It's not every day you meet a woman who majored in cultural anthropology, went to graduate school for art history, created programs for local Chicano artists, and worked in a handful of Tucson's best kitchens—but that's only part of Liane Hernandez's diverse and fascinating resume.
Hernandez just celebrated the one-year anniversary of her café at the YWCA on Dec. 9, a program that has brought her life full circle. At the café, she's able to teach women who have difficulty finding employment for a range of reasons, but it's more than that.
"I try to take aspects of the service industry-- especially the hospitality and the passion—and translate them into other areas of their lives," Hernandez says.
In high school, Hernandez dreamed of being an archaeologist. In college, she switched to cultural anthropology with a minor in art history, focusing on why people ate, danced and made art the way that they did. Although internships during her graduate program seemed to be pulling her in the direction of museum studies, she says her first job in Tucson as a dishwasher and then at the counter at Bentley's House of Coffee and Tea started taking her on a different path.
"I've been incredibly lucky since I got here in finding mentors," Hernandez says. "I've also had the incredible blessing of being surrounded by incredibly passionate people."
Hernandez worked at Bentley's for 12 years, citing owner Jo Anne Schneider's motherly herding, encouraging, guiding and challenging of her young staff as one of the reasons she stayed with the café so long. As a woman who lost her mother at a young age, finding that caring female role model in Tucson was pivotal.
However, Hernandez says her mother definitely had a role in her career path. While she admits that she's always been an eater with a love of "making messes" in the kitchen, something like the distinct memories of eating her mother's homemade warm buttered tortillas when she was five years old reinforced that lifelong love of food. She says to this day she still can't make tortillas, though many have tried to teach her.
While she loved cooking innately, following along (somewhat comically, as she puts it) to Julia Childs' cooking show as a 7 year old, Hernandez didn't know for certain that the kitchen was her career path until she went on a trip to Paris in college and met a Cordon Bleu graduate who sparked her passion for the craft. From there, she attended culinary school and worked in a number of different kitchens, including Hacienda del Sol, Casino del Sol, Ventana Canyon, Hub, and Proper.
Despite the long, physically demanding hours in the kitchen, Hernandez says she found the flow of dinner service relaxing. However, she recently began really thinking about women's roles in commercial kitchens—a place that's usually regarded as a bit of a boy's club. She knew that she wanted to do more with her life and working in kitchens, especially upscale resort kitchens that were "money-making enterprises in the middle of communities choking on poverty," wasn't the end of the road for her.
"I started thinking about what allows a woman to survive in a kitchen and it came down to one thing: confidence," she explains. "Mostly, I just had this goal of creating a little group of badass girl cooks."
Now at the YWCA, Hernandez says her love of local art is displayed on the walls of the center, her love of activism is shown in community discussions on topics like mass incarceration in America, and her love of food is obviously shown in the organic fare that she and her staff put out every day.
By now, you should know it's more than that, though. It's the ability to invite people in and make them passionate, whether it's about sourcing from local farms and purveyors, all of which she lists off with pride, or if it's giving someone a second chance to rejoin the community and expose them to those mentors that helped guide her in Tucson.
"It's so important to find pathways and hubs to keep kids involved in the community so they don't end up making the same bad decisions," she says.
Looking back on every mentor that has brought her where she is today, Hernandez is grateful. She may not quite realize it yet, but through that process she's become a mentor now, too. Her infectious passion and indiscriminate warmth incites respect from her staff—instilling self-worth and a new skill set in each of her workers.