Abraham Lemus of Hermanito: “You’re going to have to live without weekends or holidays”

They’re all your stations. As a green cook, you should want to know all the stations over time but once you become a junior sous-chef and up, they all become your responsibility. That is when you go from being a cook to a chef. As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I […]

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They’re all your stations.

As a green cook, you should want to know all the stations over time but once you become a junior sous-chef and up, they all become your responsibility. That is when you go from being a cook to a chef.

As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Chef Abraham Lemus. He was born in Santa Paula, California, the citrus capital of the world. His earliest memories are of his family’s gardens, filled with orange, lemon, and avocado trees; berries; and fresh produce. In his formative years, his grandpa took him on family trips to Mexico where he was taught to forage and to make everything from scratch. A regular morning would involve milking the cows, harvesting the produce, prepping all day for dinner, and making cheese. Lemus’ grandpa unknowingly lit the fuse to a future career that would take many twists and turns but would ultimately involve long periods of learning and training. From then on, Lemus immersed himself in the different cuisines and cultures where he continued to perfect his art, hone his talent, and develop his passions for food and service. In 2020, he joined the team at Hermanito as Executive Chef, where he continues the restaurant’s ambition to respect the Japanese and Mexican cultures while developing both cuisines in unison on the menu.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?

When I was a kid my grandpa used to take me to Mexico to visit family for the summer. The majority of my family lived in a small town called Huejucar, however, my aunt who we were staying with lived in the mountains in the tiny village of Santa Ines. At the time I did not realize how amazing the food was; to me it was just food we ate on a family trip. I got to eat handmade tortillas that my aunt made daily; she would milk the cows early in the morning then make a bunch of cotija cheese and queso fresco. Everything was pretty much from scratch and from the land. Those trips inspired me to become a chef.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

I’m open to cooking and trying all different types of food but tend to play around with Mexican and Asian ingredients mostly. I was raised in a Latino household and there was always food in the house, and the Asian influence in my cooking comes from my time working at Hinoki and the Bird. Chef Brandon and Chef K taught me a lot in the time I was there.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

Oh man I have tons of stories but if I had to choose one, I would say the time Curtis Stoned yelled at me in the middle of a crazy service. Before I tell this story, I need to say that Chef Curtis is one of the nicest, coolest chefs I have ever worked for, but that day I dropped the ball. I was working at the josper station at Gwen and on it we had charred cream corn, which is just corn, butter, corn stock, S&P. I throw the mini skillet into the josper, burn the first one, throw another one in and tell chef I’m refiring. At this point he’s calling for his focaccia (also on my station). I’m in the weeds and Chef walks over to taste the corn I have now seasoned… I must have put a pound of pepper in there because he tasted it and was not happy. He pretty much spit it out then spoon fed me so I could taste it as well. I think out of pure fear, I said it tasted fine. Oh man he asked me if I was F******* crazy! Moral of the story is make it nice or make it twice, or in my case three times.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

When I started going to culinary school, I was commuting from Ventura County to Los Angeles, which was an hour and 30 minutes one way. It was rough. Then I got my first job in a kitchen at a spot in LA called Eva Restaurant. When I started working there, I realized what I had gotten myself into — long hours, mental and physical stress, not seeing family and friends as much, sleeping in my car because I was too tired to drive home. Eventually I moved to LA. That helped a lot and over time I learned how to prioritize the little time I had outside of the kitchen.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

There should be a story to each dish. People want to know where you got your produce, how you prepared the food, or what inspired you to make a dish.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

My mom’s enchiladas with a fat slice of queso fresco.

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

My memories give me a lot of my creativity. Memories such as remembering some of my chefs pulling off amazing dishes that I thought I would never be able to do or remembering food that I had growing up. I try my best to open cookbooks from chefs that I follow, but if you are ever at a thrift shop, go for the paperback old dusty cookbook in the book section. You can find some really good inspiration there as well.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

The Hermanito team is currently working on street style tacos because we have had to find ways to adapt due to the pandemic. We got a plancha, a vertical broiler, and set it up on the front patio. I love it because I get to talk to people while I cook for them. I think the community is loving it so far too! Food brings people together so it’s awesome to have people bring back friends and seeing customers meet each other while they wait for their tacos.

What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

Try and make time for yourself. The restaurant industry is hard and mental health is particularly important. Happy cooks make good food.

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. You’re going to have to live without weekends or holidays. One thing I learned early on is that you learn to appreciate the people you work with. I love holiday family meals with the full team.

2. Everybody works “garmo.”

Coming out of culinary school, a lot of people think they are just going to roll up to a restaurant and become the chef. It’s not like that, however; it’s like graduating from high school. The piece of paper just says you know the basics. We all start at the garmache station.

3. They’re all your stations.

As a green cook, you should want to know all the stations over time but once you become a junior sous-chef and up, they all become your responsibility. That is when you go from being a cook to a chef.

4. Write it down.

Make a habit of writing things down, including prep lists, ideas you get throughout the day, etc. There is always something going on in the kitchen so it’s easy to forget things.

5. Organization is key.

The earlier you learn this the better. Like I said, everyone starts at garmache but as you progress your list of duties grows and staying organized will help you be able to execute and be efficient in the kitchen.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

The Al Pastor tacos are my personal favorite right now.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would want to inspire people to learn more about food waste and learn how to utilize all our food. Go to the farmers market and ask about the number twos; sometimes the not so pretty stuff tastes even better than the perfect produce on the table. Learn how to pickle and preserve. Canning things is awesome too because it allows you to have whatever it is you have canned at any time of the year.

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

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