Leadership in the kitchen has stepped away from looking like someone barking orders to staff. For Chef Fermín Núñez, leadership has a much more tasteful palette.
Núñez is the executive chef of Suerte, an award-winning restaurant in East Austin serving cuisine inspired by Mexican flavors and cooking techniques. Last month, he and restaurateur Sam Hellman-Mass opened their new business venture Este, an East Austin restaurant serving authentic coastal Mexican cuisine.
From culinary school to owning two restaurants, Núñez’s journey to chefdom reflects his growth in tasteful kitchen leadership with a range of flavors — embracing endless learning, work-life balance and caring for the restaurant as a whole. And these flavors of leadership make for the best palette an executive chef could have.
For Núñez, school wasn’t his thing, but learning always was.
Growing up in Torréon, Mexico, he understood attending college was an expectation, but he wasn’t in love with the idea. His family eventually moved to San Antonio in 2005, and he attended the University of Texas at San Antonio for a year.
“I didn’t thrive (in college),” Núñez says. “Not because I wasn’t good enough, but because I didn’t care.”
It wasn’t until he read “Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain that everything changed. At 19 years old, he enrolled in a culinary school in Houston.
“Cooking seemed like the next way out of the nine-to-five job,” Núñez says. “For the first time, I started doing good in school because it didn’t feel like school; it just felt like something I was excited about.”
For Núñez, cooking became a space where he could tangibly see his skills improving, and he never got bored with it. Repetitively chopping celery felt much more engaging than reading paragraphs in a book over and over again.
After graduating from culinary school, Núñez worked at a country club in Houston for a while and eventually moved back home after traveling throughout Europe. In 2009, he moved to Austin to work at La Condesa. He also worked at Uchiko, Launderette and L’Oca D’Oro.
Though he worked at multiple restaurants, Núñez always dreamed of opening his own place. While working at Launderette as a chef de cuisine, he learned how to open a restaurant without the pressure of being the person in charge. This experience taught him how to collaborate with architects and manage finances — something culinary school doesn’t teach you.
When he and Hellman-Mass opened Suerte in 2018, Núñez soon became someone who wasn’t just executing another person’s big picture; he got to see his vision through to the end.
“For the first time in my career, I was the one responsible for the food tasting good,” Núñez says. “This was personal. I wasn’t recreating someone else’s vision. This was my vision and passion.”
With Suerte, Núñez wanted to create a restaurant that offered an authentic Mexican culinary experience — from making in-house masa to cooking made-to-order tortillas by hand.
“I wanted to create a place where it was Mexican food but not a place that screams Mexico,” Núñez says. “When you’re in Mexico, the restaurants that are cooking Mexican food don’t need to prove they’re Mexican; they’re already there.”
In the same vein, that’s what his new restaurant is all about. With Este, Núñez wanted to create an authentic Mexican seafood experience by pairing seafood with cheese and having high-acid, high-heat ceviche.
“Seafood in Mexico goes against the grain of everything you learned about seafood in the States and other countries (…) but Mexicans pull it off,” Núñez says. “(…) And If I’m excited about cooking it, I’m excited about eating it and, hopefully, people feel the same way.”
Though Núñez loves learning and growing in his culinary skills through books and podcasts, he also allows himself space to enjoy things outside of chefdom. One podcast he enjoys that’s not primarily chef-related is CREATIVO, a Spanish podcast that interviews creatives from various industries.
“It’s always smart to not just be in your own circle of what you want, need or like,” Núñez says. “I also get more inspired by things that are not necessarily just cooking. That helps me break out of my cycle and not follow the same trends everybody’s doing but find my own voice and way of creating different things.”
But even when he’s in those kitchen spaces, Núñez creates a headspace to accept that he can have limitations in his leadership. During the pandemic, Núñez had to learn how to be a leader in stressful times and not run away from challenges.
“When everything stops and everybody’s looking at you, you have to be the leader that shows people this is where we’re going,” Núñez says. “When there was a lot of uncertainty, I was able to look at myself and realize sometimes it’s OK to not have all the answers.”
Over time, Núñez was able to recognize that though he was a chef, he was more than just a chef. And this separation between himself and his career shows up in his life outside of being a chef. Though he still enjoys cooking for friends at home, he makes it a point to shape his time around things that aren’t food-centered. For instance, he and some friends in the local food industry play basketball every Tuesday night. He also recently took up tennis and will soon start taking accordion lessons.
“I pursue different things that are engaging,” Núñez says. “I look to do things that allow me to not be tied to my phone, find ways to stay active and forget about everything else that has to do with my role and just disconnect.”
As a leader in the kitchen, the chef sets the entire culture of the restaurant. Without a common goal or understanding of the whole, the parts begin to fall apart.
Núñez describes the kitchen flow as similar to sports — cameras are always focusing on the action, but the real magic happens when all the teammates collaborate to make the action happen. In the same way, every part of the kitchen, every staff member, matters.
“Everybody has to be able to execute (their) role because they contribute to a bigger picture of the restaurant being successful,” Núñez says. “We all get fed from the restaurant and if the restaurant is not thriving, then we’re not thriving.”
But even in devoting themselves to the bigger organism that is the restaurant, staff members must be individually cared for to have a properly flowing kitchen. With recent releases of shows like “The Bear” that depict aggressive leadership styles in the kitchen, Núñez says many people in the food industry are trying to break out of that stereotype.
“We’re not always screaming; we’re not always freaking out about making food,” Núñez says. “That can happen, but the industry has worked hard to move away from that.”
Núñez remembers when he first started working in the food industry, he wasn’t allowed to sit down three hours into his shift to have a meal and had to snack while standing up. But those things are changing. Even walking into Suerte for our interview that morning, all of the staff was sitting and eating breakfast, something Núñez shares that they were getting paid to do.
“Taking care of other people speaks louder than words,” Núñez says. “When I hire a new chef, I always tell (them) my resume is more than a piece of paper that (has) places I’ve worked at; my resume is the people that have worked with us and helped us get to where we are.”
His care for staff members is even what sparked his interest in opening Este. With another restaurant opening, it gives staff members room to grow. And while Este was in the process of launching, Núñez even made sure to train the Suerte staff so they could function without him.
“We’re not perfect, but we strive for that,” Núñez says. “The people who are going to be leading the industry 10 years from now are starting to see the difference, and they can even push it and make it better for them and for the people they’re teaching.”
Ultimately, when you reflect on the flavors of leadership, being an executive chef means more than calling the shots in the kitchen. Being a leader in the kitchen means setting examples for others to grow in and follow beyond your immediate leadership, and that’s exactly what Núñez aims to do.
“(Cooking) is what made me happy when I didn’t know what to do with my life,” Núñez says. “It’s grown (to be) important because I get to teach and lead people, and I can set a good example for the people who are going to be running the industry in years to come.”