It’s not every day that a father and son have restaurants located on the same street, just a few doors from one another, but such is the case for Rene and Diego Fernandez. The father-son duo are marking the King William neighborhood with new foods and flavors to inspire the ever-changing San Antonio dining set, first with Azuca, and now with the seafood-focused Starfish. The dining experience at Starfish is accented by the beautiful historic building which is filled with wonderful seaside delights, from vibrant paintings to gorgeous glass jellyfish, which dangle from the ceiling. We had the pleasure of talking with Chef Diego who filled us in on his much-buzzed about restaurant, which opened in June 2014. Read on to learn a little more about the Chef’s beginnings, inspirations, favorite culinary destinations, and his advice for prospective cooks and restaurateurs! Thank you Chef Diego for sharing!
When did you first realize you wanted to be a professional chef?
The first time that I realized that I wanted to be a professional Chef was probably my first day in a professional kitchen. I began working at Azuca as a prep cook at the age of 16.
Tell us about your career path- where did you start off, what were you doing before? Soon after I started working at Azuca I enrolled at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in San Antonio. I would say the journey started there. During the nine month training at the CIA I was part of the opening Team as a line cook at the Grand Hyatt. I would wake up early to go to school and get to work right after I got out. After graduating I transferred to Hyde Park , NY and finished my studies there. During a seven month externship at a prestigious boutique restaurant in Cape May, NJ I honed some of the skills and work ethic I carry on today. Under the tutelage of Chef Lucas Manteca i understood more than ever who I wanted to become. Soon after that I traveled to Orlando, FL and worked for three years at the Ritz-Carlton. Much of who I am today is due to the military style brigade they ran at this particular property.
It’s special that your family has been so incorporated in this line of work, especially with your dad just a few doors down from you at Azuca! What is that like and what can you say about your family-foodservice connection?
We are beyond blessed to be right next to each other. My father has been the role model, mentor, friend, and now best business partner I could ever imagine. Our relationship at work is just that. I think we both subconsciously leave our titles at the door once we step out through the restaurant doors. It’s a wonderful balance we have. My wife is soon to give birth and so she is no longer cooking at Starfish. During the first few months she would be in charge of all the baking and pastry. Now those roles have been distributed throughout our team. Being a Peruvian national provides me with yet another perspective of the food and beverage world. All in all the we are there for each other emotionally and professionally.
Tell us a little bit about Starfish: the title, the concept, and what drew you to creating a seafood-focused menu? Has your love for seafood always been important?
An actual starfish is able to regenerate a limb if throughout its life it happened to lose one. I believe our menu concept and ideology is somewhat resemblant. As we continue to grow and change we keep in mind that in order to succeed you may have to lose a limb or two. We have changed our menu about four times in the time that we have been open. We do this to challenge ourselves and continue to evolve as cooks. I think our love for food in general is a common thread that connects us as a team. Seafood to me is personal. It’s an intimate relationship that I grew up with. For most of my childhood there was a body of water within walking distance. Deep down I am biased towards marine life.
The whole aesthetic at Starfish from the furnishings to the integrity of the building, to the food is really something. What were you trying to achieve?
Honestly we did not have to do much to the building itself. For one, the building is part of the historic society so you can’t do much changing structurally. Secondly, the shape the building was in gave Starfish its persona. As far as the artwork, we connected with several talented artists in San Antonio to give the place its justification, from reclaimed wood acrylic paintings to jellyfish lights hanging below the bar. For me there is a fine line between classy sealife motifs and going “overboard” with fish nets and life savers. We certainly wanted to give the place a sophisticated look yet relaxed ambiance.
What is your earliest and/or most treasured food memory?
The first memory that captivated me took place in Puerto Rico. I was probably five years old. My mother took my brother and I to visit my father at the Dorado Hyatt. That day fisherman had caught what was probably an eight to nine foot marlin. We walked into the hotel’s back entrance and met my dad in the butcher room. As we were entering he was making the initial cut. The rest is history.
Could you share some advice for aspiring chefs, students and hopeful restaurateurs?
To me as a student the most important part was to ask questions. In an age where everything can be found on the internet perhaps current students do not ask as much. Have a notepad with a pen or pencil on you at all times. If you think for a second about asking a question that you think you should know, whether it concerns a technique, method, history, etc. I can guarantee there are about five more students that are wondering the same thing. When you’re working as a paid employee or a commis or stage, be humble, respectful, and quiet. At home, stay in tune with your career choice. Read, explore, and experiment to give yourself the best possible choice to succeed.
What experiences do you think have shaped you most as a chef?
There are many to name. But as a whole I could remember one common thread between all of them. The building of a team that has one goal in mind. There is power in that. And after your first couple kitchen experiences you thirst for that feeling. Lastly I would say that I gave myself at least one year at any job before moving on. It’s important that as a professional you never burn bridges.
Where do you see the San Antonio food scene heading and how do you think it stands out in relation to Austin, Corpus, Dallas and Houston?
Its hard to say about the surrounding major cities because I haven’t visited them in a while. But as for San Antonio, I am very proud to be back in this city. Not only are we NBA champions but the food scene here is progressing every day. I see the food scene being par with any major metropolitan city in the next five years. With outstanding restaurateurs like Andrew Wiseman, Johnny Hernandez, Jason Daddy, Mark Bliss, among many others we have the recipe for a success story.
What are some of your most prized tools in the back of the house?
The Vita-Mix is probably one of the more important pieces of equipment that we have. Pots and pans are also important to us. We take good care of these knowing that they will provide our guest with an exceptional end product.
The Mission Team is very excited to have you all in the neighborhood. Tell us a little bit about the building, being in San Antonio, and what your Southtown/ King William location adds to the experience.
The building has taken many roles throughout its existence. Originally this location was a hub for paint and sheet rock. The name was Menny’s Paint Shop. For a time it served as a small market which I had the pleasure of visiting many times. Currently, I believe Starfish adds some nostalgia for people who may have lived in other major cities like Chicago, New York, or San Francisco. I’ve had several guests tell me that Starfish reminds them of a previous spot they would go to in one of these cities.
Which tastemakers, mixologists & foodservice professionals inspire you?
Heston Blumenthal, Morimmoto, Thomas Keller, Eric Ripert, Alain Ducasse, Wyle DuFrense, Ferran Adria, Joan Roca, Voltaggio Brothers, just to name a few.
Can you share with us your favorite culinary destinations?
There is no other city like New York City to dine in. Probably one of my favorite places. Also Lima, Peru changed my life. The freshness, variety, and application of chefs there is unbelievable. Mexico City is another mecca for humble food origins with an aftermath that makes you want to return.
Which places are you’re dying to go and explore for yourself? Any particular dining destinations on your list?
I really want to go to Spain and Italy. I think I’m half Italian and half Spanish deep down. Mugaritz is one of the restaurants i would love to dine at. Also Noma in Copenhagen.
Do you have a personal creed or ethos that you live by?
“Anything in life worth doing is worth overdoing. Moderation is for cowards.” -unknown-
Lay out a perfect meal and wine/cocktail pairing for a first timer to Starfish.
For any first time diners, let me know and we will make a perfect custom meal for you!
What has been the biggest surprise in your life?
My wife surprising me with the news of our first baby.
Any fun quirks you can share about yourself?
In the mornings when I wake up my hand are raised in the air. Not sure why that happens.
Lastly, what’s up next for the Starfish team?