The child of a career Air Force officer, Ely Navarro Hernandez has moved around a lot. She grew up in the United States and has lived in Korea and Japan. But his mother’s Cuban cuisine was a constant. After graduating with a cooking degree, she came to New Orleans and worked at restaurants such as Mopho and Luke as well as Whole Foods and The Roosevelt Hotel. She didn’t start making her mother’s flan recipe for anyone other than family and friends until she hosted a Cuban pop-up dinner at Wakin ‘Bakin’ during the pandemic. People loved the flan and she eventually launched the Only Flans pop-up, serving both traditional and original versions. Find information about the pop-up at @onlyflansbychefely.
Gambit: How did you get interested in cooking?
Ely Navarro Hernandez: My mother is an outstanding cook. We had family meals, sitting at the table every evening. She did all the cooking – all the Cuban recipes that I grew up with. We have eaten his custard all year round. Before I left for college, I had this journal to sit down and write everything down. I was like, “Take me through it all.” This is what my flan recipe is handwritten in.
I left college to go to a culinary school – the Texas Culinary Academy. It’s a Cordon Bleu school in North Austin. I toured outside of school and worked in a lot of places in a lot of different styles. I liked the lifestyle very much.
My first job was this wonderful tea room and restaurant in Austin called The Steeping Room. It was a wonderful place. I have learned so much. (I came from) a French cooking school and built all your flavors on cream and butter. They had everything there, but it was also focused on vegan items. I learned to create flavors from none of the things I was professionally trained to do. I learned how to make spring rolls and Asian inspired dishes, and things like cashew Caesar salad or tomato coconut soup. The pastry department was amazing. They had a great vegan carrot cake.
I was pretty fresh out of cooking school when I saw an ad on Craigslist for a sous chef to be opening a Mexican-style restaurant here in New Orleans. I had an interview at a Starbucks and had a week to move all my life to New Orleans. I used to leave my parents’ military life so I literally got carried away in my little Volvo and moved here in a week at age 21.
Gambit: Why did you focus on the custard?
Hernandez: I’m not really good with desserts and pastry. I am a tasty girl. It’s the only thing I had in my pocket for dessert.
The custard looks a lot like a crème brûlée. It is cooked in a double boiler. I find a lot of different cultures and nations have blanks, and they change if you get one from Cuba, Mexico, or the Philippines. The texture of mine is quite creamy. It’s between a panna cotta and a cheesecake.
The syrup is a caramel. It solidifies before you put your pastry cream. During cooking, when you turn it over, this beautiful texture comes out.
I still use my mom’s recipe as a base, but I play a lot. I make all of my flavors year round, but some are good for special vacations. I have a sweet potato which is good for Thanksgiving. When I had a Doomsday dinner with Que Pasta at Barrel Proof, I got to play with squid ink and made a black flan. It tasted like a salty caramel finish, but it was black throughout. I am open to playing with different things now.
“If I could have written a wish list, this place is it. “
Gambit: How did you start your pop-up?
Hernandez: During the pandemic, I started working with Wakin ‘Bakin’. I was able to organize a five course Cuban dinner. I made all the dishes and the custard was the dessert. This menu was all of my mom’s recipes. Wakin ‘Bakin’ dinner was my first time making a flan in New Orleans.
After that dinner, I received requests for whole custards. Then the smart name came, and it skyrocketed.
I have a friend who has a pop-up called Umami Mami at Pal’s Lounge every Sunday. It was the first pop-up I made. I was at Pal on Sunday with her selling slices. He grew up from there. People started looking for me to order a whole one. With the smart name (Only Flans), it’s easy to get someone to try.
Currently, I make maybe 10 custards a week. I can only cook four at a time. I go every Tuesday through Friday with Que Pasta at Barrel Proof, and she’s at R Bar for Saints Games. If you can see it, my custard is on the menu. I am at Pal’s place on Sundays with Umami Mami. Recently I dated Lufu with slices, and in the new year we’re going to do a collaboration.
Hernandez takes direct orders for custard through his Instagram page and through [email protected]