For the last two decades San Antonio’s Chef Johnny Hernandez has been striving diligently to assure that his fine cuisine can be experienced in all sectors of the city. His most famous location, La Gloria at the Pearl midtown, has been replicated in the northwest area across from the Dominion. His Fruteria on South Flores lures the thirsty residents of Southtown. Travelers can find him at the International Airport, and sport fans enjoy his Mexican cuisine at the AT&T Center as well as at the Toyota soccer fields. In 2022 he will open Machitos at Brooks City Base.
La Gloria Restaurant at the Pearl. Photo: Ricardo Romo, 11/4/21
A native of San Antonio, Chef Johnny has created numerous Southwestern plates and introduced many exquisite dishes of Mexico to Rivercity. His journey from a dishwasher at Karam's Mexican Restaurant in the Westside to junior chef stints at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas and the Four Seasons Hotel in Santa Barbara show his determination to follow his dream of learning everything about the food business. He is constantly experimenting to create irresistible food plates. He has succeeded in making his own personal Mexican cuisine a statement in a city full of Mexican restaurants.
Johnny received his first cooking lessons from his father, Johnny Sr., the proud owner of Johnny’s Cafeteria on Old Highway 90 deep in the Westside of San Antonio. During his youth, Johnny Sr. joined his parents as seasonal migrants picking crops in the midwest. Farmwork was demanding labor that he deeply disliked. Johnny Sr. liked to cook and decided to open a restaurant as an alternative to agricultural field work.
La Gloria. Outside dining tables at the popular Pearl complex. Photo: Ricardo Romo, 11/4/21.
Johnny Jr. joined his dad every day at the restaurant beginning in his middle school years through high school. As a teen, Johnny was up early and helped his dad open the diner before school, then returned to the diner after school. Chef Johnny told me: “We worked hard and put in long hours--while my school friends went to tennis or football practice.” From those early days of helping his dad Johnny was beginning his life journey as a chef.
Johnny’s dad often spoke to his son about becoming a professional chef. His advice was simple: learn from the best, study other cuisines, and start with food that is famous around the world. Chef Johnny’s path to following that advice took a detour when his dad fell ill and closed the diner during Johnny’s last year in high school. The younger Johnny knew about preparing food and took a job with the Marriott in downtown San Antonio as a “buffet runner.” One of the chefs at the Marriott had trained in New York’s Culinary Institute of America [CIA] in New York and suggested the CIA training program to Johnny. That advice proved monumental to Johnny’s future.
In the Fall of 1988 young Johnny took a flight to New York City and enrolled at the famed Culinary Institute of America. It was an enormous step for a kid from the Westside, a product of the Edgewood School District, one of the poorest districts in the state. Over the previous year he had worked two jobs in order to save for CIA tuition. On the day of his departure, his mother emptied a coffee can in which she had kept her savings and placed a fist-full of dollar bills in Johnny’s hand.
One of ten Johnny Hernandez food trucks. Photo: Ricardo Romo, 11/1/21.
Johnny’s two years at the CIA passed quickly, and in the spring of 1990 he completed his associate’s degree. A recruiter from Las Vegas interviewed candidates for the opening of the new Mirage Hotel, and Johnny was one of the twelve new CIA graduates who accepted work in America’s famed resort. The kitchen directors assigned Johnny to the catering department that prepared food for conventions and banquets. Johnny loved the experience and somehow knew that learning to prepare meals for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of diners would be of value in the future.
Chef Johnny’s time in Las Vegas, just over two years, gave him the experience and confidence to apply for a job with the Four Seasons’ Hotel in Santa Barbara, California. A friend he had met in New York encouraged him to apply and soon Johnny was headed for the West Coast. But after a year with the Four Seasons he began to miss his family and the social life in San Antonio. He also had dreams of traveling to Italy to learn more about Mediterranean cuisines. In 1993 Chef Johnny left California and reestablished himself in his hometown of San Antonio. In a short time he found a corporate chef position with the San Francisco Steak House company. The experience of managing food preparations and creating new menus for four restaurants prepared him for the challenging decision to establish his own catering company.
Chef Johnny Hernandez at La Villita preparing for Day of the Dead events. Photo by Ricardo Romo, 10/31/21.
In the mid 1990s Chef Johnny opened a small catering company named True Flavors. When I moved to San Antonio in 1999 to accept the post as President of the University of Texas at San Antonio, I met Chef Johnny when he catered a welcome event for me sponsored by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Johnny and I both ended up on the Board of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and as a result I learned increasingly more about Chef Johnny’s successful catering business.
Chef Johnny’s success in catering for events and parties throughout San Antonio enabled him to gain the training and resources to propose the opening of a Mexican restaurant at the up-and-coming Pearl complex. In 2010, on a bright Cinco de Mayo day, Chef Johnny opened the doors to La Gloria, a Mexican restaurant with food specialities commonly found in the interior and coastal areas of Mexico. La Gloria became an instant success, no doubt because of Chef Johnny’s excellent and authentic Mexican food, but also because the restaurant offered indoor and outdoor dining spaces. The outdoors, with its view of the San Antonio River and historic sections of the Pearl Brewery, make dining at La Gloria a very pleasant experience.
Chef Johnny stands out as a pioneer among Latinos training in the food arts. Many have followed his path and opened their own establishments throughout southwest and midwest cities. San Antonio has become one of the most prominent civic leaders in traditional Mexican food concepts. For that recognition we have entrepreneurial individuals like Chef Johnny to thank. In addition, the city is grateful for Chef Johnny’s philanthropy and for his support of San Antonio’s Mexican cultural identity and heritage.