BJ Hernandez Havana Patio Cafe Chef, owner www.havanacafe-az.com
In 1991, when Betty-Jane (BJ) and Gilbert Hernandez opened Havana Cafe in a space just off Camelback Road, you couldn't even get chorizo or black beans in this town. You could smoke inside restaurant dining rooms (in fact, Havana Cafe eventually became the first non-smoking restaurant in the city) and very few people knew what Cuban food was all about.
Over the last two decades, little Havana Cafe has helped shape diners' understanding of the Caribbean island's cuisine. Or at least, they did until earlier this year when their building was sold to be razed and turned into a new restaurant from LGO Hospitality. The new concept will be the company's fourth in the bursting Arcadia dining scene.
"It's like the Foxs and the LGOs are having a turf war," Hernandez laughs.
She admits it was hard to let go of the restaurant, which she fondly refers to as "our first child." But Hernandez isn't the type to dwell. Already, she says, she's looking for a new location to complement the second iteration of the original Havana Cafe, north Scottsdale's Havana Patio Cafe.
"You have to just roll with the punches," the chef and owner says.
And she has. Hernandez had several successful careers before she made the jump into restaurant ownership. In past lives shes was an art teacher and at one point ran one of the Valley's top catering companies. In the 80s Hernandez's company catered huge events including the annual Arabian Horse Show, though that business petered out once Scottsdale's WestWorld was built.
That was when she and her late-husband Gilbert decided to open a restaurant. Gilbert, who was born in Cuba, and BJ met in New York, where her family owned a bakery. BJ says she always wanted to go to culinary school but wasn't able to; back then girls didn't do such things. Instead, she learned to cook Cuban food from her husband and mother-in-law and many of their family recipes are still in use at the restaurant today.
"I think I've found a way to cook Cuban food so that it appeals to American palates," Hernandez says.
Her style of food includes a few tweaks to traditional Cuban recipes like swapping out lard for more diet-friendly oils and using black beans in place of their more bitter cousins, the black-eyed pea. Hernandez also serves some of her dishes -- including her Yuca Frita and Frituras de Frijoles Negros -- with her own dipping sauces, to help American diners see the connection with more familiar fare (think, french fries with ketchup).
The chef says she's not sure where exactly she'll be opening the next outlet of Havana Cafe, but she says she hopes to make it appeal to a younger crowd. Her rough plans include expanding the menu to include influences from other Caribbean cuisines and possibly doing more small, shareable plates.
If one thing's for sure, it's that this she isn't slowing down anytime soon.
"So many people want to own a restaurant ... but it has to be something that consumes you," Hernadez says.
What's your guiding principle when it comes to cooking: I like to be authentic. I don't like to use more ingredients than necessary to create a dish so that what you are eating is enhanced, but not obscured by what you put into it.
The hardest dish on the menu to perfect was...the empanadas because of the dough. I was trying to recreate the dough that my husband remembered eating when his aunts and grandmother would get together in the countryside.
One thing most people misunderstand about Cuban food: At least in Arizona, a lot of people think that it will be similar to Mexican food. They think the food will be picante and some even think they'll be served chips and salsa. Cuban food is well-seasoned and flavorful but not spicy hot.
One thing most people don't know about Cuba: People in the United States don't know much about Cuba so they focus on the political situation instead of the incredible beauty and spirit of the island and its people.
Your favorite memory from the original location of Havana Cafe: There was an open, screened window into the kitchen that people passed when they were on their way to the restroom. People would stop to talk to me while I was at the stove cooking and it allowed me to have contact with my customers without having to leave the kitchen.
What's the biggest change you've seen to diner's preferences over the years: People are eating healthier and are looking for vegetarian and gluten-free options. Our food has always naturally fit that profile.
Your favorite three ingredients to cook with: Sea salt, fresh ground pepper, and fresh garlic. It allows the natural flavors to come through. It doesn't cover up. If you start with fresh ingredients, there's no reason to add too many seasonings.
The most over used ingredient: Rosemary. It's a wonderful herb used sparingly but in my opinion, people tend to use too much.
Your favorite thing to cook at home: I like to make a different hearty soup each week. It's a fun challenge to use ingredients that I have in the house and the left-overs from the farmer's market to make a soup for the family.
What's the secret to a perfect mojito: Using fresh lime juice, not over-muddling the mint into little pieces, a good rum, and a dash of bitters.
What's your favorite local restaurant right now? Vincent's on Camelback
Your most memorable meal ever was... the meal we served at our wedding on July 4th, 1968. I created the five-course menu and my restaurant friends cooked it and served it perfectly.
If you could travel any where tomorrow where would you go? Cuba. I miss my family, the colors and beauty of the island, and the music.
If you could invite any five guests to a dinner party, who would you want to be? I would invite people who have passed. I would like to have my mother-in-law and father-in-law whose heritage was the basis for Havana Cafe. I would invite my grandmother and her sister, my great aunt, who ate the first paella that my husband ever cooked for our family. I would also love to have my mother, who introduced me to the food business at an early age and helped me when we started the first Havana Café 26 years ago.
Your best advice for a new restaurant owner: Be sure that it's a passion for you and you are willing to spend every day running your restaurant.
One dish everyone can and should learn how to cook: A proper scrambled egg.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
What's next for Havana Cafe? I'm looking to return to where we started: a little café in central Phoenix. I'm also working on creating seasoning packets that people could use to make some of their favorite dishes from Havana Café at home.
Check out our past Chef and Tell interviews with: Matt Taylor -- Gertrude's at the Desert Botanical Garden Jennifer Russo-Fitzgerald -- The Market by Jennifer's Jared Lupin -- Umami Michael O'Dowd -- Urban Vine Dennis Delamater -- The Post Doc Brown -- Doc Brown's Artisan Ice Cream Josh Bracher -- Second Story Liquor Bar Chris McKinley -- The Local Chris Mayo -- Central Bistro James Fox -- Bootleggers Jay and Christine Wisniewski -- Caffe Boa Joe Absolor - Clever Koi Jason Grossmiller - Arizona Distilling Company Chris Collins - Grassroots Kitchen and Tap Perry Rea - Queen Creek Olive Mill Adam Brown - Noca Steve Kraus - Press Coffee Roastery Jason Raducha and Claudio Urciuoli - Noble Bread Sasha Raj - 24 Carrots Nick LaRosa - Nook Joey Maggiore - Cuttlefish Country Velador - Super Chunk Sweets and Treats James Porter - Petite Maison Cullen Campbell - Crudo Mel Mecinas - Four Seasons Scottsdale at Troon North Meagan Micozzi - Scarletta Bakes Tyson Holzheimer and Joe Strelnik - Snooze, an A.M. Eatery Paul McCabe - T. Cook's at the Royal Palms Eugenia Theodosopoulos - Essence Bakery Cafe Eddie Hantas - Hummus Xpress Jay Bogsinke - St. Francis Dustin Christofolo - Quiessence Blaise and DJ Aki - The Sushi Room Sacha Levine - Rancho Pinot and FnB Andrew Nienke - Cafe Monarch Kevin Lentz - French Grocery Aurore de Beauduy - Vogue Bistro Justin Olsen - Bink's Midtown Marco, Jinette, and Edmundo Meraz - Republica Empanada Brian Peterson - Cork Brian Webb - Hey Joe! Filipino Street Food Lester Gonzalez - Cowboy Ciao Renetto-Mario Etsitty - Tertio German Sega - Roka Akor Marco Bianco - Pizzeria Bianco Brad and Kat Moore - Short Leash Hot Dogs and Sit...Stay