By Kiri Tannenbaum
Aarón Sánchez, co-star of two Food Network hit series Chopped and Heat Seekers, and host of FOX Life’s #1 rated series Aarón Loves New York, never planned to become a celebrity chef. Though it is no surprise that he landed in the field, given he was born into culinary royalty, being the son of one of New York’s most celebrated Mexican chefs, Zarela Martinez.
At an age when many kids were playing with their friends after school, Sánchez was hard at work at his mother’s restaurant. Eventually his culinary trajectory led him to open several successful Latin restaurants over the years including New York’s Centrico and Leawood, Kansas’s Mestizo. His passion, commitment, and abilities have placed him among the country’s leading contemporary Latin chefs.
In addition to being a restaurateur, television personality, consultant and spokesperson, Sánchez is an author and entrepreneur. His first book, La Comida del Barrio, was published in May 2003. His second book, Simple Food, Big Flavor: Unforgettable Mexican-Inspired Recipes from My Kitchen to Yours, was released in October 2011.
We spoke with Sánchez to find out what influences him, his thoughts on the evolution of Latin cuisine in the U.S., as well as what goes on behind the scenes on the set of Food Network’s Chopped.
When did you first begin to cook?
Initially it started from being around my mom and watching her do her thing. My mom had a real simple rule—she wasn’t going to give us any money, we had to work for our money. That’s the way it was. Immediately after school, and on the weekend, I would go to the restaurant and work the coat check and help out when I was about ten years old. Then about 12 or 13, I gravitated towards the kitchen. It just became something I really enjoyed, and it was one of the few things I was good at. I was a very undisciplined child and the kitchen was good because it provided structure, mentoring and discipline—something every young person needs.
Is that around the time you decided to cook professionally?
It’s funny because it just felt natural. It felt like the right thing to do. I was always fed and always had a good time, and I needed a paycheck. I loved the environment. I like working late. I like getting out late. It was just fun. It was about 16 when I decided this was going to be my calling.
Your mother, Zarela Martinez, is well known for bringing Mexican food to the forefront in New York City. How do you think the perception of the cuisine has shifted since you first started working at her restaurant?
It’s changed enormously. We have people like Rick Bayless. There’s more of an awareness. Before it was homogenized and, to some extent it is now, but I think people are traveling more in Mexico. People understand the nuances. The Mexican chefs are trained better now. When I started cooking, Mexicans were not really in power, to be very honest. They were expected to be dishwashers and prep cooks and now you have young kids working in very nice kitchens and going to schools like ICE and being very well trained and prepared. So the quality, the execution, and the technique; all of that has gone up tenfold.
You’re a partner in Tacombi, a Mexican street food restaurant down in NoLita. Is that a concept you might recreate somewhere else?
It’s a fun project. This a collaboration that I connected my food to, but it’s a concept that’s really headed by Dario Wolos.
I’m doing a restaurant in the city very shortly. I’m hoping it will be opened by November, capturing my mom’s food, my grandmother’s food and my food. I feel right now in New York there are a lot of taquerías and a lot of casual food, but not a lot of really good sit-down Mexican style restaurants. They are either really high end or really casual. I would like to have a place in that middle ground. That’s what I’m focused on right now.
You started appearing on the Food Network back in the early days on Melting Pot. What was that experience like?
I had already done Ready, Set, Cook! and In Food Today and I really saw the growth of the network. It was amazing. For me the whole motivation for doing television initially was to try to get people to come to my restaurants and eat and create awareness. Now, as I’ve gotten older, the mission has been more profound. Now it’s teaching aspects of my culture and food to people that might not be familiar with it. It’s an obligation to myself and then to my background so people can cook this food authentically at home and fall in love with it. And perhaps become familiar with different aspects they didn’t know existed. It never was about being famous. That’s not who I am.
You’ve been very fortunate to be on Food Network for so many years. How did the opportunity come about?
I remember the day it happened. Arthur Schwartz, the great food writer and critic, was good friends with my mom. He had a party for the release of one of his books at one of Donatella Arpaia’s first restaurants. I remember David Rosengarten being there and Donna Hanover and I remember this conversation with David. He was really nice and super amicable and he said, “I have a show called ‘In Food Today’ and I’d love to have you on.” He wanted me to give some ideas of Mexican Christmas or Cinco de Mayo. Those were the days when you had to bring everything with you.
Then somehow, I guess somebody liked it and they called me back to do some different episodes and that’s how it started happening. It was a very gradual process.
You have been a judge on Chopped, one of the networks’ most highest rated shows. What do you think makes it so compelling for viewers?
