Chef Francisco Hernandéz is Opening Up New Worlds at Elizabeth’s Gone Raw
By Emma Rose
I have been working at Elizabeth’s Gone Raw for almost two years now, and had the incredible privilege to interview our Chef, Francisco Hernandéz, for his new website. Our guests ask a lot of questions about Chef - to the diner, he’s something of an elusive figure. When in conversation with guests, he is professional, shy, and humble. However, the staff here at Elizabeth’s know Francisco Hernandéz as a prankster, a father, a husband, and a man ofconsistent generosity. He shares his love of food with all who inquire, and he’s known for making sure that everyone eats something good while at work. Chef Francisco Hernandéz is a relentless visionary, with equal measures of talent, hard work, and genuine care defining his food. Chef’s culinary prowess has been informed by his own movement from El Salvador as a teenager to the U.S. I sat down with him before service one evening, at a perfectly set table in our dining room, to learn more about his path to becoming a Chef and what he believes to be the character of his work.
R: Have you ever been interviewed?
F: *laughs* Yeah, a lot.
R: Was it with food publications?
F: Yes. I don’t really like it. Because I’m really quiet, you know. When people ask me what I’m doing, how something is made, I don’t really know what to say. For me, this is just my life. It just happens.
Sitting across from me, fidgeting with a pen, I can tell Chef is a bit nervous. We have a great rapport, but he is reserved. However, he opens up quickly: once he starts talking about food, Francisco is transformed.
R: To start, can you tell me the story of how you became a chef?
F: It’s a long story. Basically, I started when I was really young. When I was a kid, I was in charge of my sisters and brothers. My mom, she needed to work. There was always something for me to make food within the house, so I started cooking [for my family].
R: Are you the oldest?
F: Yeah, I’m the oldest. So, I started cooking for my siblings. My siblings always complimented my food. And I was making everything: soups, stews, whatever is in the house, I made it. I used whatever we had that day. Beans, rice, we’d find pepper leaf, squashes. I’d make pupusas, or tortillas. Whatever is available, we would use it. And my mom was always really happy about it. (He glows when speaking about his mother, who was incredibly supportive of his work). When Iwas thirteen years old I started working in a little stand, selling spices and fruit. My whole life, I’ve been really close to food. When I was seventeen, I came to the U.S., and I was living with my dad. I didn’t feel as comfortable with him, I didn’t grow up with my dad. So, I stopped cooking for a while. I worked for a moving company in New York. One day, we were doing a job that ended up in Connecticut.
R: And how old were you at this time?
F: Around 20. We did the move in Connecticut, and at the time, we didn’t get tips or anything. I had $20, but I needed that $20 for the train, for food, for living. On the way back from the job that day, we stopped the truck at a food stand on the side of the road. I didn’t know anything about US-American food, or food different [from the cuisine I grew up with]. So, I wanted to geta sandwich, on a roll. But I wanted to add the lobster salad onto my sandwich. I had no idea how expensive lobster was [here]. In El Salvador, if I wanted lobster, I could go catch it from the ocean for free. I lived ten minutes from the ocean. So, I ask for the lobster roll, thinking it’s going to be around $4.50. When I went to pay, it was almost $25. And I’m looking like, what, $25?! And they say, ‘yeah, it’s a lobster roll’!
We both laugh here. I have heard him tell this story several times now, and his narration never ceases to make me laugh.
F: So at that point, I had already ordered, it was already made, I had to pay for it. I don’t wastefood. My partner lent me the remaining $5. I took a bite of that lobster roll, and it was sodelicious… I thought, this is a new world. I wanted to keep discovering new foods, trying newthings, so I moved to New York and started working as a line cook. I was thinking, if I work inrestaurants, I can try more food, and for free! So I started cooking pancakes at a small restaurantin New York. It was amazing, and I was really happy because I started to make more money,worked with food, and met more chefs. One day, a friend offered for me to join him in workingat a seafood restaurant in Washington, DC. We had wild caught, sustainable fish. My mind wasstarting to grow, like ‘what else can I experiment with’?
R: Is that when your interest began in sustainable food?
F: At that time, I thought everything was sustainable, because in El Salvador, everything I ate was organic and sustainable. I started learning about sustainable food, and how to source sustainable products. But in some of the restaurants I worked in, the chefs would not make accommodations for vegan or vegetarian diners. So I’d always say, ‘I got it, I’m gonna make them something’. The chefs I worked with knew I’d make something special. I always say, everyone in the restaurant is a VIP. Doesn’t matter who it is. And you know now, I don’t have VIP guests or tables. I take care of every single person; it’s supposed to be that way.
F: So my friend, Chef Jonathan, asked me to come work with him, here at Elizabeth’s. I worked hourly here at the time. With Jonathan… [we were in sync]. When he was thinking something, I’d already thought of it twice. We experimented with creating vegan cheeses, heavy creams, milks. We were starting from zero with plant-based food. It was raw vegan [when the restaurant was in its early years], which was a little more challenging, but we were learning a lot. I have twelve years of experience now cooking vegan food.
