Though he now spends his days on a 65-acre farm in Indiana pulling beets and sweet potatoes from the land, Alexis Hernandez grew up in Union City surrounded by the Latin flavors of his Cuban family.
Now the 40-year-old Hernandez is in the running to be one of the most famous faces in the food world as he competes on the Food Network’s popular “Next Food Network Star” reality series, premiering on June 6.
“I come up with some pretty interesting things if you’re ready for it.” – Alexis Hernandez
But instead of being rejected, he was called back.
A city and a country mouse
Hernandez graduated from Union Hill High School and then studied theology at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. But a few years later, he decided to make a switch in careers.
“As I [got] older I started to realize a love for food and making it with your own hands,” said Hernandez. “I started to fall in love with the science of food.”
He ultimately wound up going back to school to study culinary arts around the same time that he and his partner made a move to his partner’s family farm in Indiana.
Though a city boy at heart, Hernandez said he’s part country boy too.
“I’m glad that I learned to enjoy both,” said Hernandez. “I can be at the Met and I can be on our farm digging through the dirt looking for sweet potatoes.”
And the experience of growing food has also helped him with his creative ventures in the kitchen.
Last year, when the farm grew so many beets that he didn’t know what to do with them, he decided to do a little of everything – from beet ice cream to beet “tar tar.”
As a child, Hernandez said one particular dish stood out to him when he caught his mother using murky water to make rice.
When she explained to him that she was using the water that the beans had soaked in the night before to make a new dish – “congri” – he didn’t want to eat it for a week.
But eventually, he came around.
“I thought it was so creative that the Latino culture would get something left from the day before and use it to make something new,” he said.
His family’s cooking still has an influence on his cuisine, although sometimes in the most unexpected ways – he’s traded the traditional tomato, pepper, and onion base of “Ropa Vieja” (a shredded beef dish) for coconut milk with anise, and created flan with peas and a “guava inspired reduction.”
“I come up with some pretty interesting things if you’re ready for it,” said Hernandez. “I like to study what a culture does with an ingredient, and after I study it, I say, ‘What am I going to with it now?’ ”
Hernandez said he still returns to this area to see his family a few times a year. When he visits, he makes sure to stop by Pan con Todo for bistec con cebolla (steak and onions) with croquettes smashed on top with mayonnaise. He also heads to Las Chicas Bakery for pan de agua (a soft bread).
About the show
The Next Food Network Star follows 12 hopefuls as they compete in various challenges for the ultimate dream job – his or her own Food Network show.
Challenges include serving up savory dishes inspired by classic carnival sweets, creating and operating lunch trucks on Venice Beach, and using breakfast cereals to cook dinner with breakfast.
Hernandez said he definitely thinks he has the right combination to become a Food Network star. “I think it’s my personality and my excitement for life,” he said. “And I’m pretty down to earth.”
Regardless of the show’s outcome, Hernandez hopes that he can spend the rest of his life teaching others about food.
“I want to teach people how to grow things, how to use minimal ingredients to make a good dish, and techniques,” he said. “I want to be able to bring that to people everywhere.”
The show, Food Network’s most-watched series, is hosted by Bobby Flay. The two-hour sixth season premiere is on June 6 at 9 p.m.
The winner, who will be revealed during the series finale on Aug. 15, receives a six-episode show that premieres in August of 2010.
Lana Rose Diaz can be reached at email@example.com.