In Bed with…Chef Aarón Sánchez
You’ve seen him alongside Gordon Ramsay on MasterChef, at the judging table on Chopped, and in the kitchens of Iron Chef America. Texas-born chef Aarón Sánchez was introduced to the food world at a young age through his mother, Zarela Martinez. When Sánchez was a child, they moved to New York City, where Martinez opened her pioneering Mexican restaurant, Zarela.
Now living in New Orleans, Sánchez has become a major player in the industry, and has put his celebrity status to good use through philanthropic efforts to empower aspiring Latino chefs across the country.
We caught up with Sánchez during one of his recent visits to New York, where he stayed with Refinery and attended the New York City Wine & Food Festival.
Here, we get In Bed with…Aarón Sánchez.
Your mother is a prominent NYC chef and cookbook author…at what age did you decide you wanted to follow in her footsteps?
I remember cooking with my mom and grandma when I was very young, but I decided this industry was for me when I was about 16. I needed structure as most teenagers do, I was starting to get in trouble, and my mom sent me to work in the kitchen of my mentor Chef Paul Prudhomme [in New Orleans]. I was mesmerized by everything that went into making a great meal and an amazing restaurant. Working in that kitchen showed me how to be a man and what went into being a professional chef.
You’re much more than a chef…You’re a TV personality, a cookbook author and a philanthropist…When did you realize that you wanted to do more than cook in a kitchen?
I started doing TV just to promote my restaurant, but then I realized what an amazing platform this all is. I realized that I have the opportunity to share my culture with people everywhere and it’s an honor and a duty to impart as much knowledge as I can with everyone who follows me and my work.
Beyond growing up in the kitchen of your mother’s restaurant, how has your heritage influenced your cooking style?
I started out trying to reinvent everything and make all my dishes new and unique, but now I find that I’m going back to my mom and grandma’s recipes. I find that honoring my legacy through keeping these recipes alive feels right.
Your Aarón Sánchez Scholarship Fund helps empower aspiring chefs from the Latino community. Can you talk a little about your inspiration to create the fund, and to what extent the Latino cooking community supports each other?
I’ve been working in and running kitchens for over 20 years, and I have always seen that Latinas and Latinos are the backbones of most kitchens. They generally don’t get very many opportunities for advancement, though. I am hoping to give young aspiring Hispanic chefs the mentoring, education and resources necessary to be the next generation of culinary leaders.
Cooking is seen as a form of art, but you also are incredibly passionate about another art—tattoos. How did you get involved with Daredevil Tattoos in New York City and tattoos in general?
We started out by just trading dinner for tattoos, they were right across the street from my first restaurant and we became friends. We all shared the love of the craft of tattoos, and so we partnered up. It’s one of those organic stories of people who just like each other and really appreciate what each other does.
You were a judge on Chopped for quite some time. What’s the hardest basket of ingredients you’ve seen contests receive?
I always think it’s hard when you have something artificial, precooked or just not fresh. No matter what it is, if it’s a raw real ingredient, you can turn that into something great, the other stuff is always really hard to make a balanced, elevated dish.
How does your work on MasterChef and the personalities you work with differ than on Chopped?
Well it’s a very different format, we get to work with the contestants for months on MasterChef, which is so much fun. We take a journey with them and see them really grow and learn. I love getting to be a mentor and have a real impact on the home cooks. Gordon is a huge inspiration to me, getting to work with him is amazing, I find myself really upping my game when I’m around him. Joe seems like a sourpuss, but he’s also a great guy and businessman, he’s a great colleague as well. I miss all my buddies on Chopped, but I still keep in touch with everyone and try to see them when I’m in town.
You spent some time growing up in New York City and working in your mother’s kitchen. How has the city inspired you and your career?
There are so many things about the city that are a part of who I am, there is inspiration on every corner. I love the diversity of ethnicities and cuisine as well as all the art and music. There is just culture everywhere, so if you are paying attention, ideas can come to you continually. The people in NYC are so amazing and unique. It’s a melting pot of different backgrounds and beliefs, and that’s what makes up the fabric of our society.
What’s your perfect day in New York City look like?
All the way from breakfast to dinner. Waking up somewhere downtown, maybe SoHo, walking up to the Union Square Farmers’ Market, cooking brunch or a snack at a friend’s house. Then I love to go to Balthazar’s or some old school New York spot for lunch and meet with my team who are all here. Then I like to see my mom and twin brother for dinner, maybe at my mom’s house where we are all pitching in—I usually get stuck with the duty of vegetables or sides. I might go have a nightcap after with old friends downtown and then head to bed and get ready for whatever my gig is the next day.
What’s your favorite hidden gem restaurant in New York City?
My buddy John Mooney has a great place called Bell, Book & Candle in the West Village that’s pretty awesome. And there are a lot in Brooklyn—that’s where I lived when I was here. I really like Mekelburg’s for something casual.
What to you is the perfect meal?
That’s hard, I would always say one of my mom or grandma’s dishes. Mole and albondigas are two of my favorite comfort foods, it really just brings me home when I’ve had a tough day.
What’s next for you?
I’m really excited for the future of my foundation. I’m looking forward to expanding to new markets and mentoring as many young people as I can. It feels like I am honoring my teachers, mentors, family and culture through this initiative.