What makes Chopped so special is that it’s really a game changer. It changes people’s lives and there is a conclusion after every half an hour of tape. Someone is walking out with $10,000. That’s what I love about it. That four people are walking in and one person is going to be victorious. For better or worse, we’re changing four people’s lives through food. It’s pretty cool.
I also learn so much from my colleagues. I learn a lot from the competitors, but, at any given time, there’s at least 60 years of experience between all of us. You have all these people up here who have very different perceptions of food and experiences and background, and we all contribute to the show. I like that. I think it’s very democratic. I think it’s very uplifting. It’s critical at times, but critical in a good way because we’re helping people get better. We’re doing more of an injustice to somebody if we lie to them and not tell them how it is.
What is it like behind the scenes?
Ted [Allen] and I have very similar sense of humor. We’re always goofballs. I have the reputation of being Mr. Funny Guy. I’m always cracking jokes and being light-hearted. Believe it or not, we all get very nervous on television—all of the chefs. I know Bobby Flay real well and he says he loses more sleep when he has to do Iron Chef than anything else he does. Can you imagine? It’s true! When I have to cook on a show, it’s like, “yeesh!”
So you’re happy being behind the judges’ table?
Yes, but I also like to cook. I want to be the fairest judge I can be and part of doing that is putting myself in the shoes of the contestant because that makes me a better judge. If you don’t start putting challenges in front of yourself, you’re going to get stagnant, and you’re going to lose your edge. I’m always very conscious of trying to get better.
Is this something you tell young chefs?
Absolutely. I think it’s important for young people to want to go out there and see where they are with other chefs. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It’s not for everybody, but I do encourage everybody be competitive because this industry’s very competitive. If you’re not ready to fight, to compete, then maybe you shouldn’t do it.
You’re also a host on FOXLife, the Spanish-language lifestyle network. How do you play to a Hispanic audience?
It’s very hard for me sometimes because I’m living in two different worlds. I think very differently and feel differently in each language. Part of being on Latin television is very fun and free flowing, but it’s also very cultural. When I’m on television, my accent seems very visible that I let people know I’m Mexican. There are a lot of cultural nuances that are important that add authenticity, that bring viewership, and identifiability. It’s a very different way of thinking and being, but needless to say, I think it’s awesome.
It’s the 20th anniversary of the Food Network this November, how do you think the advent of the Food Network has affected the way Americans view food in general?
I think it’s been absolutely instrumental. If it’s one thing in this country that’s gotten people to cook, it’s been Food Network. They’ve done it very organically. I’ve been so privileged to be partners with them for so many years. They have stuck with me, and they’ve seen me grow and mature on my point of view and change. With Food Network, you’re teaching someone that lives in Sioux City, Iowa, the difference between English sea salt and regular Kosher salt. Or good olive oil. It’s amazing really—who knew it would become a part of pop culture? Chopped was on True Blood the other day!
Viewers have become much more sophisticated diners. How does that impact what you put out in the restaurant?
It plays a very big part because now the expectations are a lot higher. I could spend my whole life cooking food from just one part of Mexico and probably never do justice to it. There’s enough dishes in me, enough food in me that it makes it all work.
What are your thoughts on new forms of technology in the kitchen?
I use sous vide in my kitchens. I think it’s really awesome. My whole idea is, don’t take away from the essence of the food. That’s my big goal. I don’t use foams and stuff like that, per se, but I do like the idea of sous vide. I always try to learn and pick up new stuff, so I welcome it.
What are three Mexican ingredients you would recommend to someone who wants to master the cuisine to always have in their pantry?
Chipotle, Huitlacoche, and Mexican oregano.
I read you are passionate about other forms of art. How does your profession in the culinary arts intersect?
Most artists do other facets of art. For me, I write poetry. I love it. It’s just something that I’m crazy about and done since I was a kid. Music and poetry and art—all these are so important. That’s why my work with the House of Blues is so cool to me because it’s about music, it’s about folk art, and it’s about spirituality. I’m a practicing Buddhist and these things give me the tools in order to be a good person, to be a good human every day.
Do all these beliefs impact not only how you live your life, but also how you cook?
Yes, absolutely. It allows me not to lose my cool, to feed my soul and get better at my craft and influence other people. It’s not just about cooking, it’s about changing people’s lives and teaching people skills and making people happy. That’s why I got into it.
Do you think you were born to cook?
I can’t see myself doing anything else other than cooking. It is what I was destined to do and I’m lucky that I’m one of those people that never have to worry about finding a job.
Article originally published in the ICE Fall 2013 Main Course.