact. Many chefs don’t have the patience for it, but I love it. I love the challenge of baking and making desserts.

What is the most challenging thing to bake, living in Houston with its high temps and humidity?

Bread. It’s so hard to control. You need to control the room temperature. Most kitchens don’t have that luxury. Even then, you can’t control what happens after the bread leaves your kitchen. For perfect bread, the room needs to be 74 degrees; then, depending on the temperature of the room, your water needs to be a certain temperature. You also must consider how the ingredients heat up in the mixer. It’s tricky.

Do you have kids?

I have two boys. The oldest is 6, and the youngest is 3.

Where do you take them to eat on your days off?

We’ve been going to the movies every Tuesday since it’s summer. Afterward, they like to go to Alicia’s Mexican Grille (25725 Katy Freeway, Katy). They have this hot molcajete with grilled cheese and shrimp, chicken, beef fajitas. My sons also like Grimaldi’s Pizza, which has several locations. One of my favorite Mexican places is El Asador (3750 S. Mason Road). They have great enchiladas. I like the mole, and my wife gets the vegetarian ones. In town, I’m a big fan of Hugo Ortega and Xochi (1777 Walker Street). He makes tlayudas, which are these huge tortillas with various toppings cooked over wood. I get the one with the grasshoppers.

I’m always up for Amalfi Coast (6100 Westheimer). The chef, Giancarlo Ferrara, used to cook at Arcodoro, which closed recently. Giancarlo has such a passion for food. His fish of the day always is good, and I like his ravioli and carbonara. Another place I like is from the Pucha brothers (Maison Pucha Bistro, 1001 Studewood St.). They have real talent. I like their ceviche. I’m usually there for brunch, and a dish to try is the eggs Benedict on plantains. 

Editor’s note: Buzz dining columnist Dai Huynh is a James Beard food-journalism award winner and longtime Houston-based restaurant writer.

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