SABOR: 'Despierta América's' Chef Pepín Shares His Recipe for Success & Longevity
"SABOR" is a food & wine and lifestyle series that savors Latinos' zest for life and passion for home and family.
"'Despierta América's" treasured Chef Pepín has perfected his recipe for success by adding generous heaps of authenticity, a genuine engagement with his loyal fans, love for the Latino community, and his infectious humor and humility. This is one recipe where you can splurge and indulge in large portions, for all of these ingredients are hard to come by these days.
The Cuban-American culinary pioneer, who spoke to Latin Post in an exclusive interview, encompasses the essence of our "Sabor" series for he truly savors every moment, has a passion for cooking, but most importantly, he has a zest for life.
Before the foodie movement, the organic craze, food blogs and social media, Chef Pepín (José Hernández) was winning over audiences the old-fashioned way--by infusing his personality into his recipes and becoming a hit with TV audiences. He also is bilingual, which helped him gain a following among acculturated Latinos and the English-speaking population. His story is unique among many celebrity chefs, for he didn't seek out fame and fortune but instead he came from humble beginnings and happened to fall into his professional culinary career at age 40.
He filled a void on Univision's driven TV magazine show "TV Mujer" during the late '80s.
"The guy for the job is my father," said his daughter, Anamaria Hernández, who worked at "TV Mujer" at the time. "I was in insurance for 17 years," he said. "I had never been in a TV studio, zilch, nada, never. ... I brought my hat, I had my jokes and I had the persona. ... One camera guy said I was 'shameless!'"
"I did 10 shows in a row, then I started getting all of these letters. It was crazy. ... I was a business man so I handled it as a business," he explained. "I enjoyed it, I still enjoy it, and it's amazing! Now I am flashing back and I go 'holy ..., you need guts!' I started this when I was 40! I started this craft and I was a prestigious insurance agent... Of course, I knew about cooking but I was not a professional chef."
Now he can add "Despierta América's" professional chef -- and a celebrated one, at that -- to his extensive resume, which started at the young age of 12 when he came from Cuba and arrived in Miami, Florida with his aunt.
"I came to the states in 1960 and it was a big change ... of course, coming from your country. I became poor in 48 minutes. ... I got on a plane and 48 minutes later, I was piss-broke. It's like when they throw you in the water, you either sink or swim. I think that was it."
Needless to say, Chef Pepín swam like a champ and while it was tough, he managed to make it on his own, often working three jobs at a time, such as distributing newspapers, working at the police station or as a short order cook on the marina.
His love of food began in the womb, he jokes -- and his culinary experience began in his native Cuba.
"First of all I was born hungry, I love food!" he laughed. "I grew up on a farm, my grandparents' farm. We used to make cheese, dry beef, like jerky, we made sausages, chorizo, morcillas, so I actually grew up in this environment. My mother studied home economics and that was a career in itself at the time and of course I love food!"
"My mother died when I was four and then I went to live with my grandmother. I was always nourished from my father's side and my mother's side. I was spoiled!" he admitted. "Hey, somebody has to be, right!?" As an only child, Chef Pepín wasn't shy to admit that he relished in the attention, although he had a lot of cousins who also vied for attention.
Sadly, a year after his mother's passing, his grandmother (who is his biggest culinary influence) also passed away, which left him in his aunt's care. "I had to adapt," he said. "My aunt was an excellent cook and I used to cook on my own. I worked on the marina when I was 14. I was a short order cook and that's how I began. Food has been my passion my whole life."
What are Chef Pepín's fondest memories from Cuba?
"It was a lot of joy. I have excellent, excellent memories," he explained. "I came to this country with the notion that I was going to be here one or two months. It was like a summer camp. Neither myself or my aunt imagined the scope of this."
He recalled the last day of school in Cuba, where everyone was crying and saying goodbye, but little did he know that that it would be over five decades that he wouldn't return to his homeland. "That happened 54-55 years ago, but it was always fun, honest to God. ... I grew up with a lot of faith," he said.
He also grew up with a hard work ethic.
"I remember the last thing my father told me. He was a country man, and he gave me a hug and said, 'When you go to that country ... when you go to Miami, don't depend on anybody, you have got to work. It was ingrained in me," he said.
"I always took it as an experience, like it was fun, but when I look back, it was like 'wow,' like an Oprah moment, you know what I mean? But I always think that through life I always have a good approach," he added.
Chef Pepín has been unable to return to his home country due to the US embargo against Cuba, which went into effect in 1962 and still lingers. He is among many Cubans and Americans who are hoping to see progress between the two nations.
"Something has to happen, and to me it would be like 'wow,'" he said if he were to return to visit. "After so many years, we need a change."
Change is also something that Chef Pepín, who is in his late 60s, welcomes. That is where his love of computers and huge social media following comes into play, allowing him to stay connected with his fans of all ages.
"I did it little by little. I knew that social media was the thing," he said, referring to it as a "revolution." "You're either in it or you're not. We are changing constantly. I like to be on top of the ball, I like new things. I like the computer. My wife calls me 'Electrónico Perez!'" he laughed.
Every week, Chef Pepín shares his Latin-fusion recipes on Facebook and Twitter, as well as on some of the top television and radio shows in the country, including "Despierta América," "Univision América," "Amor 107.5 FM with Javier Romero," among others.
Chef Pepín also has a great team behind him, including the love of his life, his wife, confidant and colleague, Telvy, by his side. She also helps manage his career and provide work-life balance.
"At 7 o'clock, she says 'Shop is closed!'" he laughed. "We have been married for 47 years and we have been together for like 50-51 years. She was my 10th grade sweetheart. We are accustomed to working together. We enjoy each other. We are always together and that is a lot of fun." The happy couple also has a son, Jose Antonio Hernández.
In 2012, in an effort to make Latinos aware of the importance of healthy eating, Chef Pepín partnered up with First Lady Michelle Obama and The White House to launch the Latino version of "My Plate" ("Mi Plato"). He reiterates that you can prepare healthier versions of classic Latin dishes without sacrificing the flavor.
"We launched an initiative. I think it's really important, especially in schools," he said. "We can maintain our flavor, but we can do it in a healthier way."
With a "growing community of Hispanic/Latino foodies" on the rise, Chef Pepín has witnessed the evolution of the "Hispanic/Latino foodie" movement over the years and he couldn't be more thrilled with its outcome.
"I feel very good about it because I go to a lot of schools - from elementary and up, and kids are very well taught about nutrition, food and cooking. So it's amazing. I love it, I love it, I love it!" he gushed.
"We're going to have a generation that is realty smart about food. Being Hispanic, the only thing that actually unites us is food. When there is a death, we have food, get-togethers, we have food. Everything is food. It's not just for women, but men, too. Cooking is sharing and there's a lot of love there."
Check out a clip of actor/director John Favreau from the movie "Chef" appearing on "Despierta América" earlier this year with the legendary and lovable Chef Pepín.
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