Chef Alexis Hernandez has been called to minister. And like many who have been given the burden and responsibility of sharing their God-given gifts with the world, he initially wanted no part of it. Hernandez’s ministry is food and what he produces weekly as sole owner and executive chef of Union Hill Kitchen in Chamblee is nothing short of a religious experience.
Whether he’s entertaining millions on television as a contestant on “The Next Food Network Star” or taking down the competition as the winner of Season 5 of “Cutthroat Kitchen,” there’s a little bit of Hernandez on every plate; bold, expressive and Cuban.
Georgia Voice caught up with the openly gay chef on a lovely Saturday afternoon for lunch, and for the next two hours surrendered to the experience and the journey that led Hernandez to trade the pulpit for the kitchen.
Georgia Voice: You have a degree in theology. The two worlds couldn’t be more different.
I thought I could go down that road of being in ministry and now I try to help people that are here (Union Hill Kitchen). My cook that’s in the back was the dishwasher. My sous chef has never been to culinary school. She came in as a server and I’ve been training her and breathing life into her and doing what I would be doing in the ministry. I can’t make you a doctor but I can use my ministry and teaching ability to give you a skill.
Is the infusion of your Cuban background into the cuisine at your restaurant a conscious choice or did it happen organically?
Sometimes it’s conscious. When I was doing the burgers, I needed to build a Cuban burger, so the most predictable thing was a chorizo burger. Sometimes it’s just the way that I cook.
Who influences you?
My influences come from all of the chefs that I’ve [stodged] with. I remember one of the chefs I worked with said, “You’re nothing. You need to be nothing. In order for you to find yourself, you need to lose yourself in me. I don’t care that you’re Cuban, I don’t care that you survived a hurricane in Cuba sitting in a hut. You need to lose yourself to find yourself, cause if not, you’re not going to learn anything.”
What exactly did he mean when he said you had to lose yourself?
Meaning forget everything. I have to do what you would do. I have to flavor it the way you would. So from doing that so many times, I still maintain my Latino upbringing in my food and how I express it, but I also take a little bit from you.
Is it true that you were initially against opening your own restaurant?
Yes. I was afraid of failure. Most restaurants fail within three months. Then after three months it’s a new metric. Then it’s the six-month mark and then it’s the nine-month mark and the one-year mark. I was looking for places in Midtown and I couldn’t afford it. I made my business plan and I knew I needed to be somewhere where I could be open for at least a year. I also had the fear of whether or not people would like my food. To put something out there and someone doesn’t like it, it’s very personal.
You have strong feelings about your food being eaten as created without substitutions.
So with everything there’s a purpose. Yeah, if you want the burger without the fries and you want vegetables … but when you order the burger plain, that’s when I say I don’t think you’re gonna like it. You’re literally removing everything. Let me take you on a journey. Let me do my job.
Does being an openly gay chef present certain challenges that are foreign to straight chefs?
How fast can you carve a turkey? How fast can you debone a chicken? Can you do the job or not? That’s what people care about in the kitchen. I love living my life. I’m a proud gay man and I don’t feel any lesser. It’s very freeing.
What are your plans for Christmas?
This year we’re going to spend Christmas and New Year’s in Paris. We usually rent an apartment and I go to the Rue Cler market and I grab ingredients and I come home and cook. How many chefs can say they stayed in a French apartment, lived like a French person, went to the market and practiced French?
Dijon Cranberry Relish
1 cup of granulated sugar
8 ounces water
8 ounces of orange juice
1(12-ounce) bag fresh or frozen cranberries
1 orange, zested and juiced
1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon of cardamom (optional but will add lots of flavor)
1 – 8 oz or 12 oz can of crushed pineapple
2 vanilla beans, split lengthwise or you may use 1 tablespoon of vanilla (one of the other not both)
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard (do not substitute yellow mustard)
Pinch of salt or kosher salt
Pinch of freshly ground pepper
1. In a medium sauce pan over medium to high heat, place the sugar, cinnamon, water, orange zest and all of the orange juice.
2. Cook until the sugar has dissolved completely about 2-4 minutes. Add the cranberries, crushed pineapple and continue to cook until the berries have popped open – stirring continuously about 4-5 minutes.
3. Remove the pan from the heat and add Vanilla Beans, or add the Tablespoon of vanilla (not both) , the 2 tablespoons of Dijon Mustard, pinch of salt and pinch of freshly ground pepper and stir until combined.
4. Remove from the pan and set in serving bowl.
Chef’s Notes: Can be made 1 day ahead. This will keep for 5 days in your refrigerator. This relish can accompany, beef, poultry, or pork. Enjoy!