Benny Hernandez -
Good Companions at Henry Street Settlement

Benny: I give the seniors what they want, I treat them the way they want to be treated… seniors have a good time here. We have monthly menu meetings — you can give me complaints, I won’t take it to heart.… I learn everyday. I’m still learning. I never think that I know more than you or other people.

How did you learn to cook?
I used to cook for Project Renewal... there’s about 7 to 8 kitchens on the Lower East Side, and I learned a lot from them. I like working with seniors and one day, hopefully, I’ll be a senior myself. …I was stressed out, untrained and on drugs and finally woke up at a young age and finally realized that’s not the way to go. I’m giving it back. [Project Renewal] had so many types of learning classes, but cooking was my thing. Before going into there, I was making pizzas and all that. I would like to get back to that.

Do you feel like cooking is your calling?
Yes. I wake up in the morning and if I feel good in the morning, then that’s what I like…. I love my job. If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t be here… [With my kids] I cook cake, stuff like apple pie. They love it.… I’ve gotten more responsible now that I have kids… I have to make sure that I can support them, that they can eat.

What kind of food do you make here?
Everything here is kosher.… No cheese, no dairy… we have a rabbi, a mashgiach. He’s a pretty cool guy, he taught me everything I need to know about this.… I shop one week to the next… sometimes daily, I like it to be fresh. When I first came here I observed for two to three months before I changed anything. You know, I got the seniors, I make a menu plan, then I get complaints, what they want. How you gonna help people if you don’t know what they want?… They’re pretty slick. They come in and tell me “Oh, they having chicken over there [another senior center], oh, you’re having fish over here.” And that helps me out with the menu, too. Some of the seniors are Spanish, a little Jewish, Chinese, on certain days on the menu I do Chinese food, then Puerto Rican food one day, Jewish food. I try to meet everybody’s needs. Sometimes I ask for recipes, they give me recipes… I have a whole file full of them.

What are you favorite parts of working here?
Getting to know that people are happy. Sometimes I can sit down and have a good conversation with them, a good one or bad one. Sometimes I could play a game, like a domino game or something after lunch. My favorite part now is seeing them sit down and relaxing and talking to each other and playing games…. In about 10–15 years, maybe I’ll own a pizza shop. I’ll probably still work here if I own a pizza shop, if I have some people working there.

[With most pizza shops] there’s no types of benefits. This is a company, full benefits. Weekends off, which I love. But now we want to give more, so we’re gonna start opening up on Sundays.