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Fernanda Serrano: A Rising Star on NYC’s Mexican Food Scene

Fernanda Serrano: A Rising Star on NYC’s Mexican Food Scene

Chef Fernanda Serrano has earned her reputation by working in some of the most prestigious kitchens in the world. At Williamsburg’s elNico, she is blazing her own trail.

Daniela Soto-Innes and Fany Gerson are among the well-known female Mexican chefs who are contributing to New York’s Mexican food scene. Chef Fernanda Serrano, who works at the kitchen in Williamsburg’s elNico is another contributor. Also nicknamed Chef Fer, this chef not only delivers a guacamole that is worth crossing the Brooklyn Bridge for, but also shares pieces of her heritage with diners. For instance, the salsas accompanying your carne asada may not be pico de gallo.  She has earned her reputation by working in some of the most prestigious kitchens worldwide, including Cosme and Pujol. Her cooking combines nostalgic flavors from her childhood in Pachuca, with the tastes she has experienced during her travels. Her artistic vision is evident in every dish she creates. 

How did you end up in the culinary world? I liked baking as a hobby, but it never crossed my mind that I wanted to do something with it. Everyone in my family is a lawyer, so I was considering just going on that path. It was after watching the movie Ratatouille, I thought, “Oh, that looks really fun.”

Describe your journey in culinary school and your first restaurant gig. I have a bachelor’s degree in food science and gastronomy; I divided my studies between Mexico City and Italy. In taly, I visited Osteria Francescana for dinner with one of my best friends, and I knew I had to be there. For my first experience in a kitchen, we had to complete a semester doing an internship in a restaurant, and Osteria Francescana was it. It was my first time in a professional kitchen, and I remember how nervous I was. This is a team I miss a lot; they were really nice and eager to teach. Taka, the former head chef, is someone who I will never forget, he taught me a lot both professionally and personally.  

What are some challenges you experience as a chef? Most of us had to step out during the pandemic while businesses were closing. I remember I went back to Mexico for a month, where I spent time with my family, and this was the moment that made me realize I was missing out a lot. Upon returning to New York after businesses were opening, I remember feeling burned out and unhappy. The idea of taking a break started to appear, but a feeling of embarrassment would invade me.”How dare I even consider this?” I would repeat to myself. But after thinking how much I loved my career and cooking, I decided to take a year off cooking. Now I am happy and proud I made this decision; I took this year to work on myself and, remember how much I love my career and learn the importance of stopping and breathing.  

What are the highlights of your career? Of course, having the opportunity to open a restaurant in New York. This has been a dream since I started culinary school. But anytime one of my cooks makes a comment on how they love the culture and environment we have created in the elNico kitchen, it just makes me feel proud. I know we’re not changing the world, but at least we are changing our culture. 

Describe your relationship with Mexican cuisine. Mexican food is my favorite. It is so rich and full of history, too. The dishes I loved as a child were, of course, tacos and enchiladas. But my favorite will always be Cochinita Pibil and Escamoles. Escamoles are considered Mexican caviar; a lot of people don’t know about them, but whenever I invite friends to visit Mexico, my mom cooks Escamoles for them. I just love their faces after eating it and, saying how delicious it is and asking what they are eating. I just casually answered “ant larvae”. The faces are priceless. 

What are the latest trends in Mexico City’s gastronomic scene?  I think people are turning more to vegetables. Mexican cuisine has always been heavy on protein. I personally love to cook with vegetables, especially incorporating them in a dish that would typically be served with protein.

What are some common misconceptions of Mexican cuisine, and how are working on shattering them? I do not see this in New York because many chefs have pushed traditional Mexican food before, but I know that people still have an idea of Americanized Mexican food. One night a guest asked for chips and salsa, I sent a side of Totopos and our salsa Borracha. The server told me the guest was confused, so I went to the table. The guest was expecting pico de gallo (diced tomato, onion and chili). I kindly explained how in Mexico we have a numerous number of salsas. When he tried it, and he loved it and even asked if he could have the recipe. Of course, we gave it to him, plus some salsa to take home! People are now curious to learn more about what they are eating. And I feel grateful I can help make that happen.  

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Photo Courtesy Casa Carmen, Tribeca Interior

Who are the female chefs you admire and why? When I started culinary school, I dreamed of working for Anne-Sophie Pic. I love her story and cuisine, and it was uncommon to see women in these positions. Daniela Soto-Innes is another chef I admire; she is my dear friend and mentor. It was enormously impactful to see a young Mexican woman accomplish what she has done, and the fact that she helps people on her way is admirable. 

What do you appreciate most about Mexico City and NYC? Mexico City and New York are similar, both have an enormous gastronomical offer, there is always something to do you never get bored. Both cities never stop surprising you. 

What restaurants or cafes do you often stumble into when you are away from elNico or in your home kitchen? I live in Williamsburg, so on my days off, I love staying in the neighborhood. You can often see me at Sauced during summer, enjoying some wine with my dog and friends, at Lighthouse, having a fun conversation with Naama, the co-owner, or enjoying a slice of pizza at L’industrie. 

What’s next for Chef Fern? I’ll host an exciting dinner (elNico X Metzi) with Luana of San Paolo’s Paolo’s Chef Metzi, a fellow Latina chef blazing a trail in Brazil’s culinary scene. The special night not only celebrates females progressing in the culinary work but will feature a fusion of our unique culinary journeys, from Ikura Sope and Tuna Tostada to Fluke Aguachile and Fish Adobado. To conclude, guests can indulge in Not Pecan Pie. 

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