I Love My Kitchen Because: Johnny Hernandez

Chef Johnny Hernandez' Texas outdoor kitchen is geared toward Mexican grilling.

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