Pilar Hernández and The Chilean Kitchen

From the Clinic to the Kitchen: How Pilar Hernández Reclaimed Her Life

When Pilar Hernández came to the United States in 2003, she thought it would be an interesting two-year detour before she resumed her career in the medical field in her native Chile. Her husband had been accepted to a master’s program at the University of Texas in Houston, and Pilar got an F-4 visa to accompany him. The visa gave her legal status but didn’t allow her to earn any money. Just as well, thought Pilar. She’d just had her first baby and looked forward to spending more time mothering, even if she had to put her job on pause.

Back in Chile, Pilar worked as a general practitioner and was completing a master’s in child psychology. She just needed to write her thesis to graduate, and she could do it anywhere. She settled in Houston as a stay-at-home mom, while studying English and writing her thesis. Even though she missed her family and felt quite isolated—she didn’t like to drive and didn’t speak much English—two years away from home seemed doable.

Then her husband, who developed software for medical research, was invited to apply for a PhD program, offered a stipend, and later a job. The two-year stay transformed into a permanent move for the family. Pilar transitioned to an H-4 visa, which still didn’t allow her to work.

What had started as an adventure became a frustrating impasse, as she saw her childhood dreams vanish. “I grew up with the dream to go to college and have economic independence,” explains Pilar. “My mother had gone to college and worked as an optometrist, so I had that role model, but what really motivated me the most is that my parents separated when I was 2 years old. At the time divorce was not legal in Chile, and my father never supported us financially, so it was very hard for my mom. She was always working; my grandmother and aunt helped her raise me (I lived with my aunt when I was a small child). That gave me a strong incentive to have a good career and be financially independent and secure.”

Even though Pilar and her husband had been invited to stay in the U.S., when they tried to get a green card, they found the process excruciatingly slow and riddled with difficulties. “Working with immigration was like living and fighting with a beast,” says Pilar. “It took us nine years to get a green card. Our first application was denied after a two-year period. The lawyer told us sometimes the Immigration office ran out of time and didn’t review the documentation. She advised we submit the same paperwork again. She was right. We didn’t change anything, but the second time our application was accepted. Our green card was offered on the grounds of exceptional talent, as my husband’s career in biomedical research was quite new at the time.”

After getting her green card, Pilar applied for jobs related to her previous training and experience as a doctor for a whole year, but she only got one offer as an hourly-paid data collector for a research project. The nine years without permission to work and the subsequent failure to relaunch her medical career left a deep mark. “I had the privilege that my husband held a good job, so money or health insurance weren’t a factor for our family but losing my identity as a doctor was very detrimental to my mental health. I felt guilty, as if I had let myself down,” says Pilar. After years of therapy—and a successful pivot from the clinic to the kitchen—, Pilar overcame her hurt feelings. “I learned to accept that what had happened wasn’t my fault.”

In January 2008, five years into her new life in the U.S., Pilar, feeling unhappy, frustrated and isolated, made two New Year resolutions that changed her outlook. “I wanted to have a personal project besides being a mom and a wife. I decided to volunteer in urban farming because it would force me to go outside, interact with other people, and learn more English.”

From the first day, she fell in love with gardening. “I volunteered at a donation garden inside a retirement home for Dominican Sisters; everything grown there (more than 1,300 pounds of produce a year) was donated to charities, open kitchens, and communities in food deserts. I started by weeding and watering, the introductory skills, but the lead gardener noticed how much I enjoyed it and she mentored me. Every time she did something new, she taught me how to do it, and I learned all the skills. Once she retired, I took over her role. For the last seven years, I have managed operations, the planting calendar, and the work of six volunteers but I still do hands-on work. I love getting my hands dirty!” Pilar also manages her local elementary school garden. “It’s wonderful having both, because the donation garden is all about productivity and the school is all about wonder and experimentation. I can play and fail there.”

Urban Farming

Pilar’s second New Year resolution of 2008 was just as momentous. She launched a cooking blog, En mi cocina hoy. “I was reading many blogs at the time, I liked technology, and the cost of starting a blog was zero, so I jumped in,” says Pilar. In the beginning, she saw the blog as an opportunity to create a personal record of family recipes, adapted for U.S. ingredients. “I couldn’t monetize the blog due to my legal status, so it was a passion project for the first five years. I challenged myself to learn how to take food pictures. I took photography classes online and participated in a Facebook group where we gave feedback to each other. I learned SEO. I tested recipes and improved them based on readers’ feedback. Everything was exciting and engaging.”

What she didn’t anticipate is that her little blog would quickly grow an enormous audience, both in Chile and in the US. Today Pilar has been recognized as a Top 100 Latina blogger, and she recently launched an English version of her blog called Chilean Food and Garden. Readers write her moving emails when they find a recipe they thought was lost forever, because the mother or grandmother who used to cook it passed away. “It’s the most fantastic feeling of communion,” says Pilar.

In 2013, after getting her green card, Pilar started collaborating as a paid freelancer for other blogs and writing sponsored content, but nowadays she monetizes her blog only through ads on the site, as her attention has pivoted to writing and publishing cookbooks and becoming ever more engaged in urban farming projects and volunteering.

