Global flavors and new concepts have increasingly diversified the New Orleans dining scene. A new program from one high-profile chef, however, is out to diversify the ranks of people who will run the city's next restaurants.
Aarón Sánchez, the celebrity chef and partner in the modern Mexican restaurant Johnny Sánchez, has created a new scholarship program for aspiring chefs from the New Orleans Latino community. It will pay to send recipients to the International Culinary Center in New York, followed by internships and other career development support back home.
“The idea is that they'll take that training and schooling and one day open their own restaurants in New Orleans and continue to raise the bar,” said Sánchez.
The Aarón Sánchez Scholarship Fund was formed in conjunction with the John Besh Foundation, the nonprofit run by the chef’s business partner in Johnny Sánchez. It is aligned with Besh’s ongoing Chefs Move! program, which provides similar scholarships to people from local minority communities.
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Sánchez, who is Mexican-American, said the program is intended to boost the prospects for Latinos, who play an important though largely unheralded role in the American restaurant business.
“They're an integral part of so many kitchens in this country, and it’s time to recognize a new generation of Latin cooks,” he said. “I want to let these young people know there’s more opportunity in our industry.”
The program officially launches with a benefit dinner next week, on Nov. 3, that will showcase the role of mentorship in developing culinary talent (see details below).
The dinner brings together three chefs that Sánchez has helped earlier in their careers -- Deuki Hong, Jose Colin Jr., and Miles Landrem, the executive chef at Johnny Sánchez in New Orleans. The dinner also reunites Sánchez with his own early mentor, Douglas Rodriguez, the Cuban-American chef who was instrumental in introducing “Nuevo Latino” cuisine. Sánchez worked under him at his New York restaurant Patria in the 1990s and he says it was a formative time for his career.
“He was in the business of creating chefs,” Sánchez said of Rodriguez. “All the kids who worked as line cooks when I was there moved up to be chefs or become their own bosses. He created that kind of environment and he elevated a kind of food that was seen as being home style and basic into something worthy of praise.”
Sánchez sees those values continuing through his own new scholarship program. In addition to culinary training, the scholarship recipients will travel with the chef to Mexico for more personal time and a different sort of culinary mentoring journey.
“A lot of the lessons I’ve learned have been outside the kitchen, life lessons, and that’s part of this,” Sánchez said. “You can have a really fulfilling life making food for people. Even if you’re coming through adversity, there is a way forward in our business and I want more people to see that.”
Sánchez was born into the restaurant realm. His mother, Zarela Martinez, is a cookbook author and restaurateur who is widely recognizing for introducing a new generation of Americans to traditional Mexican cooking, starting in the 1980s. New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme was an early advocate of her cooking, and when Sánchez was still a teenager his mother sent him from their home in New York to work under Prudhomme at his K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen.
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He would eventually open his own restaurants and found success on food television, including a role on the Food Network series “Chopped.” He and Besh opened their first Johnny Sánchez together in Baltimore in 2014, followed by the New Orleans edition later that year.
Sánchez moved to New Orleans earlier this year, a move that he said influenced his decision to start this scholarship program.
“I want to plant roots here,” he said. “I’m in New Orleans and I want to make my mark in a way that’s meaningful to other people.”
The first scholarship will be awarded in the spring. Applications will be available starting Dec. 1 at aaronsanchezscholarshipfund.com.
What: A Mentor’s Dinner benefiting the Aarón Sánchez Scholarship Fund
When: Nov. 3, from 7 p.m.
Where: Pigeon & Prince, 129 Camp St.
Details: Five-course dinner with wine pairings and cocktails, prepared by chefs Aarón Sánchez, Douglas Rodriguez, Deuki Hong, Jose Colin Jr., and Miles Landrem. Tickets are $250. Get tickets and details here.