“[Vegetarian], that word is, you know, so many concepts comes to head, it can block people from experiences what we’re doing here.”

Alicia talks to chef Gabriel Hernandez of Verde Mesa in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, about the connotations of “vegetarian,” the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and the island’s beet resurgence.

Written and presented by Alicia Kennedy
Produced by 
Sareen Patel


ALICIA KENNEDY: Welcome to Meatless, a podcast about eating. I’m Alicia Kennedy, a food and drink writer. I’ll be having conversations with chefs, writers, and more about how their personal and political beliefs determine whether or not they eat meat. This show will ask the question, “How do identity, culture, economics, and history affect a diet?”

In this episode I’m speaking to Gabriel Hernandez, the chef and owner of Verde Mesa, a restaurant in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. The first time I ate at Verde Mesa was in 2015. Everyone I’d known in the city told me that, as a vegan, I had to. They were right. The adorable space, decorated like no other restaurant in the city, makes you feel as though you are in someone’s living room on a quiet street. His focused plant-forward dishes are made from local produce, and they’re homey but elegant. Tender eggplant, smooth chocolate mousse, it’s a haven. When Hurricane Maria hit in September of 2017, Hernandez slept in the restaurant. Since then, he’s only been serving lunch, but he did get some good news when he was longlisted for the James Beard Award for “Best Chef of the South.” After a Thursday lunch service, we sat down in the restaurant to talk about why the menu changed from a pescatarian-vegetarian focus to omnivorous, and how restaurants on the island can help revive local agriculture. There’s a little noise on this recording because we spoke beneath a fan. The restaurant’s air conditioning still wasn’t working.


Gabriel Hernandez
Gabriel Hernandez.

ALICIA KENNEDY: Are they, are people more interested in you here too? Or is it just abroad now?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Right now, I’m here too.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: I’m hearing people that, you know, how we say the word, like, realizing that Verde Mesa exists.

ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, because you’ve been open since 2009?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Yeah, we’ve been open since 2009. We started actually two blocks from here, and the concept was by that time, it was more like a lunch bistro.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Very, very simple food. Including, we have like shakes and açai bowls and things like that. Very, very simple.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: So we started out like nine years ago.

ALICIA KENNEDY: What was the inspiration for that?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Actually it was my partner. My partner’s name is Lloyda, and we were in the 2009, the crisis of, I don’t know, the Wall Street thing where, like, looking very, so, you know, what, you know, survived during the crisis are, you know, food. People kept eating. So, that’s pretty much that. And the rest, she came with, the naming, everything.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: I never realized that nine years later, you know, this has become something else, so.

ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, yeah. How did, you weren’t a chef by training.


ALICIA KENNEDY: What were you by training?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Well I, I graduated from electronic engineering technology of Bayamón University. So, if I was trying something that was, that was that. Then, I’m just looking for a job. I just was approached for, a friend told me about this place called Dragonfly, and that’s where I started in the industry. Dragonfly from Oof! Inc., the company, that you know, ten years ago, it was a very, was, I think was the first, was one of the first culinary groups in Puerto Rico, you can say that.

ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. I think…

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: They had Dragonfly, and I started there, I started as a runner, and then eventually just went too as a waiter, and years later I started as a bartender. So before starting Verde Mesa with my partner, Lloyda, we, I was a bartender. That was it. And then from that, when we open, you know, the roles, we were not sure the roles we would take, but eventually I just took the role in the kitchen, and that was it, you know.

ALICIA KENNEDY: And are you still working with that partner in this space?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Yes. She’s in charge of all, everything at the front of the house.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: The, the image of the restaurant.

ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh wonderful.

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Service, everything.

ALICIA KENNEDY: The design of everything?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: The design of, yeah, she’s a designer.

ALICIA KENNEDY: So how did you come to decide that you were going to do a pescatarian menu here, initially?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: The same, the same thing is, when her diet was fish and vegetable. We were partners, we were a couple, but we started, so she was a vegetarian and pescatarian, and yeah let’s follow through. Let’s do this. It wasn’t crossing any, it was in no, in me any putting any idea of like, OK, let’s, why don’t we put beans because with beans, we can do this, that didn’t come through, because actually I wasn’t very, let’s say, how you say when you are naive of the process?

ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, yes.

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: You’re just starting your like, I guess, getting, you know, so. So we would, we would keep it like that. And then we just, we, we, we keep it going like that until almost I think two years ago, or you can say a year and a half ago, two years, two years ago, and we are right now in that process of getting, just trying to change the image of the restaurant from a pescatarian, vegetarian, using that word because I don’t, that word is, you know, so many concepts comes to head, it can block people from experiences what we’re doing here.

ALICIA KENNEDY: Why do you think that is?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Just the word vegetarian. Vegetarian, vegetarian, the vegetarian, there was a, there was a, there were years of this type of vegetarianism, where food is overcooked, steamed, the overuse of soy, overuse of Bragg’s Liquid, amino acids and everything. So, you get people one day, a lot, I don’t know, just transported collectively of that image of that kind of, you know, health food, the tofu, when tofu, good tofu, homemade tofu. I’ve been to Japan and have tried tofu, it’s not the same, you know, tofu is so different, so, you know, people have a concept, and so when, when even just today I was there to sit, here to sit down, and there was a person passing by and he was saying, saying to the person, “If you want to try some healthy food, and vegetarian, go to this place,” and I’m like, no, this is a, this is a, is a place that is, you know, of course like any chef is looking for his style, but it’s presenting a style, a concept, a culinary, a culinary proposal and experience, OK? There’s a concept of layering of flavors, you know, so, you know, it’s not vegetarian.

So that happened, and then we change it. Why we change it? We change it because the restaurant was growing. Second, we were not aligned to that philosophy it has to be extremely fish and vegetables. Mostly we, we were, I was getting not, well, first, economically, we started losing tables. For example a night, I remember one night we lose like six. We lose like two, two tables, one was a ten, another one was a three top, that’s 13 people, and you see 13 people sit down, one of them don’t eat meat, other ones don’t want to be leaving him alone, they left. So then you have, you know, you’re like 16 employees, you’re thinking about the whole thing, first economically, but how we can transport it.

You know, we need to do the change in a way that we can really still go with, to a new restaurant that is trying also to connect and support the local economy. So we’re trying, we’re starting with, you know, beef from here, especially that we started I think with our first meat that we tried in our restaurant was pork belly, you know, so I mean we started with pork belly. So we tried meat from here, but it’s, the marbling is not that, not that good. So, get stuff, but it’s not impossible. We can, I think the industry, we worked to the point where the cattle will, you know, raised in a way that we can get a nice marbling. And, that’s another conversation.

ALICIA KENNEDY: Well, what, what is the meat industry like here?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Well, the meat industry here is something that I’m starting to understand, you know, and what I know is just the product, the cattle, is usually left to, to walk, to, you know. The truth, in Puerto Rico, the true thing is that the word “grass fed,” you know, it’s a grass fed industry, the cattle is grass fed, that’s great. But it’s just left to walk long distances, so you have a very highly muscled cattle, so there’s no, there’s not a lot of marbling in it. But it’s an industry I am still trying to understand, trying to get into it. Where we, since we’ve started at the beginning, we started with, with vegetables. So that’s an industry I really have the connections, I have seen evolve, it’s incredible what you are getting now from what you got when it started. Which is, which is great.

ALICIA KENNEDY: And are you able, have you been able in the past to rely on produce grown on the island or, pretty much all the way through?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Well, at the beginning, not that. That was, at first, my culinary ignorance. So I got, I, I remember I got radishes from a farmer, at the beginning, but I didn’t know what to do with them, so I didn’t know, I actually didn’t even know how to, how you say the word, I have, an, like an intuition of cooking, but I didn’t know how to really cook, you know, and I need to have these experiences. So if I go back and I received the radishes, I will say, “Oh my god, I will have use in this, this, this,” but at the beginning I was getting local produce, but I really didn’t use it to get the potential of what I’m doing now. Yes, that’s changed.

