I fell in love with Chef Jose Hernandez's pastries from the very first moment I tasted this oh-so-delicate, and perfectly constructed off-menu dessert special -- a peanut, caramel, chocolate and banana work of art -- during his brief stint at Philippe Restaurant + Lounge early last year.
Thinking that we'd lost him to New York City, I was happy to see him re-emerge on the Houston restaurant scene as Chef de Cuisine at Ryan Hildebrand's Triniti Restaurant. We sat down for a chat about his start in the pastry world, and the circuitous route that has him forging his roots in Houston once again.
EOW: So, I know a little bit about you. I know you were in New York for a while. Are you from New York? How is it that you're in Houston?
JH: I'm from Mexico City. I went to New York and a got a job with Chef Philippe Schmit at Orsay. This was 2001. I started working with him exactly one week before 9/11. We were together for almost four-and-a-half years in New York.
EOW: So you came from Mexico, I'm assuming to get a job you had to have some experience.
JH: Yes, I had experience from Mexico. I started working at 13 years old with my cousin, who was in charge of a bakery. Once I finished school, I started working with him every day for a couple of hours, cleaning the sheet pans, mopping the floors, all this kind of stuff. It was a huge bakery. And on the weekends, for the weddings and quince años in Mexico, we used to do like 150 cakes. We're talking about big cakes, like seven to 15 layers.
EOW: Seven to 15 layers. And you were only 13? There's no child labor laws in Mexico?
JH: No, no, no. (laughs) Really, I was just helping him. When I finished middle school, I wanted to go to high school to specialize in physico, chemico, matematico, like the people who work in Nasa. I liked numbers, but we were poor, so my family didn't have the money to support my education. So I decided to move to Mexico City to live with my sister, and I found a job with another cousin in a pastry shop. Through him, I met one of the biggest chefs I ever worked with.
EOW: Who was the big pastry chef?
JH: His name was Olivier Lombard. He was French, and he was looking for a pastry cook at the Intercontinental Hotel in Mexico City. The Intercontinental at that time had many restaurants -- Maxim's, Alfredo de Roma, Au Pied de Conchon -- and we had a pastry chef that produced all the pastries in the restaurants. There was also a restaurant called El Cafe, where we sold all Viennese pastries, and I was hired to be behind the Viennese pastry chef. In one night we would sell 100 cakes. I'm talking about strudel, sacher, truffle, so all my background in pastry is from Vienna.
EOW: So, give me some examples of Viennese pastries.
JH: Strudel, sacher torte -- a really dense chocolate cake covered with apricot marmalade and covered with chocolate fondant. There was dobos torte -- 10 layers of vanilla biscuit with a coffee butter cream, topped with caramel.
EOW: What do you think the Viennese pastry background did for you?
JH: I believe that people around the world think that Viennese pastry is the best pastry in the world. And that was my culinary school.
EOW: How long does it take for you to go from helper to pastry chef?
JH: It helped that I worked with my cousins. This guy who hired me saw potential, so he hired me as a pastry cook, what we call here line cook, because I was the guy in charge behind the pastry chef. I was the guy who had to make sure that everything was ready to go for the restaurant. There were three speed racks of cakes every day, around 30 cakes per speed rack.
EOW: So fast forward to New York, you meet Philippe, you stay for four-and-a-half years, and then you came here to Bistro Moderne, but at some point you were back in New York, right?
JH: First of all, I have to thank Chef Philippe for giving me my first job as a pastry chef in New York even when I didn't know any English at all. At that time I had to have people translate between Chef Philippe and I. When Chef moved to Houston to open Bistro Moderne, he offered me to come and open Bistro Moderne with him. We came together and opened Bistro Moderne in 2005.
EOW: Did you stay the entire time with him at Bistro Moderne?
JH: After one year, I received an offer from Scott Tycer to work on Gravitas, Aries, and Kraftsmen Bakery. After that, I went back to New York.
EOW: Why, what was wrong with Houston?
JH: (laughs) Nothing was wrong with Houston, it just came to me the opportunity for me to work with another great chef, Fabio Trabocchi. I worked with him at the Restaurant Fiama. We had a Michelin star there. I was there for almost one year.
EOW: When did you meet Ryan [Hildebrand]?
JH: At Bistro Moderne. He was the sous chef and I was the pastry chef.
EOW: When you went back to Philippe, did you know that you were going to come here?
JH: No, I didn't. I was planning on moving to Washington, because Fabio Trabocchi opened his restaurant in Washington DC, and he offered me a job to move there. I always liked to work with him. He's one of the toughest chefs to work with, but he's really good.
EOW: What do you mean by really good? Say you're working with someone, with all the kitchens that you've been in, what makes the best qualities of someone that you work with?
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JH: It's the standards. When somebody sets a standard. So for instance, if the French guy I worked with in Mexico -- if he asked me to work with him again, I would work with him again. It's the way that we work, the way that he likes what I do. I have all the control in my hands. If he tells me "This is your station," I have 100 percent control in that. He's gonna support you. I'm not saying people are perfect. You can make mistakes, but they like what you do. He knows I can be working 16 or 18 hours a day, just what I do is what I want to do.
Check back with us tomorrow as we continue our chat about Hernandez's style and his current role at Triniti.