R: And you had no experience in vegan food before that?
F: No. I was cooking vegetarian food… but I barely knew what vegetarian meant! And there are a lot of different kinds of vegetarian and vegan people now: fully raw, no nuts, [etc.]. But for all of those people, there is something in common. It needs to be vegan, and it needs to be delicious. Here, it needs to look beautiful and be delicious. We have people bring in their partners or friends who aren’t vegan, and we had to figure out how to appeal to them, too. So I started to make a menu for everybody. Nice flavors, the best products around the world, because I have the freedom to bring in everything. I get charcoal from El Salvador, from my neighborhood. They call it black carbón, it’s a type of tree. I bring in heart of palm from Hawaii, truffles from France, fresh Huitlacoché from Mexico. Whatever is in season and available, I get it. It’s amazing working here, and in five years, I know we will keep making these special things.
R: This place is special.
F: It’s very special. I design the menu based on my feelings and how I see the guests feeling about it.
R: And you have passion.
F: And… a little passion (He laughs, he’s being coy here). You can work with the best chef in the world, but your food can’t be very good without passion. To make good food, you also have to respect the ingredients. Always I think of the farmers, working really hard to plant, to water…all of this hard work they do to deliver fresh to my kitchen. A lot of people don’t pay attention to all that is behind a single ingredient. Every piece is like a gem. Every piece of produce is like a diamond to the farmers, so I need to treat it like diamonds.
R: There aren’t a lot of Latiné chefs in fine dining. Certainly not a lot who are able to source the ingredients you do, and who recreate traditional dishes. (Chef has put pupusas, molé, huitlacoché, and a host of other distinctly Latiné foods and ingredients on the menu). Do you think a lot about home when you cook?
F: Yes, I always think of my home. I left a long time ago. It’s hard. Every chef has a line of roots [influencing their work]. Every chef has their own flavor, like a signature, that they come back to. The same line from the roots.
R: So, what’s your line?
F: My line is my home; comforting food; something you’ll remember forever. When I was young, we would have beans and tortillas, and the tortilla was made from organic corn, dusted with charcoal. Just two simple things, beans and a tortilla. But when you mixed the two and ate it, it was a different thing, an explosion of flavors. And you never forget that [flavor], never ever ever! So this is my line, give people something they won’t forget, ever. Every single dish is a memory. Every single dish is unique, I won’t put anything I’ve done before back on the menu. If you try it [at Elizabeth’s], you’ll never try it anywhere else. It’s not just the food, it’s the experience. This is our line.
R: So, talk to me about working with so many women, all the time! You work with your wife, Reina (who is incredibly kind, detail oriented, and perceptive) and including her, the kitchen staff are almost all women. (Our front of the house staff is also mostly women, as is the owner/operator of Elizabeth’s Gone Raw, Elizabeth Petty).
F: I’m really, really lucky! Growing up with just my mom and siblings, I have always been around more women. And now I have my wife and three daughters! Working with Elizabeth, and a lot of women here, I feel lucky. I’ve worked with Reina for sixteen years, and we’ve never had one disagreement in the kitchen. After we leave the restaurant, we don’t talk about work. At all. Women have helped me a lot in my career and my life. The women here have passion and have always created exceptional work. I used to be very arrogant. Working with women taught me how to care more for my co-workers, and to communicate better. I had to calm down. That’s why in the kitchen I never yell. (This is true, and it is a massive pride point for me in working atElizabeth’s. Chef’s kitchen is either quiet or filled with laughter, which is incredibly special as the fine dining industry inches towards ethical working standards, especially on the interpersonal level).
R: It’s special that the staff here all get the opportunity to build a relationship with you. It makes us more knowledgeable, which creates a better dining experience, as well as a better work environment.
F: I’m really happy when I get to share my knowledge. When people want to work with me, Isay come in, anytime. If you want to spend a day learning, come. The door is open for you. I can’t promise anything; I can’t teach you how to replicate our food at home. It’s not possible. We have equipment that makes our life easier. But everyone is welcome.
R: Where do you feel this job in your body?
F: Sometimes it’s really tough, I want to take the restaurant to different and higher levels - but I have no manual, no map, [no precedent] to see where I’m going. So sometimes I get that feeling of fear in my body. I fear losing my palette, losing my knowledge. But when I’m outside, on my day off, and I see the restaurant from outside, I think ‘that place looks amazing!’. We both laugh here. I feel so happy, I work in the best place. I work for the best place. One day, when one of my friends was very ill, he had his last dine-out dinner here. It was a few days before he passed away. It was a sad memory, but a good memory, because I got to make something good for my friend. I understand for most people, this isn’t going to be your last dinner, but enjoy it like it is. If you’re here, enjoy it, love it, and that’s it.
I thank Chef, and he returns to the kitchen so we can prepare for service to start. Months after this conversation, I think of his words daily. Chef Francisco Hernandéz’s work is a practice of gratitude, laughter, and passion that opens up new worlds, and invigorates our existing one.