And then gradually as more knowledge and more, more, you know, like decisions that you take, you know, “To hell with it, we’re going to buy everything from this farmer and that’s it,” you know, let’s take a decision. And so we took decisions, big decisions, you know, don’t be afraid to place an order for 40 pounds and let’s figure out what are we going to do with the 40 pounds of eggplant. That took me a couple years to figure it out. You know? So I guess I, I, personally, I’m trying to be in a process of learning the restaurant, learning how to be a leader, learning how to cook. So it’s been quite a ride, you know?

ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. Do you think that the Beard nomination came, when, do you, do you actually feel like you have more of a vision now? Do you feel like it was recognizing something that you also recognize that in yourself?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Pretty much. At first, I don’t know how the nomination came. So I don’t know how they come to nomination, I know we got the nomination but, how that nomination come through, I don’t know. How was it, who votes, or who came to the restaurant.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: We were, I worked very, after, well. We have gone through different phases in the restaurant.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: But talking about the last one, which is this year from September to November, and then the reopening in November, and November to January to now, the culinary strategy in the kitchen is to create a things that are layered, in less possible layers of flavors, but when they click, they are like, [snaps fingers], OK. So that was the strategy. Things that three cooks know, three cooks can do, on a larger board of people, but maintaining the essence of the restaurant, but, unless they have another level, compose dishes that are beautifully and just, trying to integrate all that was a great, was a really, a lot of energy going into that, but at the end we created a very simple menu that went straight to the point, and very direct.

I was very confident with that menu, I’m still, I’m very confident with that menu. So it’s a menu that, you get the plate, you try, boom, and which, and then you’ll get another one, and it’s nice, like small hits in that. I was very confident in that. So at that point I’m like, with that menu, and then they get, drinking the wine, you know, nothing like that, we were just, we were just struggling. So it came, actually, it came that week we were like, “Oh my god this it tough.” So, it is tough.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Because November, December, and January were really rebuilding months, collectively. The other restaurants, they have big plans from the beginning, so they were also on the momentum. We were not, we were just trying to get, in February we were starting to get people noticing, and getting better, better, the new public, new guests, March was an amazing month, you know, April has been good too, so I cannot complain.

ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. So I feel like it’s almost a famous thing now that you slept on the floor after the hurricane. This is a line, people are just like, ah, he slept on the floor.

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Yeah, three, yeah, three, three weeks.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: And no, I slept in the…


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: I slept in that corner, because we get the, we had the window, there was a line of, the wind was against there. So I didn’t, you know, because my, my, my, my apartment has a hurricane, when they shut down, they shut down their electrical, so it becomes kind of, it was like boom bunker, which is great for a hurricane coming. Nothing happens, but when you want to sleep there you, there’s heat, there’s mosquitoes, there’s no, they don’t go nowhere. So it became a very place not to, so I stayed here and you know, so stay here, couple weeks, crazy.

ALICIA KENNEDY: What were you, were you cooking anything at that point or…?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: I was just eating. I was cooking things that we have in the fridges that, we had vegetables still that we have in and we were cooking there. I was eating out. Just very, I don’t, yeah, we were cooking, if I get something I will, I will do something with it, you know?

ALICIA KENNEDY: You’ve only been open for lunch since then?


ALICIA KENNEDY: Yes, and how has that…?



GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: It has been, well the decision was because we didn’t have personnel. Second, we got hit hard, I mean economically, so we need to do an operation that can sustain itself with, with not a big overhead, so that’s why the first decision, so we do that. Opening the dinner, with a dinner menu, will, I will need more people, which we didn’t need right now just rebuilding ourselves, rebuilding, but also the economy, the economy around us, rebuilding, so didn’t make sense, you know?

