Continued: When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Empanadas!
Culinary instructors know that when a student has previous cooking experience, as Hernandez did, there are often old habits to be broken in order to progress as a professional.
“The thing that set Nuni apart right away was her focus and drive,” noted Garcia. “She has a natural talent for cooking, sure, but it is that sense of purpose and direction she embodies that really gives her an edge. That woman is fearless! I consider myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to be a part of her journey.”
In an industry dominated by men, Hernandez noted being a woman in the kitchen she has to overcome obstacles that can come from being a minority in the workplace. She said you have to create perfection, and although it’s a difficult balance, you have to be the best and stay humble at the same time.
“I thank God for Helms College,” she said. “It’s been a hard journey. You have to show your strength as a person, and as a cook at different levels. It’s been a great journey. I have learned so much from everyone. How to be a better person. How to be a better cook. How to be a better prepared professional. I just don’t have the words.”
Helms is a career college with a school of health services and a school of trades in addition to its culinary programs. Campuses are located in Augusta and Macon.
“Every student at Helms has the opportunity to create the life they strive to have, and we are here to support them in realizing their potential,” Garcia said.
Through Helms College, Hernandez had the opportunity to work at Augusta National during the 2019 Masters Tournament, where she was one of seven Helms College students to earn a coveted culinary jacket reserved for the “best of the best” chefs.
“For me, working my first tournament showed me that I really wanted to do this for real,” Hernandez said. “I started my Crazy Empanada food booth. I wanted to be more perfect, because I wanted to inspire people to enjoy the food and experience the flavors.”
Working during the tournament under Executive Chef Danny Profita of the Merion Cricket Club in Philadelphia helped build Hernandez’ confidence.
“I was so scared, and we were all going crazy running around everywhere,” she recalled. “I was so stressed on the inside and I said to myself, ‘Nuni, just be yourself.’ So I was just myself.”
After the tournament, she approached Profita about an internship at his restaurant, and he welcomed the chance to have her in his kitchen. She and fellow Helms alumni Yineska Hernandez spent three months in Philadelphia under his tutelage at the Merion Cricket Club.
When Augusta National opens in September, she will have another turn a season-long internship in the club’s kitchens, in addition to keeping the storefront running and adding in the booth at the Augusta Market once operations there resume.
When she began the culinary program at Helms College, Nuni Hernandez just wanted to perfect what she called her “little Latin thing.” She recounted how she was in love with everything every day while she was attending classes and believed if she dedicated herself to everything she did, she’d improve each day.
She said her chef instructors encouraged her to forget that she could already cook Puerto Rican food, and stretch to be a better chef, trying something different.
“I’m doing fusion, with a little French,” she said of her menu at The Crazy Empanada. “I want people to say, ‘This is so different, with all the flavors. This is a damn good Cuban!’”
Hernandez’ personal upward trajectory is inextricably intertwined with her career path. While finding her way as a chef and business owner, she has also found her way back to herself.
“When you eat my food, I want you to feel like you are in my grandma’s house, and you can feel all the tastes and flavors and all the comfort,” she said. “And this is about the new Nuni. I want you to live life to the fullest. I want you to be happy every day. That’s the reason we’re here.”