“We were very, very resourceful,” says Pepín, who would whip up batches of nougat using the government-issued peanut butter then given to Cuban exiles. Those early years reinforced the importance of family, shared meals, and traditions. Food, he learned, not only nourishes the body; it bridges generations and builds memories. Today, just as his grandmother and aunt brought him into the warmth of their kitchens when his mother died, Pepín now bakes cookies with the younger generation: his cousin’s preteen grandchildren, whose father passed away three years ago.
His own children, he says, proved less inclined to follow his culinary inspirations. He jokes that his daughter Anamaría, 38, is more likely to make dinner reservations than dinner. And 32-year-old José Antonio isn’t much better. He went to a neighborhood market and asked a fellow shopper to help him pick out some lemons. The shopper shot him a curious look and asked: “Aren’t you Chef Pepín’s son?”
But Chef Pepín wasn’t always top chef in his own kitchen. While the Hernández children were growing up, Pepín’s wife, Telvy, 59, made dinner daily. Always highly organized, she worked as a bank vice president then came home and cooked from a planned menu.
“She’s a good cook,” says Pepín of the woman he met on the first day of high school and married in 1967. But the menus grew so predictable that one day their son blurted out, “Why don’t you ask Chef Pepín for a new recipe?”
Eventually, Telvy ceded her kitchen to the rising-star chef, who turned it upside down with his inventive style. Both mother and son say Pepín’s cooking is a symbol of something greater: an uplifting and generous spirit.
“Inside that huge body there’s a little boy,” says José Antonio. “He’s hilarious, loving, and fearless—in orange shoes.”
It was that “orange shoes” spirit that gave the world Chef Pepín, the flamboyant TV personality. Although he was a foodie all his life, he became Chef Pepín in 1987, when he got a beeper call from Anamaría, who was working as a TV producer on a new Univision show called TV Mujer. They desperately needed a host for the cooking segment. She asked him to try out.
Pepín, who was selling insurance at the time, showed up in grand style. “I wore an apron and a hat that said ‘Kiss the Cook,’ white Gucci loafers,” says Pepín. He joked as he cooked up a storm, and at the end of the segment he belted out what would become his trademark phrase:
“¡Con el Chef Pepín, hasta el fin!” (With Chef Pepín until the end!) The rest is TV chef history.
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