So, and especially Old San Juan helped. There are key, you know, there are central restaurants that, you know, get a lot of traffic, but to come to them, you have to make a decision, you have to decide “I want to go to Verde Mesa,” that means that you have to take a car, go to Old San Juan, look for parking, walk, walk to this corner, and you’ll come to Verde Mesa.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: So, we will not get public with, with, at that time, you know, it didn’t, didn’t make sense to open the dinner, and, so we started with, with the lunch and actually when we opened the lunch it was dead, you know, they developed around us and the restaurant, we always struggle. But still, at the beginning of this week, we have something coming in, and that maintains and sustains. Especially my sous-chef, which is a key player, a key part of the team.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: So, and, and he’s, he’s second, which was very important for me, they’re already trained, so they will, they will very important for me to that they are still with me, all the way. But they were great, and money or no money, they will stay very, I’m very agraciado, how do you say, grateful, because of that. And they stay, they still stay with me.

ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah. Do you anticipate when you’ll do dinner again?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: We’re working towards that. That’s not right now, we are now in that high speed mode to afford the air conditioning.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: And it’s a matter of nothing to reopen the dinner service, many things are already done, it’s a menu that combines a lot of things that we have done, been doing these past month, because also I’ve been doing outside things. It’s actually, it’s something that help us in November, December, I was doing another like events, outside the restaurant, which help us to stay afloat, and other things. Angels, you know?


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Yeah, you know?


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Owning a restaurant has challenges, you know. Something’s wrong in the kitchen, something in the area, to work around this. There’s no produce, “OK, let’s invent that,” you know, the normal things, so many things that moves in a kitchen. So every day something different, something new. So.

ALICIA KENNEDY: And have you always been in the kitchen every day?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Of the beginning? The first years? Yes. I think in the last two years I’ve been in the kitchen, but not that intense, intense meaning the 16, 18 hours a day.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: There were days I stay asleep here, like, wake up, wake up, I have to go home and be going back, let’s go back to the kitchen. Especially when we started doing the lunch and dinner service.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Which, it was challenging to have that, to connect. I know this, and, and, but no no, now I try, I learn to delegate.

ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, yeah. That’s a big challenge.

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Yes, it’s a big challenge.

ALICIA KENNEDY: So do the challenges differ a lot post-Maria, or are they more or less the same?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Maria challenge is mostly a psychological challenge. Because any other reality, so you have to be aware that it’s only reality that you have in front of you. But I also say reality that, that brings out things that need to change, and that you need to, to rewire let’s say, and that process is for me, has been a great, an amazing long process. It is a challenge. I think the only, the only challenge is just to keep going, because there’s a lot of things around that sometimes just, you wake up one day and you’re just, you know what, I’m just, I’ll take a plane, nobody will know, I will not be around, we’re gonna go.

And so I think the challenge is just to keep focused. Make decisions based in your reality, grounded to work that’s important. Don’t make impulsive decisions, OK? Keep focused. Don’t make impulsive decisions. Having a strategy that works in connection with what’s going on around you. And those are very important things, because it becomes more conscious, and become more aware, and the more aware and more conscious, you’re, you are, the more you grow also. So I think, if you add that, but then you add the challenge, Maria challenge to the restaurant. So yes.

ALICIA KENNEDY: Why do you think, when so many places have closed, why do you think you’ve been able to stay open?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: I don’t know. We are blessed.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: We have been, yes I think this is also the experience that we have. You know, we, nine years, so, well we, we don’t have this, then we will do that with this. We don’t have this, we will do it with that.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: So for example, when you make a decision, you, you are, you’re connecting, your decision is like orders, or whatever outcome comes, comes from that decision, is based on yours, your, you and your surroundings. So for example, this hot here, lunch, I will not make soup of the day. So hot. We will make like a cold dish, will make dishes that are like, dishes that, they are refreshing. So they will. That’s the reality of what’s around. It’s only lunch. So that’s part, like I call it maña, or you call it like a knack, because if you have gone through all of this, let’s say that the whole past nine years before Maria has been the training to overcome Maria. OK, overcome not Maria, overcome the challenge.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: And of course we did our work. We have to do some fundraising. We have to plan, you know, our, how our, we have to train, we have to, you know, has been you know, all these decisions also helps the operation to keep going. People know about us, they, they, they, they come. We are doing, I, I very, like I told you earlier, I’m very confident with the menu we are serving. It’s a reflection on where we are right now. Just a simple lunch menu, but it has the essence of what Verde Mesa was about.

