Chef Chat: BJ Hernandez, Havana Cafe

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It's hard to believe BJ Hernandez never went to culinary school, considering the recipes she's created and adopted from her family have kept customers coming back to the Valley's three Havana Cafe locations for 20 years. Hernandez, who in a previous life was an art teacher for grade and high schoolers, crafts dishes that have been in her Cuban husband, Gilbert's, family for years and perfects her own Cuban recipes.

Even though Havana Cafe is the first restaurant Hernandez owned, she's been in the food industry since she was young. Her family owned a bakery in New Rochelle, N.Y., and when she was tall enough to reach the table to dip cookies in, she was enlisted to help out in the kitchen.

"Food was the center of our lives," Hernandez says.

She and her husband now plan on having a year-long anniversary celebration starting in January, with food specials and cooking and mojito-making classes. Hernandez is also in the process of writing a cookbook and hopes to sell her own packages of sauces and dry mixes she uses at Havana Cafe. She says she definitely has no plans to retire soon.

"It has to be something in your deepest insides where this is what you want to do every solitary day," Hernandez says. "It's a passion you have to have."

Hernandez gave more insight into her philosophies as a chef.

What's the hardest part about cooking Cuban food?
I think cooking Cuban food is very easy. It's very straightforward and has no real trick to it. With some cuisines, you really have to develop a taste for it, but with Cuban food, it's things we're used to--citrus juices and garlic and things like that.

What's the weirdest customer request you've ever gotten?
To serve them dessert first so they make sure they have room for dessert.

What's your favorite food?
Lamb chops and lobster.

What's your least favorite food?

Do you have any tips for at-home cooks?
Stock your pantry properly so that when you decide you want to cook something, you don't have to run out and get it. And don't buy your spices in big containers, because they don't really last more than a year. Clean your vegetables before you put them away, because you're never going to want them if you have to clean them.

What should you always have in your pantry?
Rices, grains, seasonings, good cans of tomatoes, chicken or beef stock, a couple bottles of wine, even pie dough so you can make something if someone comes over.

What stands out to you about Cuban food compared to other cuisines?
It's very flavorful and yet subtle. It doesn't hit you over the head. Cuban food is not spicy like Mexican food. I think the combination of spices we use in Cuban food gives it an underlying, haunting flavor. You can't always pinpoint what it is, but people have told me they get a longing to come back and eat it. It's very homey. It's a comforting type of flavor.

What are your favorite ingredients?
Sofrito, which is a combination of bell peppers, onions, tomato, oregano, bay leaf and cumin. I also like to use coriander because sometimes people don't like cilantro, but coriander is the seed of the cilantro plant, and it's a little more subtle and adds a little more debt. When I'm cooking, I like to look for a depth of flavor from a combination of herbs and spices, but not so much that you can pick it out.

What ingredient do chefs use too much of?
Rosemary. It's a wonderful herb, but in my opinion, it has to be used sparingly.

What stands out to you about the Valley's dining scene?
I think now what's really great is the diversity. When we started Havana Cafe, we were like the only other ethnic restaurant because you only had Chinese, Mexican or Italian. Now you can get almost any kind of food that you want.

How do you stand out as a chef?
I'm very picky about the ingredients I use. I look for a bargain on aluminum foil, but I'll never change what I spend on a particular cut of meat or can tomatoes. It has to be a certain level of quality. As a chef, I think I'm a very good teacher, and I'm very patient. My staff has been with for 25 years. I also like to be visually creative with all my dishes. It's kind of an art project because I always think about the colors and shapes. When I try to create my specials or menu items, I try to use as many different items so I can appeal to as many different people as possible.

What are the rules in your kitchen?
My biggest rule is that if you would not eat that, do not send it out to a customer.

What's your proudest moment as a chef?
I think my proudest moment is that I have such a loyal staff. Even my front-of-the-house people have been here for 7-10 years. We all work as a group, as a family, as a team. I've even employed some of my staff's children. The other best part is my customers, who are so, so loyal. I can hardly believe it's been 20 years.

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