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Chef Pepín: Stirring the Soul

The famous cook shares the ingredients for a joyful life and the recipe for his favorite food

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.

See also: 7 foods to keep you young.

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.

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“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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