Interview with Forager Chef: Lee Hernandez

Forager Tasting Room + Eatery aspires to be able to highlight chefs who are passionate about their food as much as we are about beer and coffee, by offering chefs an 18 month trial to present their food to the diverse audience of San Jose. While we are in Phase 1, we brought on our own Chef to bring some Forager inspired creations to create that dining experience we hope to have here in the future. 

I asked some questions to 'Chef' (as we all call him here at Forager) and thought you all might like to meet the man behind all of our tasty small plates. 

Hey Chef! Thanks for answering some questions for us! People call you Chef around here, what is your actual name? Where did the nickname originate, or is it just Forager folks who call you Chef?
My name is Lee Hernandez. It all started in culinary school with my mentor, we would always call him chef until this one day he called me chef and it carried over to now, people close to me call me Chef.

Okay Chef, so I’m first interested in knowing where you grew up! Were you born and raised in the Bay Area or somewhere else?
I grew up living between Illinois, Mexico and Texas in my early years. It was fun and interesting but nothing as eye-opening as the Bay Area, with it's cosmopolitan mix of foods.  That is what has influenced me and I have grown to love.

Do you feel like the Mid-West still inspired you for the food you created for Forager?
Yeah, I think a lot of my inspiration is mostly nostalgic feelings from food of the places that I've been. I think for Forager, that influenced me a lot,  but also how I projected that the customers would be here.  I think the major key competence is: passion for food.

I agree 100%, passion drives excellence. Bringing it back to those Mid-west days, What is your most memorable eating experience growing up?
My grandma's cooking. You can see in her food the years of experience, love and care in what she fed us.  [I think] that's what everybody would like to achieve at one point in their lives.

Was that the moment that made you decide “ah ha! I want to become a chef!" ?
No, That moment would be when I was a junior in high school and in a home economics class. Me and the team got assigned to cook something and our food was the best in the class.  It dawned on me that we can cook something, make people happy AND we get to eat! That's a good deal! That was the moment that started me thinking that being a chef or being in the culinary business would be something that I would love to do.

That is so cool, I took cooking in school and did not have that magical of an experience. Sounds like it was destiny for you! How do you feel your experience will help someone who hasn't gone to culinary school or who is just really passionate about what they make, grow into someone capable of owning their own restaurant? 
It is exciting to be able to share the knowledge that I've accumulated through all my different ventures--restaurants, institutional catering banquets and food trucks. I think by having all this knowledge and having young people or young chefs be able to ask somebody that has the knowledge would be so helpful for them to grow. To be able to really grow into his or her own brand identity, into what they want to do and accomplish.

Why do you feel like a restaurant incubator is a good idea? And sets it apart from any other public food market that are popular these days?
Having an incubator is a good idea I think. Giving people some space to be able to reflect and acknowledge what they're passionate about makes a difference on others passions and their own. 

I look forward to the day that some talented chefs get to work with you and share their flavors inside Forager. That will be so so awesome. In the meantime for Phase 1, you’ve created a series of seasonal small plates for dining that pair with our beers and drinks. Are you excited about how those are going?
I'm super excited how these things are coming along, especially with the small plates menu. I feel that we are emphasizing a lot on flavor, seasonally, and with the beer pairings. 

Did the name Forager have any inspiration on the ingredients you’ve chosen?
Well the excitement of being able to work with the local farms and people in the area have really influenced and are (evident in the) outcome of some of our final dishes.

Do you have any ingredients you just always go back to that you love?
I love using peppers and in their different forms and infused oils add a nice level of sophistication to any dish.

What is your favorite dish that you’ve created so far on this menu?
I think the Tuna Tartare has been one of my favorite dishes.  It has the complexity of the local flair of the Asian influence plus (prepared) in the classical French style. It makes a wonderful dish and so tasty! 

I know at Devout Coffee in Fremont, we have these moments where someone comes in who has never tasted specialty coffee before. We ask them to take a sip of their plain black pour-over before they add any sugar and their response is always ”this is SO good, I never knew coffee could have all this natural sweetness!” Those moments are a sweet reminder of 'why we do what we do'... 

Do you have moments like that here at Forager yet? 
Yes, we had a couple of those moments with my beet salad. We have had customers that don't usually like to eat beets but they tried it and have been really really happy and so excited about it, so much so they wrote a review where they put that down as one of their favorite dishes!

That's so cool!  I think I need to try it then! Maybe your salad can make a beet lover out of me too, and I’m sure there will be many more moments like that  to come! Thanks so much for sharing. You are going to teach us how to make an item off the menu at home right?
Yes, it's going to be Ceviche, with white shrimp from Mexico. Nice and meaty, perfect texture. A combination of cooking it in, lemon,  with a little salt, pepper, garlic , and a little lemon oil. Let it cure overnight. delicious!

I'm so excited to watch the process! Last year I traveled to Tulum, Mexico and their ceviche was incredible! When I first tasted yours Chef, it brought me back to those crystal clear beaches. I love how food does that!  We look forward to many memorable food moments to come, thanks Chef!

Watch the video below to learn how to make Ceviche right at home. If you can't get it just right, not to worry! Chef has some here at Forager waiting for you!