ALICIA KENNEDY: What kind of dishes are on that menu?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: For example, radish carpaccio. We have a dish that, it’s kind of like a chayote ceviche. We have a small, small beef with beets, we have, we’re doing simple things. We have an interpretation of a serenata, we have different stews, and we have a porridge of duck, I think, yeah porridge of duck, sometimes comes fish, we cook it, we do a special with it, but it’s a menu that, it’s high flavor but very, has an aesthetic, flavor, aesthetically looks great and for, for us in the kitchen is very simple to put together, which is also something we needed because we are not that many in the kitchen, we’re doing everything, so.

ALICIA KENNEDY: And now that you’re no longer a pescatarian, vegetarian restaurant, do you still feel or do you still put a lot of vegetarian, pescatarian dishes on the menu?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Yeah. I like to work with vegetables. We have right now on dishes made with Romanesco cauliflowers, beans and Romanesco cauliflower. We just steam in a Chinese basket and put on top salsa verde. Then we take the, the, how you say, the stems? How you say, the stems?


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: And we slice it, we pickle them, we put it on top of that, and we have a dish. We, we, when we things are, teaching me a lot, just take the produce as it is and try to do a dish with the produce instead of, like, having three produce and making a dish based on the combination of three. You know, let’s take radishes and do a radish carpaccio. Alright so, we are also a lot of maximizing of produce, a lot of trying to have no waste, you know, things that you know, you take it for granted, no take it for granted. Things that comes out when you look through all these processes, you know?

ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. Food waste is a huge conversation in the States. Is it, are people talking about it here?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: I think we could talk more.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: I think it becomes something more, actually it was my, my meeting with the guys last week, with my team, was there, we will try our best not to waste.

ALICIA KENNEDY: And that means a lot more pickling or a lot more…?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: A lot more pickling, let’s use that juice. Let’s take the carcass, like do a stew, let’s, but we, we know we are not, you know, think about it at this point, think what we have out in front of you, grab it and, the impulsiveness of getting rid of it because it’s a convenience thing to do. I, you know, I, we are working hard at Verde Mesa to really don’t have waste, you know…

OTHER VOICE: I don’t want any, I’m sorry.


OTHER VOICE: It’ll look good close of shift.

ALICIA KENNEDY: So when something happens like yesterday’s blackout, how does that affect…?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Oh, it effects us completely, you know. You have a front of house and back of the house, you know, they can not, they don’t have work that day, you know? So it, it effects everybody. Effects the restaurant, effects the morale. I know you, you, you’re like, you know, you know, you see your produce, your, you have worked hard to have this prep done and then you’re just nervous, what’s going to happen with it, you know.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: We, when we started, we needed these crazy MacGyver wiring to a very small power plant. We are gonna do that again, so when the lights goes out we can, you will not notice, you know, instead of switching, I don’t know, which is in the kitchen, while we are using electricity now, because we’re, you know, pero, when we, when we started, we were relying on Sterno and gas, we were just MacGyver-ing everything. I gotta, you know, like creatively, and we pulled it off, the first one was after we opened, we opened and we were starting without light for a month, another month, and we put her up with it, so.

But yeah, you have food, food can get all these things, all those emotions are going on, and then you add that to the process that you already have in, and the only thing I can say is to try to stay calm, and relaxed, just part of what is going on, you know, you are staying and this is what you have to deal, and just see how we can do things to caution ourself in events like this. You know?

ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. And now, I just, I talked to someone this morning who was saying, who runs a coffee shop, who was saying that because there was a blackout last week, they thought they were free for the month. Like they get, there’s one a month or something, you know, they’re, they can plan for one blackout a month, but that there were two, that that threw everything off.

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: No, the two blackouts really screwed us. Economically for us is…


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Thursday and Wednesday, what Thursday or Wednesday, and Wednesday I think. Yep.

ALICIA KENNEDY: Is there any way to, other than making yourself less dependent on electricity, is there any way that you can, that you’ve run the kitchen differently because you know that there is this possibility?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Well, the structure of the kitchen has, has changed, we changed because when electricity came, but the menu, the menu can work itself with just one, one, Cella unit connected to electricity, and Sternos. And that’s it. We can make it happen without, you know. And so. What was the question?

