Aarón Sánchez is a celebrity chef on shows including “MASTERCHEF,” “Chopped” and “Chopped Junior.” He’s also the chef/owner of Mexican restaurant Johnny Sanchez on Poydras Street, which he originally opened with John Besh. He also runs the Aarón Sanchez Scholarship Fund to help young Latin chefs gain professional culinary education.
Sánchez just released a memoir, “Where I Come From: Life Lessons from a Latino Chef,” and will do a book signing and cooking demonstration of his albondigas tacos at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 14 at Johnny Sánchez. Tickets are $50 and include a signed copy of the book. He spoke with Gambit.
Gambit: What has changed for Latinos in the restaurant industry since you started your career?
Sanchez: When I started, we faced a lot of challenges and adversities. I remember some really ignorant chefs saying things to me like, “Latinos are prep cooks and dishwashers. That’s the best they can hope for.” I used that as motivation, took somebody’s asinine thought process and used that as fuel. I think when you talk about 20 years ago, with language barriers for some, opportunities for advancement weren’t always there.
I was really fortunate because I worked in the Latino kitchen at Patria where Douglas Rodriguez legitimized Latin food. It was given three stars from The New York Times. Working in that environment, with a whole Latino kitchen, gave me perspective in saying ”We can excel at this level.”
I find it funny that nowadays I see a lot of American chefs, gringos, opening Mexican restaurants, and it’s all good. But if I open an Italian or a French restaurant, people will look at me a little funny. The reality is if you go to any of those Italian or French restaurants, the people in the back cooking are Latinos. We’re essential in the success of restaurants across the country, and we deserve every opportunity to be the chefs, owners and managers. That’s a big motivation for the Aaron Sanchez Scholarship Fund. I didn’t want education to be the one obstacle standing in front of a young Latina girl or young man.
G: When it comes to non-Mexicans cooking Mexican cuisine, where is the line between creativity and co-opting?
S: I’m not a fan of fusion. I feel like it creates confusion. I think Mexican cuisine is so revered and beloved that a lot of people have strong opinions about it and want to do justice to the cuisine. But it’s a cuisine that’s so regional and varied with such a rich history that you have to really understand the food from a scholarly and cultural perspective. A lot of chefs, like Alex Stupac, Sean Brock and Rick Bayless, have done the time and the research to open Mexican restaurants that have the legitimacy necessary. When anyone does great Mexican food at a high level, it benefits everyone.
It took me a long time to open up a Mexican restaurant considering my mom’s background and her legacy. I wanted to make sure I had traveled enough and researched the food intimately to speak from a perspective of understanding and strength.
G: What was it like coming to New Orleans at 16 to intern with Paul Prudhomme?
S: Oh man, it was absolutely my salvation, absolutely necessary. I could have gone down so many bad directions had he not been in my life. You’ve got to remember, this was when you could still drink at 18. I had my own apartment. I was making a paycheck, living right and having fun every day after work, going to Lucky Pierre’s on Bourbon. I just loved it, soaked in every minute, learned so many life lessons from old-school New Orleans guys that lived on the West Bank. They really taught me the value of being a man of your word, simple things that go a long way. Having chef Paul as my rock, my guiding light — I couldn’t have been more fortunate in a time when I needed it.
G: After the separation from Besh Restaurant Group, what did you take away about the people side of running a restaurant?
S: I’ve been a restaurant person since day one. My mom had a restaurant in New York for 30 years, so this is all I really know. Yes, I do television and a lot of extracurricular things, but at the heart of everything I do is cooking and taking care of people. I’m a big proponent of hospitality and differentiating that from service – people get the two confused a lot. Service is putting in an order, putting down silverware, knowing the steps of service. Hospitality is anticipating the need of someone else, and attending to that need gives you joy. That’s how I want to run our restaurants. Everything starts with respect and leading by example. All our team is dedicated to the same mission: making people happy through food. That’s how I lead, how I speak to people, how I take are of people. That’s really the base of everything I do in life.
G: Is there another restaurant on the horizon?
S: Yes… perhaps something in Mid-City, another restaurant next year for sure that I’m very excited about. It’s illuminating a part of the city where people want to go. Locals want to go and eat there. Not that the CBD isn’t great, and I live in the Lower Garden District, but having people from New Orleans gravitate to an area where they feel safe, and it’s kind of cool and hip – I like that.
G: What’s some of the most exciting Latin food in New Orleans right now?
S: I really like what they do at Espiritu, the mezcaleria. Nanyo Dominguez, the chef, used to be my sous chef, and I brought him to New Orleans. I also like what Akhtar [Nawab] is doing at Otra Vez with Indian and Mexican flavors.
G: What roots you in New Orleans?
S: This is my home. I travel 200-plus days a year, but when I’m not on the road working, I’m home. It’s gonna be my home from now on. A lot of times in a chef’s life you have to come full circle. I love the energy and the people. It’s a place artists and cooks can still afford to live – I think that’s so important. New York has priced out their artists, and when artists can’t afford to live in the city it becomes like a corporate wasteland. I had to go chase the art, chase the food. That’s why I’ve been living here for the last five years.