Oscar Hernandez didn’t intend to make the hospitality industry his life, but sometimes life surprises you. A job slinging pizzas at longtime Omaha spot Zio’s Pizzeria sparked a flame that was further fanned by stints at Vivace, The French Café, and The Market House. To further hone his skills, he burned the candle at both ends by taking classes at Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for the Culinary Arts while serving as sous chef of Old Market mainstay M’s Pub.
In these and other lauded local spots, the voracious learner found no shortage of mentors, including John Rea (Via Farina), Matt Moser (Stirnella), and Brian Langbehn (Coneflower Creamery). Hernandez shared, “I learned a lot from those guys about being creative and how to be on top of things when running a kitchen, making lists, and staying consistent.”
After years of toiling in others’ kitchens, the instinctive cook recently opened his own place: Corner Kitchen. It’s both his biggest source of pride and his biggest challenge. As Hernandez tells it, “There was always someone else to help before, but now the responsibilities fall on me, including leveling up business skills such as accounting and management.”
The idea for Corner Kitchen circled his mind for years, and when a suitable space was offered for sale, Hernandez and his wife Maira jumped on the opportunity. The concept was to marry street foods from his native Mexican culture with Asian flavors (Hernandez hails from Hidalgo, about an hour from Mexico City).
“We are trying to do traditional Mexican food with Asian influences, so the carnitas are Korean carnitas, the japchae [sweet potato noodle stir fry] or Dan Dan noodles, instead of spicy ground pork, we use the same carnitas, chile de arbol, and another peanut sauce to incorporate Asian flavors.” Hernandez senses and highlights the similarities between Mexican birria broth and Vietnamese pho as well as gochujang and Mexican chile pastes.
When it comes to recipe development, Hernandez advises cooks to “just be playful.” The chef/owner and his brother collaborated on the intriguing caramel-popcorn inspired elote flan, a corn custard served with caramel ice cream. Another tempting creation is the Korean esquites (corn off the cob), mixed with cheese and gratinéed in the oven.
After years in the industry, Hernandez knows how critical it is to support local purveyors and form strong relationships when working from a scratch kitchen. Corner Kitchen sources chicken from Plum Creek Farms; Terra Firma Fungi and Flavor Country Farms supply earthy mushrooms and microgreens; and Jen Miller from Miller-Dohrmann Farm provides authentic masa.
Relationships aren’t limited to food—the beguiling paintings of corn and pork lining the walls of the restaurant, as well as the compelling logo, were done by a friend Hernandez met when working at 801 Chophouse.
What advice would Hernandez give to others expressing a desire to open their own joint? “I don’t think there’s good advice, just try it to see what it will be. Start small, try popups first. Omaha is great for popups, there’s a little more good food here nowadays and it’s getting better each year.”