ALICIA KENNEDY: I’m sorry, just how, is there anything you’d do differently because of the possibility of losing power?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Yeah. Well with the menu has that in it, it can transform itself with no power. So the only thing is that we will have to close up and eat dinner, and make dinner at night when we, when we, that, if this happened. But still we have the lunch.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: But right now we are in talk with the owners of this building, and all the owners of the other parts of the other, the other parts of the building also rent tenants, to just do a big pot and just take a, because by an electric engineer, like a, a generator. And we will do a pool and the money will pay between everybody, so stay cost effective for everybody, because we cannot, like, if we don’t do it, we, it’s going be very difficult, imagine a blackout for four days.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: If it happened, like regularly, we would go out of business without, not, if we don’t have a generator. It’s, it’s not possible. Even even, when there’s a blackout, you know, especially in San Juan, it gets so black and so crazy, it looks like, it’s very sad when you see that, you know, it’s challenging to bring people to Old San Juan. Nothing will change blackout. So even if you have on light, I will lose client, I will lose clients. So the first bit of that, and so the business part, and the business part, part is very, you know, it makes you anxious a little bit, you know? But we will try to work it out and we, I think we will do, we will succeed, we have to do the things to, to try to accommodate their restaurant with newer lighting, which we have been doing so far.

ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah. How much would a generator be that could power…?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: I still don’t know, maybe over 50k?


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: I’m talking about a whole building, something like that.

ALICIA KENNEDY: That’s insane.

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: One of those big models, yeah.

ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah. So, back to the idea of the original menu when, you know, when I would, I’ve been coming here for a couple of years and everyone would always say “you have to go to Verde Mesa because you don’t eat meat.” So, and how, would, did you find that that was a stifling idea?


ALICIA KENNEDY: That you were the place everyone told vegans to go to. Was that kind of stifling, creatively, or…?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: What is stifling?

ALICIA KENNEDY: You kind of stunt, or decrease, your creativity, to be thought of as…?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Well, it decreases the amount of people that can experience the food.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: That’s what happened. Because creatively, we always, there, you know, we have our, our highs, our lows, meaning like there are things that are really, things that are really well with food we put out….


OTHER VOICE: Pleasure to meet you ladies. Always here at your service.

ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh thank you.

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: So, no, no creatively, yeah, I will get, you know, sometimes, a vegan, a vegetarian, will look at the menu and will see meat or will see something, and will say this is not vegetarian, but look at the menu, the menu, pretty much everything are things that you can change. So aside from that, I, you know, it’s just, like I told you it just has been limiting our reach, our reach out.

ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. And are there people who were upset when you started to serve meat?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: People, there would, you know, people that started saying me that will not come to the restaurant, of course, that’s something that happens. Other people will, maybe a vegetarian will look at the, will see the menu and say this is not vegetarian, and just close it, but you don’t see, look at, look again because 65, 70 percent of the menu is vegetable-based, so don’t, don’t block it out. Aside from that, I, I, like I told you, we’re trying, we’re working to change that image of the restaurant.

ALICIA KENNEDY: How are you doing that?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Well Lloyda and I recently did an interview, with El Nuevo Dia, it’s coming up in the next weeks, and I think that will help out. We tried to connect with the reopening of the dinner service, and the interview with is part of that process. You’re not saying, showing what we are doing now, in the restaurant and the restaurant is about. It’s a restaurant that has been a culinary go-to for a long time, and not a culinary, no, you know, more people, you know, they surprised at how many years, “nine years” — “nine years?” We are going through a different, different, different phases in the culinary, let’s say, the culinary renaissance of, of, of right now Puerto Rico in like the past couple of years..

ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right. Who do you think is also a good job of pushing Puerto Rico’s culinary world forward?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: I think, I think collectively we, there’s a, I don’t have a pinpoint chef right now, and I think that everybody’s doing what they can do in the best of their abilities, is, you know, we are in a learning process. It will take a while to really push it to the level that, me personally, ambition, which is, you know, I keep seeing rooted of, in the Caribbean, but has the eyes of the international, the international, [inaudible], like, reconocimiento, you know, international? You know? I said recognition, just seeing, I think in the world, and no other recognition, just about what is going to happen, you know? Creating a sense, a performance, a collective sense of identity.

