Interview: Chef Diego Hernandez (Corazon de Tierra)

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Ensenada native Diego Hernandez trained with 3 top Mexican chefs – Benito Molina, Guillermo Gonzalez Beristáin and Enrique Olvera – and now runs Corazon de Tierra at La Villa De La Valle in the middle of Baja’s wine country, Valle de Guadalupe. He was in Los Angeles on December 6, and over lunch at Mexicali Taco & Co., Chef Hernandez shared several culinary insights.

Did you always plan to be a chef, or did you consider other careers?

When I was 17, I was deciding what I wanted to do with my life. I was between studying music or cooking. Opportunities presented in that way and I ended up cooking. I still like music though. Sometime I’m going to learn to play something, but a side thing, because now I’m in love with what I do.

Do you always play music when you cook?

Yeah, sometimes.

What sorts?

I listen to a lot of things. I like all kinds of electronic music – not just to dance – but all kinds. I like hip-hop and music in general.

What’s your favorite part about being a chef?

Sharing, in general. Knowing people, knowing food, sharing knowledge and learning. That’s what I like. I like the human contact in the cuisine. You give part of yourself when you cook, and people say, “Thank you.” That’s a really nice feeling.

Where did you first start cooking professionally?

In Ensenada. I ended high school at 17. I went to the University to study business administration, and in the first or second semester, I was not comfortable doing that, so I told my parents that I wanted to do something else, and that I like food and I like music. It just happened that my mom talked to one of her friends and she said, “I know a very good chef.” If she would have said, “I know a very good musician,” I would have done it, but she said, “I know a very good chef. Diego, do you want to go learn something after school?” I said, “Yes.” So I started going to La Manzanilla with chef Benito Molina.

That was the very good chef that she knew?

Yeah, that was the very good chef that she knew. It just happened last night. It’s not something that I planned.

What was your path from there?

Of course I gave up school and just worked full-time at his place for a year and three months, for free.

What do you remember about your first night there?

I was kind of shocked, because that’s not the idea of a restaurant or a chef that I had. I don’t why, in my mind, being a chef was cooking French food, cooking with a French guy with French imported ingredients. The definition of fine dining was being European. That’s something you could have thought 15 years ago if you never had contact with a professional kitchen. When I got there and saw Benito was doing his own kind of Mexican, Baja-style food with just local ingredients, using ingredients that my mom used to have in her pantry, that was kind of a shock. “Really, this is a professional restaurant? Are these good ingredients?” That’s something that somebody who knows nothing about food could have thought.

Have you always focused on Mexican cuisine in your cooking?

Yes, because that’s the only thing I’ve ever learned. I never went to Europe or to the U.S. I just learned in Mexico from Mexican chefs. That’s all my training.

What’s the very first dish that you ever remember cooking in your life?

I was in high school, it was my mom’s birthday, and I prepared chicken breast Cordon Bleu.

It wasn’t good?

It wasn’t good, but my mom said it was the best she’s had. The sauce wasn’t good.

After cooking with Benito, I told him I wanted to go to school. At that time – I’m talking about 2002 – that year, there were not as many cooking schools as there are now. There were just two, one in Puebla and one in Mexico City. They were really expensive. They’re still expensive, but I wanted to go to school. Benito recommended that I wait a little because they were too expensive, I didn’t have money, and they were new. He recommended to wait and keep working. He recommended me to one of his very good friends, chef Guillermo Gonzalez from Pangea restaurant in Monterrey. I went to cook for him for almost three years, and then the same story happened again. I ended up in Pujol with Enrique Olvera, in Mexico City, cooking for a year. Cooking with these three guys, which now, are the top Mexican chefs, was nothing that I planned. It’s something that just happened. I don’t know if they saw that I wanted to do it. I don’t know why, but they kept recommending me to work with the other guy. After this, I went to school in Tijuana and studied culinary arts for three years and kept working in several restaurants to survive.

What’s the name of the school in Tijuana?

That’s the name of the school, Culinary Art School. It’s a really good school, not because I studied there. It is. I partnered with a friend of mine and we opened a restaurant in Tijuana, called Uno. We had it for two years, and my partners now, they were customers at the restaurant, so when we closed, they called me and opened Corazon de Tierra.

What does a dish have to be for you to serve it at Corazon de Tierra?

It needs to have an intention, because not all of my dishes are balanced. Chefs talk a lot about balancing dishes and of course I do that as well. Not all of my dishes are balanced because sometimes you want more acid on something, because the next dish is going to have more bitterness. I just do tasting menus, so I plan the progression of the whole menu, and based on that, the dishes are moving into different steps.

You don’t have a la carte?

No. We have a vegetable garden. It’s an active vegetable garden, so we harvest all our fruits, vegetable and leaves every day, and depending on what we have, is the menu we’re going to serve to you. We just serve seven-course menus every day, and it changes.

What’s one of the most recent dishes that you developed?

Now I’m crazy for carrots. There are not rules in my cooking, but I like dishes to be simple, that the expression of the flavor is natural. I don’t like to cover flavors with sauces or spices. It needs to be natural. I even don’t use a lot of pepper. Sometimes we just use salt. It needs to have the flavor of Baja, either the ocean or the terroir. You need to try it and think this is Baja.

What’s one carrot dish that you developed recently?

Very simple. It’s just grilled carrots with a burned eggplant puree underneath. Carrot leaves, carrot flowers, we do a parsley and potato juice that the waiter pours at the table. Sometimes we add pig trotters or pork belly or chicharron.

[shows photo]

This is oyster and potato, a potato cream into which we blended raw oysters. We serve it warm, and then a Kumamoto oyster, uni powder and seaweed powder.

Is there anything that you don’t enjoy eating?

No, I like almost everything. There are things that I like more or less.

What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work in your kitchen?

Basically just attitude. I don’t care a lot if they studied or not. Of course it’s a plus if they went to school, but that doesn’t define if I’m going to hire them or not. I also don’t ask for a lot of technical knowledge, because I know that once they’re there, we’re going to teach them our style of cooking. You can come from other kitchens with certain styles that don’t work for us. It depends. Also, attitude and being respectful of others.

Is there a chef who you would really like to cook in their kitchen?

Yeah, a lot.

Anybody in particular?

I would like to cook with Michael [Voltaggio]. I would look to cook with David Toutain. It’s a French guy. I would like cook with him.

Why would you like to cook with Michael?

Because I like his style and his flavors are progressive. I like that. I never ate his food before, besides what he prepared at the restaurant, but I like him.

Address: Km. 88 Rancho Sicom0ro, Valle de Guadalupe, B.C., Mexico

Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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[…] Plascencia, who has a bevy of restaurants in Meixco, and Corazon de Tierra’s standout chef Diego Hernandez, the man behind wine country standout Corazon de Tierra plus Oso Campos and his Tijuana food […]

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