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When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Empanadas!

Helms College Graduate Making an Impact and Creating Jobs with her new Restaurant

Chef entrepreneur Aracelis Hernandez usually spends a lot of time in the spring at her booth at the Augusta Market. But with the COVID-19 pandemic delaying the opening of the market, Hernandez found herself without a significant revenue source or a place to create and serve her Latin fusion cuisine.

She worked out a partnership agreement with T.J. Simmons, who owns a commissary kitchen on Riverwatch Parkway in Augusta and opened The Crazy Empanada for take-out orders on May 11.

“I started with so little, I was so scared,” said Hernandez, whose nickname is Nuni. “The (Augusta) Market didn’t open and I said, ‘Let me try this and see.’ We went one day. Then two days. Three days. And the fourth day it blew up, and it’s been crazy since then.”

Hernandez said her nephew Julius Staples, who works the market booth with her, encouraged her to move forward with the storefront venture. Money was tight and she was nervous, but he reminded her they’d never know if they could make it if they didn’t try.

Now Hernandez, who earned her A.S. degree in Culinary Arts from Helms College in 2019, has a staff of 10, including fellow Helms graduates Yineska Hernandez Diaz and Brittnee Eidson.

Opening The Crazy Empanada storefront is the most recent turn in a journey that has had some low points along the way. Hernandez, who has degrees in journalism and business management, fought her way back from the brink of suicide to create the life she has today.

“I was in another place that I don’t wish anybody to be in,” she says, her sunny demeanor temporarily clouded as tears come to her eyes. “I was divorced. I lost everything. My husband left me with nothing. I was asking, ‘What the hell happened to you?’ I was depressed for I don’t know how long. I didn’t believe in myself for a long time. My confidence was gone. I was even homeless.”

She had an epiphany that propelled her forward and started her on her current path.

“I said one day, ‘What’s up with you, Nuni? Okay girl, come on. Wake up! Let’s go!’” She went to Puerto Rico, where she was born, and visited places she loved while growing up there. “I said, ‘You need to care about Nuni right now, and your family, and what you want to do with your future.’”

Having worked in the food and beverage industry while pursuing other educational and career endeavors, she decided to pursue a path of becoming a chef and attend Johnson and Wales culinary school in Charleston. But upon returning home to Augusta, she dropped in at Helms College to visit a friend who worked in the office.

“I saw the hat,” she said of the college’s promotional materials featuring a chef’s hat. “I looked at the way it was set up and realized the same thing they have over at Johnson and Wales, we have it right here, even a little bit better. I applied the same day and I was so happy.”

Her time at Helms College was more than just training for her career. It was the catalyst for her to find her confidence, her purpose and her voice.

“Because I had been in a very dark place, being at Helms College doing what I love, it helped me mentally to become better each day to see I was worth something,” she said. “It changed my life. The instructors, especially Chef Kristina Dahl and Chef Colleen Garcia, changed my perspective of being who I wanted to be as a chef. They helped me the best chef I can be.”

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.”