We should, I think, in this island, this is something that will bring more integration between us, and I think that’s the goal. You had it happen in different places already. So there’s person for that, and here it’s not different, we can like, we can make it happen. But in our case it’s broken, so we shared this, this line of ancestry. So, you know, it’s gonna be something that has to jump from one island to the other to, to be cohesive. Maybe you don’t go, you cannot call it Puerto Rican cuisine, you have to call it, it has Caribbean, it’s Caribbean, because so many influence from all the islands, so.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: So I think all, all the chefs are working towards our goal. I hope that Jose Enrique brings the James Beard to Puerto Rico, because talking about what chef, which I respect, because that will open a lot of doors, and eyes will, like, Puerto Rico, you know? What’s going on? There’s a lot of talent here, people doing great stuff, and a lot of talent going out or doing great things in other kitchens. So, you know.

ALICIA KENNEDY: Awesome. I asked Twitter for their questions for you and they…




ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah. The website.


ALICIA KENNEDY: I tweeted, I asked, “I’m interviewing this chef. What do you, what questions do you have for him?” And most people just wanted to know how, how a restaurant can help sustain and grow small farmers on this island.



GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Just buy from them. So, there are many around and, just try to use as much as you can, get creative, smush it, don’t, you know, it’s, that’s it, you know. I think that’s as simple as that. Build your menu around it, just figure it out, you know, and don’t be afraid of the produce or, or I don’t know what to do with this produce, well learn or something, you know? I think it’s part of it. I’m talking about my experience, you know. Sometimes the comfort zone, which is something that all chefs hold to sometimes, is detrimental to the, first to your growth, and also if we don’t grow, how other people around you can grow, because we are connected, I think that’s it. Buy more from them.



ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh, nothing.

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: No, make your menu, you know, has kale, radish, and we’ll use maybe kale or radish, and that’s, so that’s why you see them and it’s all these kale dish, but you know, kales, and in that case I don’t like kale, it’s so boring already, everybody’s doing kale, oh how I can do a dish that is, there’s just, it’s kale, but it’s something different. So that’s the cool part, you know, trying to figure it out, something, sometimes a take a cliché or iconic thing in a way that breaks, breaks down the iconical, the iconic thing about them. And then you’re like, oh, this is, so, this is cool, you know, and that’s part of the challenge, I like that.

ALICIA KENNEDY: What have you been seeing from farms lately? What vegetables?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Well, a lot of radishes. Like I told you, a lot of kale. We’re now, we have Romanesco cauliflowers. Beets. We have a resurgence of the beet, you know, and that’s another thing, you know, how to do a beet dish that is also something different, you know, that’s super cool. Mesclun has been always available, that’s great.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: We, we, with the mesclun the challenge has been one long time, times where you cannot find a good mesclun very easily, you know, you have access to mesclun and it was just great. You know, you have a salad that’s all from here and that’s what I like, and I love when I get those mesclun from here, it’s crispy, beautifully, you get excited because you are, you’re giving your guests a great produce that you really are proud that you are buying. So. Broccoli. Yeah we got broccoli some weeks ago, and then of course the usual root vegetables like yuca, cassava, malanga.

ALICIA KENNEDY: So what are your plans now for, for the future? How, how long do you think it’ll be until you’re doing dinner service again?

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: I, we’re, we’re right now in that point process, that moment we just going to open soon.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: What is the date? I don’t know.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: Like I told my, my teams, you know, we are here in this, we, we think that we are like, things are stopped, but it’s just part of the process, it’s, it’s gonna, something’s gonna happen, boom, boom, boom, we’re going to have the dinner open.


GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: It’s going to be like that. You know, and that’s my goal right now. My main ambition goal is, is that opening the dinner service. So important for the growth of that, to continue the restaurant, you know? Well, economically, yeah, but also the growth of the restaurant is important, so.