Food and Drinks with Chef Lisa Fernandes
Born and raised in Toronto—the largest city in Canada, Chef Lisa Fernandes stayed there until age eleven. It seems like she was destined to be an open-minded individual due to her surroundings. She ate every cuisine imaginable; had friends from the Philippines, India, and beyond; and saw interesting things from various cultures.
And her love of food came early as well. The family went to Mongolian Grill for her fifth birthday. Chinese dim-sum was a staple on the weekends. They also frequented a particular Italian restaurant in town. “As soon as we got there, I would… go straight to the kitchen and be like ‘Hi, Chef,’” she recalls of her six-year-old self. “And I would just hang out in the kitchen. You know, picking out my own tartufo for dessert. I just loved it.”
More importantly, she inherited her cooking talents from her parents. Her mother—preferred Asian cuisine—stocked her kitchen with fish sauce, black bean paste, and eight or nine different types of soy sauce. Though her father made great nachos, he was a fan of Asian cooking as well. That love was passed on to her as she was very comfortable with those ingredients and flavors.
To get a deeper understanding, she would eventually force herself to go to a Chinese supermarket every weekend and pick up five things to cook. Two that she had worked with before and three that were completely foreign. These experiments helped her tremendously.
The first thing Chef Fernandes made herself, however, was decidedly more traditional. It was scrambled eggs.
“I don’t know why, but I have the perfect third-person view of me getting up on the kitchen counter stool,” she says. “And my mother showing me how to stir it.” It was the most incredible thing she had ever eaten in her life, despite being made from only eggs and salt. It was really rewarding because it was something she had made.
That feeling carried her first to Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island for a degree in food service management, then onward to work in Miami, and eventually to settle in New York City.
While working in South Florida, she gained a valuable understanding of Latin food and culture. While working at a Caribbean restaurant, she learned about the food: Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Dominican, among others. She also developed a good tolerance for Scotch Bonnet chilies and other spicy items. Though she enjoyed her six years cooking at various top Miami restaurants, the city’s heat and urban sprawl eventually drove her to look for new opportunities in New York City.
After she moved, the first thing that struck her was the similarities between Toronto and New York, with different neighborhoods concentrated in different parts of town. Korea Town, Chinatown, the Italian areas, small Thai communities, and more—they all shared the same city. If someone takes the subway to Queens, they will travel through many different countries and regions. Whichever stop one decides to venture to, there are always possibilities waiting. People can savor the best tacos from a particular street stand. And just a few blocks away, mouthwatering Indian dosas and sweets await.
As another example, “There’s this thing called Queens Night Market, which is an incredible concept,” she says. “It’s a huge space out near the main stadium of the US Open tennis tournament in Queens. And they have a cap that nothing is allowed to be more than $8 so everything has tiny portions—perfect for sharing. I think [I’ve had] 30 different cuisines all in one night. I love the night market.”
Even within New York, however, some things have changed. For example, there was a time when people would not go to Brooklyn. Even fifteen years ago, people thought it was a bridge too far for them to cross. “And now, you know, I wouldn’t go to Manhattan if I didn’t have to,” she says.
In November 2019, a few months before COVID-19 hit, Chef Fernandes opened a restaurant. She was more involved with creating the cocktails and dealing with the kitchen. They reopened about seven weeks into the pandemic, and she had to create a new bar program from scratch. She took a new approach to expressing flavors through cocktails and food.
Many bartenders would take a classic like a Margarita and swap out the base liquor, the sweetener, the citrus and add bitters to create new flavors. Whereas she would try a dish and try to turn it into a cocktail. Or maybe tasting alcohol that tastes like rye bread would inspire her to make a drink that invoked the Reuben sandwich. She built the flavors and added ingredients based on what she was looking for. Instead of changing the ingredients, she created something brand new from the ground up.
“How do we turn Pad Thai into a cocktail?” or “what would a Tom Kha soup taste like as a drink?” These were the questions that emerged. She started having a lot of fun behind the bar, and the idea blew up from there. The same effort and care also went into the mocktails to make sure that every component was on-point.
She realized that she had a strong ability to combine flavors to create really delicious cocktails. When she hired a talented sous chef to run the kitchen, a move for her to manage the front of the house seemed like the right one. So, for the first time in her life, she would step out of the kitchen and step behind the bar. And now, she is the head bartender running the program at a Japanese speakeasy called the Hidden Pearl, creating thrilling new drinks.
Chef Fernandes was also famously a stand-out participant in season four of Top Chef, the popular reality TV show. She fondly remembers it was a fun but stressful experience unlike anything she had ever experienced. It was at a point in time when cooking shows were new concepts. There were no clear expectations of what was going to happen. So doing all the crazy challenges and meeting the incredible chefs was exciting yet, at times, overwhelming.
To this day, she still gets recognized by the public once in a while. “Maybe two weeks ago, we’re sitting in a bar, my sister and I. And she said, ‘this guy kept looking at you,’” she says. “And then finally, he was like, were you in ‘Top Chef’?”
However, as an openly queer person and a woman, one thing in particular touched her the most. After her Top Chef stint, many people approached her and said that seeing someone like them on TV helped them to have the courage to come out as well. They learned how to take the preconceived notion from others and flip it on its head. It felt insane, incredible, and humbling that she inspired others. She also wishes that everybody would gain that confidence from watching other queers on TV in any field.
From Chef Fernandes’ experience, kitchens are now a gentler place to be; compared to when she came up with very aggressive chefs.
Rules did not exist. People could do whatever they wanted and say whatever they wanted. They would be disrespectful or unresponsive right from the start just because of someone’s sexual orientation or sexuality. As a woman, she had been in a leadership role in the kitchen since she was eighteen, and she noticed something:
“You have two routes you can take. You can either be assertive, be the boss. Know what you need and be direct. Or you can be kind of a pushover, be all nice, and [act the way] the men in the kitchen would prefer—which was bullshit. So you have to be stern, you have to work harder. You have to take a lot of shit from everybody else. Of course, that portrays you in a certain light that makes people uncomfortable—having a queer, or just a woman, as a boss.”
To be fair, she had not run into similar issues in many years. She also thinks that fortunately, the situation has improved tremendously nowadays, and she is very happy about that.
“What we need to get better with is just [being] more accepting. And judging people based on their skills and abilities; rather than how they look, how they dress, how they talk, or what they believe in. None of that should matter,” she says. That seems like a worthy rule to follow—and a toast to drink to!
TROORA MAGAZINE | MAY 2023
WRITTEN BY CARY WONG
PHOTOS COURTESY OF CHEF LISA FERNANDES | THE HIDDEN PEARL | DEZEEN