En español | On young Pepín Hernández’s favorite afternoons, Hilda, the family cook, would be waiting for him at the school bus stop, seemingly bursting with good news. Knowing what that look on her face meant, he’d yelp, “¡Malanga amarilla!” His favorite delicacy, the yellow taro root, had arrived at the farmers’ market. And Hilda, a culinary goddess in his eyes, cooked it to perfection.
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Little did either of them know that the boy would grow up to be Chef Pepín, the beloved television personality famous for whipping up dishes resonant of those childhood afternoons.
As Pepín serves up his 20th year of cooking on Univision with his trademark flamboyance and unveils a new line of cookware, he’s returning to the essence of that bygone era when, for him, family was a seamless notion and all food was comfort food.
That sense of nostalgia has also allowed the Cuba-born Pepín to travel deeper into his own culture—and well beyond the culinary. Whether at Miami’s Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Center visiting elders or at farm-worker events, “he is truly part of the fabric of our community,” says Maria Garza, who is president of the Mexican American Council and a community organizer in Homestead, near Miami.
Pepín, 59, often serves as emcee for Garza’s events. Three years ago, she called on him to honor the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq. “I can’t think of anyone who could have turned that difficult situation into such a special moment the way Chef Pepín did,” she says. “He’s not just the TV personality, the chef. He’s also an outstanding human being, a national treasure.”
But at his core, he remains a chef. And in that role, his latest endeavor is lightening up his classic dishes without losing flavor—and without using lots of lard. It’s fresh and simple ingredients, back-to-the-earth sabor. And it’s healthy, too.
“In the Hispanic kitchen, we were organic before organic was the word of the day,” says Miami-based Pepín, whose first culinary memory takes him back to his grandmother’s farm in Matanzas, Cuba, where he learned to make butter from fresh cream. “Our flavor was as healthy as it could be—[from] garlic, onions, olive oil, bay leaves, oregano,” he says. “We ate grains, fish, beans. We love flour, yes, but we can make it whole grain. What could be more healthy?” And recalling his grandmother’s high blood pressure, he also reduces salt.
His greatest culinary influences were his grandmother, Carmen Beltrán; his Tía Mary; and, of course, Hilda. The trinity of women represents a strong maternal force in the life of a boy whose mother, María Amelia, died of multiple sclerosis when he was 5. Pepín took solace in the Havana kitchen of his Tía Mary, who pampered him and raised him in a house where life revolved around myriad visitors and fun, made-to-order cuisine, “like a restaurant,” he says.
The feasts continued when the family fled Cuba for Miami in 1960, although when they arrived they were suddenly poor and squeezed into a one-bedroom apartment.