She published her first book, Comer rico. Del blog a la mesa, in 2014, collaborating with three other recipe bloggers. Each author wrote thirty recipes independently and then they all got together in Chile for a fully immersive cookbook camp, cooking, tasting, and photographing one hundred and twenty recipes. A version for kids, Del blog a la mesa para niños, followed in 2015 (the children’s book can now be downloaded for free.)

The Chilean KitchenIn October 2020, Pilar published The Chilean Kitchen, to great reviews and success. “The book has resonated a lot, and I think part of it has been the timing of publication during the pandemic. The Chilean Kitchen not only emphasizes home cooking and family, but also, at a time when people don’t have the opportunity to travel, it brings the flavors and culture of Chile to them,” says Pilar.

Home cooking is a way of life in Chile, where a restaurant culture was non-existent until very recently. “Chile was under a very repressive dictatorship when I was born, and it lasted until I was a teenager, so it wasn’t safe to meet in big groups outside; but also, Chile had been and was still at that time a poor country, so there wasn’t a restaurant tradition. People simply ate at home and met with friends and family at their own homes, around the table. Even after the end of the dictatorship it took a long time for a restaurant culture to develop. I grew up in the kitchen with my grandma, my aunts, and their friends. Seldom would we go have a treat at a coffee shop. All social life happened at home; all celebrations were at home with home-cooked meals.”

Pilar had dreamed of publishing this book for a long time, because no Chilean cookbooks had been developed for the U.S. market for the last twenty years. She had not tackled it because she was writing another book with two of her previous collaborators. “We were done with the recipe development, and I had plane tickets to go to Chile and do the cookbook camp session. Then, during the first months of the Trump administration, the Muslim ban happened. I wasn’t a citizen yet (I became a U.S. citizen in 2018), and I was scared to leave the country without my family, in case I weren’t allowed to return. I dropped that project and got the time I had budgeted for it back; after some thinking, I decided it was time to pursue The Chilean Kitchen cookbook.”

The organization of The Chilean Kitchen is unusual. Instead of classifying the recipes by type of food (soups, salads, meats, etc.) Pilar classified them by season. “Chilean cuisine is a mystery for most U.S. readers, so I thought it was essential to introduce Chile’s home cooking rhythm,” explains Pilar.

A selection of winter recipes from The Chilean Kitchen

“Everyone cooks seasonally in Chile. The same dishes are cooked in every home each time of the year, and that’s because everybody buys their ingredients at the farmers’ market. I have many memories of going to la feria (farmers’ market) every single Tuesday with my grandmother. And I have now trained my kids to think this way. They love mangoes but they know they won’t taste as good if we buy imported mangoes at the grocery store in the winter, as if we buy them at the farmers’ market in the summer, when they are ripe.”

Pilar also decided the book should go beyond recipes. She wanted to include information about Chilean culture, history, and lifestyle. She sought the collaboration of Eileen Smith, who is American but had lived in Chile for 16 years. Pilar focused on creating and testing the recipes, while Eileen focused on the writing. Eileen interviewed Pilar about every recipe for at least one hour. “She would start by asking me about my first memory of eating that dish, and how was the experience with it. She would add her own experience, and when we did the cook camp with the photographer, Araceli Paz, who is from a different region in Chile, she added her own stories. The introduction to each recipe is based in the way Chileans experience each dish. It brings the soul of Chile to America.”

Pilar Hernández bakes a cakePerhaps beef empanadas are the best-known Chilean dish, but the dessert section takes a good amount of space in each of the four seasons the book is divided into. “Sweets and desserts are very important in the Chilean cooking culture, perhaps to bring some balance, because our savory dishes are very healthy. We eat little meat, a lot of vegetables, fish, and seafood; we mostly roast and stew, we don’t deep fry very much. The sweet desserts bring the other side. They are our way of expressing love—expressing love through food is a very Latin tradition. For birthdays, almost nobody buys a cake, everybody bakes their own cake at home. People obsess about it. They may bring up in a conversation the cake you baked three years prior. And if you talk about your birthday the first thing everyone asks is ‘What cake will you bake?’” Chilean cakes are, in fact, Pilar’s favorite recipes. “I love the mystery and suspense of not being sure how the flavors will play with each other until you try a piece!”

Some of Pilar’s medical training has crossed over to the kitchen. “I don’t mind at all measuring, timing, and testing recipes over and over,” says Pilar. “Each recipe is like a little research project with hypotheses and challenges and discoveries. My kitchen is exceptionally organized; my kids and husband know it’s my operating room!” she adds with a laugh.

Being forced to pivot from a prestigious career in medicine wasn’t easy, but Pilar Hernández’s journey proves you can find new meaning and purpose in life when you refuse to see challenges and the changes they bring as a failure. Guided by her passions and creativity, Pilar has become a successful cookbook author and blogger, and an advocate of urban and sustainable farming. “I think some people are born with an inner resiliency, and I am one of them,” says Pilar. “I am trying to teach this quality to my kids. I tell them, when you run into a challenge or something bad happens, you can give yourself one day to feel all the bad feelings and be downcast. The next day, you get up and you start working again!”

Photos: Araceli Paz y Pilar Hernández