He floats around inside a sprawling kitchen at La Gloria’s near The Dominion just before lunch on a recent Friday morning, checking on an infinite number of details.
Then he settles over a table with another chef, preparing a table-top full of serving bowls ready to hold a signature dessert.
“A little fruit and tequila bread pudding.”
And when you're Johnny Hernandez, that "little" bread pudding is Mexican and mouth-watering.
“I always felt that San Antonio would be my final destination as a chef,” he said.
San Antonio's best-known celebrity chef has come a long way since growing up underfoot in his father's west-side restaurant. After attending the Culinary Institute of America in New York and working jobs in gourmet kitchens in Las Vegas and Santa Barbara, he came back home.
“It really means a lot for San Antonio, that a native son came back,” said David Gonzalez with Visit San Antonio. “After going to culinary school in New York, the most respected culinary school in the country, he wanted to come back to Texas.”
His first entrepreneurial venture was True Flavors, a catering business he launched in 1994. Soon, he was ready to try his hand at a restaurant and opened the first La Gloria in 2010. He now he has four La Gloria locations, including the newest one at the Dominion.
But that’s only the tip of the Hernandez food empire. He now owns four other restaurant brands, two private venues, a tortilla factory, and a farm growing fresh produce for all of his restaurants.
And yes, he still enjoys manning the grill.
"We grill this meat to about medium rare and then finish it on the griddle with bacon, peppers and onions,” Hernandez says as he prepares food at his restaurant.
His brands are almost exclusively based on interior Mexican foods and flavors, not Tex-Mex. And that focus has proven extremely popular across South Texas and beyond. One of his restaurant brands, MEXico, has two locations in the United Kingdom.
Soon, he'll launch two more restaurant concepts plus his own brand of tequila.
When asked to give advice to young chefs or other entrepreneurs, he says, start small.
“Starting off small is what I recommend,” he says, laughing. “Is it a food truck? Maybe you can't even afford a food truck."
Hernandez could afford plenty and had no aspirations beyond the Alamo City when, about four years ago, TV producers for the Top Chef called, asking if he’d like to be a judge on the popular Bravo reality show.
“So there's probably a short list of experts in Mexican food in our city, so I had a few credentials, ha ha, and I got a phone call!"
That opportunity led to more TV appearances on the Cooking Channel and the Travel Channel, and finally to an invitation from President Obama. His administration invited Hernandez and his team to throw a lavish Cinco de Mayo party at the White House last year.
“It was special to have been asked, and to represent our city,” he said, beaming as he talked about his time in Washington D.C. “To really represent San Antonio in the White House, it was for Cinco de Mayo, it was a celebration for everyone."
"Johnny is really one of the top celebrity chefs in San Antonio,” Gonzalez said. “And he's one of the leaders of the culinary movement here in the city.”
In 2014, Hernandez founded Kitchen Campus, a nonprofit that encourages middle school and high school students to pursue careers in the culinary arts. The year after that, he established the city’s culinary task force to amplify San Antonio’s profile as a culinary destination.
Still, he seems most at home in an apron, behind the grill.
"So I love roasted salsas but some of my favorite ones are also raw,” he said while wiping his brow. “So it depends on what you're in the mood for! Haha!"
The public's always in the mood for Mexican recipes, but Hernandez says that now, it’s more than just tamales and tostadas.
“We do have a rich, diverse culinary community here that's way beyond Mexican food. And we like to call it Tex-Next.”
Hernandez describes the evolution of San Antonio’s food offerings as a true renaissance.
"Food is always at the center of everything that's great. Any celebration, any great development, food is there. So we, we our hospitality community, has to really step up!"
Johnny Hernandez is putting San Antonio sizzle on the map. He's another one of the people who make San Antonio great!