A Lifetime of Learning for Chef Aarón Sánchez
Words by Lindsey Reynolds
Photos by Randy Schmidt
Aarón Sánchez never stops learning. His education first began in the kitchen of his mother, Zarela Martinez, while growing up in El Paso, Texas. It was there Sánchez learned to make traditional Mexican dishes for his mother’s catering business. “My mom grew up in Sonora on a cattle ranch in Northern Mexico. We had a bicultural way of growing up, both Mexican and Texan. We all speak perfect English and Spanish—we were educated on both sides of the border.” When he got older, the family moved to New York City, but Sánchez took the knowledge he’d learned from his family with him.
So how did a Mexican-American end up in the Big Easy by way of the Big Apple? Through the wise ways of acclaimed Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme. Prudhomme was first a friend of Sánchez’s mother, an accomplished cook in her own right. She rightly decided that Sánchez could learn a lot from the larger-than-life chef and promptly sent him to New Orleans as soon as Sánchez could drive. At the tender age of 16, Sánchez began working in restaurant kitchens during summer breaks, and his culinary education blossomed under the tutelage of Prudhomme. He went on to attend culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, before returning to New York City to begin his professional career.
In 1994, a key moment in Sánchez’s life took place. He met Chef Douglas Rodriguez at Patria—the first Latin American restaurant in New York City to receive three stars from The New York Times. Rodriguez is now considered the “Godfather of Nuevo Latino Cuisine” in the food world, and thus played a key role in helping Sánchez find his roots. Sánchez recalls, “[He] helped mold my cooking. I got bit with the bug. Latin food can be presented and executed with finesse and precision and technique and that’s what opened my eyes. I wouldn’t trade those years for the world.”
It’s those formative experiences with established, respected chefs that led him to develop his newest initiative, aptly titled the Aarón Sánchez Scholarship Fund. “My nonprofit and scholarship fund is going to help and identify a core group of people—the new face of our industry. Specifically people of multicultural backgrounds and women because fine dining kitchens still lack diversity today. It’s going to help people that don’t have the background or resources to go to culinary school—because that can cost $45,000 a year!”
Sánchez wants to pay it forward, like so many in the industry have done before him. “I want to use my career and trajectory as an example to this core demographic. What’s really beautiful is being able to have my nonprofit under the umbrella of the Besh Foundation; the scholarship will live within the group. But, I will also be doing multi-faceted things, whether it’s sponsoring kids from the barrio, a Latino neighborhood, or making sure they’re placed in one of my restaurants or John’s [Besh] or a friend’s.”
High academic standards are also important to Sánchez when it comes to identifying scholarship recipients. Though the scholarship stipulations are still being worked out, he wants each mentee to travel, to become immersed in other cultures, and to learn the language. But there’s one thing that must be organically present in each potential student. Sánchez says, “You don’t have to be the best cook—that’s my job to teach you. But I can’t teach you the respect. I can’t teach you the passion. That’s something that has to be inherent.”
This November, Sánchez will host his first mentor’s dinner at Pigeon & Prince in New Orleans. He has invited three of his mentees: Chef Deuki Hong, Chef Jose Colin, Jr., and his right-hand man in New Orleans, Johnny Sánchez’s Executive Chef Miles Landrem. His own mentor, Douglas Rodriguez, will be coming from Miami to cook alongside him and will, in Sánchez’s words, “bring it full circle.” Sánchez believes these young chefs are “the future of our industry. We’re highlighting their abilities and talent.”
Sánchez recently moved back to New Orleans after a long hiatus in New York City and Los Angeles. He’s been busy since his early days in Prudhomme’s kitchen. Today, Sánchez is the co-star of Food Network’s hit series, Chopped, and the host of Cooking Channel's Emmy-nominated Taco Trip. He has also appeared on Iron Chef America and is currently filming for Master Chef in Los Angeles. But it was a spiritual visit from a certain mentor that brought him back home. Sánchez recalls, “I wanted to go back to New Orleans. When Chef Paul passed away, he visited me in a dream and said, ‘I need you in New Orleans. I need you to preserve my legacy.’ That’s what implored me to do it. That’s what inspired me to move back.”
So how has moving back to the Big Easy influenced him? “In New Orleans, everybody’s momma is a good cook. People grow up in New Orleans knowing good food. For me, that was an instant challenge. How am I gonna kick ass in this town when everybody knows good food?”
Sánchez is kicking ass just fine. And the learning never stops. “I put myself in positions to learn constantly. It’s so important to me and imperative in everything I do. It’s a natural progression for me to figure out outlets and put together a strategic plan for the next generation of chefs to be successful.