This kitchen literally started out as a hole in the ground. I wanted to experiment with in-ground cooking, so one weekend I dug a pit and invited 50 friends over to my house for barbacoa, pit-smoked meat. Eventually I built an actual kitchen, since I wanted a way to showcase Mexican cooking styles that are largely prepared outdoors. Instead of a sunken hole in the ground, I now have two brick-lined cooking pits that are raised to the height of my countertop, so I don’t have to crouch to cook in them. I use the one that’s five and a half feet deep to prepare pit-roasted foods from northern Mexico, including whole cow’s heads, which I wrap in banana leaves and stuff with thyme for a smoky, herbal flavor. I use the tongue for plated meals and the cheeks for tacos. In the other pit, which is seven and a half feet deep, I cook foods as they do in Puebla, placing hot coals on the bottom with a pot of broth set directly on top so the meat cooking on the grate above both smokes and steams. I also have a spit, which is great because I can roast six legs of lamb or four cabritos (young goats) at a time. I’ve been working on this kitchen for a year and a half and have plans to add a wood-fired clay oven and a tin roof. It’s my laboratory, and my playground.
In this kitchen:
• The hoisting system above the pits is based on one I saw at a barbacoa restaurant in Puebla. The rig slides side to side, and the hoists raise and lower heavy cuts of meat.
• Over the shallow pit, I’ll sometimes place a red-clay comal, a flat-top cooking surface, that I brought up from Guadalajara. It’s great for toasting tortillas and chiles.
Sometimes I spit-roast goats on the deep grill. I learned how to do it at a restaurant in Mexico my father used to take me to. You start by positioning the spit close to the heat, then move it away to finish cooking.
My favorite fuel for grilling is a combination of mesquite and oak, which imparts a really nice smoky flavor to my grilled and skewered meats.
—Johnny Hernandez, chef-owner of the San Antonio, Texas, restaurants La Gloria and The Fruteria