ST. PETERSBURG — As the firstborn son and namesake of Major League Baseball pitcher Roberto Hernandez, Roberto Hernandez Jr. started preparing for a career on the mound in T-ball.
He moved from Puerto Rico to St. Petersburg with his mother, Ivonne, and older sister, Kairy, in 1998 when his dad signed with the Tampa Bay Rays. From that time on, Roberto Jr. played baseball year-round. He also played in high school at St. Petersburg Catholic, on a team that went to the state final four playoffs.
After graduation, he signed on to play where his father began his pitching career, the University of South Carolina at Aiken. But, after two years on the field, life threw Roberto Jr. a curveball. Today, the 25-year-old is the new chef at WEPA Cocina de Puerto Rico, a Puerto Rican-themed restaurant that opened March 14 in St. Petersburg's Warehouse Arts District.
As it turns out, baseball was an all-star training ground for kitchen work.
How was it growing up with a dad in the major leagues?
My dad was with the Chicago White Sox when I was born and my mom and dad had an apartment in Chicago but we didn't leave Puerto Rico until I was 3. But after that, I grew up in major-league clubhouses when the managers allowed for it. Pittsburgh was one of my favorite places that he played. The manager was Jim Tracy and he was very relaxed and he let the players bring their kids in. I remember there was a ping-pong table so we would have ping-pong tournaments before games. They even gave me a locker right next to my dad for the summer, so it was a lot of fun.
When you were growing up did you always want to be a baseball player?
I always wanted to — that was my dream: to follow in my dad's footsteps. Unfortunately, with my knee injuries, that never seemed to take off but that's the way it is. I tore my ACL twice on my right knee and my meniscus once, all before my junior year of high school. But I went to Aiken and played for two years after redshirting for one year.
I was the first Roberto Hernandez to play in the Roberto Hernandez stadium. And, technically, my number, 35, is retired there. They un-retired the number — my dad's number — when I got there and then retired it again when I left. My brother Jose is playing there now but he didn't want the same number. My dad spent his sophomore season at Aiken and got drafted in the first round after one season there. My dad was catching at UConn but he transferred because he wanted to pitch and UConn wouldn't let him. In hindsight, that was a dumb move on their part.
While I was playing I kind of sensed this is not going to happen. Honestly, It was one of the harder points in my life just realizing I'm not going to be able to live up to everyone's expectations. When I would go back home to Puerto Rico everyone would say they couldn't wait to see me play on TV like my dad.
How did your dad and family members take it when you quit playing baseball and returned to St. Petersburg?
Quite honestly my dad never wanted me to go to Aiken because he knew the pressure that would be on me. So he was a little bit relieved and a little disappointed that things didn't work out. He knows better than anyone how hard it is to make it because he had to go through it. Now, my parents are absolutely glad I made the decision. They wish I would cook more at home but I cook at school and I cook at work so when I come home I really don't want to cook. Chefs usually have the worst eating habits because they don't want to cook for themselves after cooking for everyone else.
And besides our love of baseball, me and my dad share a love of cooking, so that has brought us a lot closer together. My dad is probably one of the main people to thank for my love of cooking because he used to watch Emeril (Lagasse) all the time. Those are some of the earliest memories I have of us — watching the Food Network with him on the couch.
Do you have advice for your younger brother Jose?
Jose is six years younger than me and he's an outfielder. I don't talk to him about baseball, I talk to him about life, because that's what I want him to focus on. I don't want him to be worried about stats or anything like that. It's a game in the end.
You said playing baseball in Aiken also inspired some of your passion for cooking. Can you tell us about that?
I owe a lot to my time at Aiken because that's when I developed my love for cooking. I cooked for my teammates. We would have these family dinners because not many of them knew how to cook. So we would go to Sam's Club and buy a big slab of meat or buy food in bulk and most of the time I would be doing all the cooking. They really enjoyed ribs outside on the grill. I cook these Dr Pepper ribs that my mom really seems to like. I started messing around with those back then at Aiken mostly because Dr Pepper was cheap and we could buy it in bulk and marinate meat in it. But it turned into something really good.
What do you like most about cooking?
When I'm in the kitchen I just block everything out. I'm in the zone. It's my happy place.
I feel more comfortable in the kitchen than I ever did on the mound. I think the hours are definitely harder than baseball. It's a lot more physical work than people realize and it's a lot more emotionally straining than people realize. There's a lot of stress but I knew what I was signing up for. I feel like maybe all the stressful baseball situations kind of helped me out a little bit too.
If you had a walkup song for cooking what would it be?
My song would be 300 Violin Orchestra. It's a song I used to listen to before baseball games dating back to high school to get my mind-set right, and I still do listen on my way to work or school. It's almost like pumping myself up for battle because the kitchen can be chaotic. I like to come in ready to go and motivated, and that song does that for me.
How did you end up at WEPA?
I attend the Art Institute of Tampa and luckily right now I am only seven classes away from having my bachelor's in culinary management. Earlier this year my chef teacher told me WEPA owner Jean Totti needed a substitute for his chef, Dan Varga, who had to leave town for a funeral. He needed somebody to come in and just hold down the fort while Chef Dan was away. Chef Dan is a butcher and was a consultant for the owner before he opened.
I really enjoy the camaraderie of working in a kitchen. It's pretty much the same as being on a team. The kitchen functions that way — everyone works together. Really it all focuses on teamwork. If you don't have that, the kitchen will fail.
No one can do everything. I worked at Cassis and Rococo Steak downtown before coming here. But in the short time I have been here, this has definitely become a second family.
What are your favorite recipes at WEPA?
The Chicharrones de Pollo, our version of fried chicken, is one of our biggest sellers. And also the mofongo (fried green plantains with pork, chicken or seafood). We have about 50 seats and some tables outside but we are already getting too busy for this space. It's a good problem to have though. We serve the food of my childhood. Growing up we always had white rice, some kind of beans and some kind of pork or steak. Here I love the Pernil Asado. It's slowly roasted pork shoulder and it's one of the staples of Puerto Rican cuisine.
What are your long-term plans in the restaurant business?
Here in St. Pete is where I want to stay. Chef Dan trained me on how to price out recipes, to be able to manage people and set up schedules, and teaching me how to set up prep for the whole week with measurements. My sister Kairy is studying business at Louisiana State University and she wants to come help me one day. In the next two years or so I want to start working on a business plan to open my own restaurant here. This restaurant is perfect for me because something like this is what I want to do when I start up myself. It's helpful to see how a business is built from the ground up. And owner Jean has been really helpful and offered advice if I ever need it. I never thought this would be my game. Life sure works in mysterious ways at times. But, I'm very happy.