He was studying engineering in his hometown of Hoboken, NJ, when the cooking bug hit, and it wasn't too much later that self-taught Carlos Fernandez found himself as chef-partner of the Hi-Life Cafe in Fort Lauderdale, FL. After ten successful years, the 37-year-old grabbed a chance to appear on Bravo's “Top Chef,” becoming a fan favorite before being bumped off near the end of Season Two. He returned to the still-thriving restaurant (“The reality is, Hi-Life's chef already is tops,” said the Miami Herald in its four-star review), where he mans the stoves between regular appearances on Telemundo's morning show, Cada Dia.
What's in the glass?
It's sugar-free Red Bull. I drink it at work every day. We're a dinner-only restaurant, and I like to have some about 4:30 in the afternoon — after prep work ends and before dinner service begins.
Do you start your day with it, too?
I need a kick in the morning, but I get it from coffee. We serve Starbucks Verona blend in a French press at the Hi-Life; it's great for a home percolator, too.
Do you cook much here?
Nothing too elaborate. I'm at the restaurant from noon to midnight every day, so I just keep a few simple things on hand at home
Tell us about the Hi-Life.
It's a quintessential neighborhood bistro with 65 seats. My partner Chuck Smith and I came down to South Florida from New York 12 years ago. Miami Beach was too expensive for us, but we found a good location and a cool clientele here in Fort Lauderdale.
You were already a successful chef/owner when you went on Top Chef. Why did you get involved?
I wasn't classically trained and had no name or notoriety. I hoped Top Chef would keep me from being overlooked.
It's funny. I had to hire two people to cover my shift for the month I was gone. I kept them on when I came back — a big drain on our labor cost. But when the show aired, I was glad I had them. It got crazy.
I went in thinking, “what can Bravo do for me?” We were already growing 10-12 percent every year. After the show aired, business rose more than 20 percent. It has stayed there, even in this economy.
And you got more TV work out of it, too?
Some. I did web episodes and blogging for Season Three of Top Chef. And that lead to the Telemundo job — six-minute cooking segments a few times a month. It's mostly fresh, fast easy dishes.
Let's get back to your fridge. What's the story on this Uncle Ben's Ready Rice.
I'm all about practicality at home. For the Uncle Ben's you just add a piece of meat and nuke it for 90 seconds, add onions and herbs, and you're set.
Looks like you're into 7-Up, too.
I drank it as a kid, and still do. Plus, I'll be doing a tour for them soon, promoting a contest for recipes that use at least ¼ cup of 7-Up. The winner gets $70,000 to open a restaurant. Now I'm a judge!
$70,000? Wow, our readers will enter early and often.