Chef Aarón Sánchez Is Exactly Where He Wants to Be
With a new memoir out, the "Chopped" judge opens up about father figures, former business partners and (of course) tattoos
You might think you know Mexican-American chef Aarón Sánchez through his many appearances on Fox’s MasterChef and MasterChef Junior or his role as a judge on Food Network’s Chopped, but just like the dozens of tattoos covering his body, each tell a story. There’s a lot more to consider beyond the guy on TV. Sánchez has written two personal cookbooks, La Comida del Barrio and Simple Food, Big Flavor, that shared his connection to his heritage through Mexican-inspired recipes, but his memoir, Where I Come From: Life Lessons from a Latino Chef, is his most personal book yet. But don’t worry, there are still recipes sprinkled throughout, like Pineapple-Ginger Chicken Wings with Soy-Pineapple Glaze and Tequila-Battered Cauliflower Tacos with Chimichurri and Chipotle Mayonnaise. Sánchez took our call during his five-hour drive from Birmingham back to his home in New Orleans, where he is the chef and co-owner of the restaurant Johnny Sánchez. After turning down Hank Williams on the car radio, InsideHook talked with Sánchez about his new book, his mother Zarela’s tough love, Paul Prudhomme and what leaving a legacy means to him.
When writing a memoir, what was your process like to determine how much personal information you wanted to share, whether about you or your family or your colleagues? And did you have to set any boundaries for yourself while still being as transparent as possible?
I wanted to be 100 percent transparent when it came to writing a memoir.
This is about actual facts. Things that I went through that maybe touched upon points in my career. The book is very candid, but at the same time you’ve got to be kind of mindful that other people are involved in your life. You want to be respectful of other people.
There’s a keen sense of you contemplating the idea of legacy — personally and professionally. As a father and a mentor to young chefs, is that something on your mind?
Yeah, it’s really important. Not only am I representing my family and all of the great people that I’ve worked with, but I’m also an example for the Latino community. The idea that having myself be an example and a source of inspiration is a big responsibility. It’s very much on mind. I work with my staff for all of us to be better every day. That’s a big deal.
Your father died suddenly and his absence is really felt throughout the book. Several different father figures play influential roles in your life. Being a father now, is Adolfo always on your mind when you’re passing on new traditions to your own son, Yuma?
I lost my father when I was thirteen and it affected me very deeply because I had to kind of grow up really fast early on. I had all these father figures in the kitchen — Paul Prudhomme being one of them, Jonathan Waxman being another. All these different people that came into my life but I needed structure, and I needed discipline. I keep that very much on my mind. My father was a man of very few words. He was from a town of 200 people. A real tough guy. He didn’t show a lot of emotion. I try to tell my son the importance of hard work and not complaining.
The book kicks off with your spark of the memory of celebrating your father during Día de Muertos in Mexico. What are your traditions now for that holiday?
At our restaurant Johnny Sanchez in New Orleans we’ll do an alter honoring members of our team’s families that have passed and put up photos of their family members. It’s very personal to our community. Then we’ll put photos up of somebody who has recently passed who was a source of inspiration. We put Anthony Bourdain’s photo up a couple years ago when he passed so people coming into the restaurant will know how he influenced us. And we’ll do special dishes tied into that time of year with a focus on Oaxaca and mezcal specials.
There are several key moments in your life when you reach out — you call it a lifeline — to your mother, Zarela, and her method of offering you advice is often less than comforting. Did you learn to appreciate that style of tough love?
Of course it’s your mother and you assume you’re going to get nurtured and comforted. And when your mom sets you straight and tells you to hang tough it was very brash at times. Her mother, my grandmother, was very similar. It was a hard pill to swallow. I understood why as she had to assume both roles, as a father figure and the matriarchal role. I got it. I’ve tried to implement a lot of that style of tough love in my work life and my personal life as well. Because you don’t do anybody any justice by bullshitting them or skirting around the subject. Nothing’s accomplished when you do that.
Zarela was a single mother who moved her family from El Paso to New York City to open a catering business and then her own popular namesake restaurant. There’s often a tension between you and your mother as industry contemporaries, especially as your career started to accelerate. This culminates when Frank Bruni runs a double-review in New York Times new restaurant, Centrico, and her restaurant, Zarella. Did the aftershocks of that review have a damaging effect on your personal and professional relationship between you both?
Yeah, it did. Especially for my mother. To go from having a very decorated two-star review to having no stars was difficult. I thought it was very personal. It wasn’t like we were pitted against each other but I thought the opinion of the review was very harsh the way it all played out. My mom wanted to stay relevant and continue to be written about and she pulled away from the restaurant soon after that. Now my mom is considered more of a regal sort of pioneer in a teaching capacity, like Julia Child was. She’s been such a focal point in bringing Mexican cooking to the United States.
Paul Prudhomme, another large figure in your life, turned out to be play a key role in your mother’s career and later your own. Working for him at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in New Orleans when you were 16 seemed to play a big factor in deciding you wanted to cook professionally. When you write about cooking for him in New York at your restaurant and you say, “it was the closest I came to feeding your father.” What was the legacy of Paul Prudhomme to you?
When my father passed away and I moved to New York I was kind of exposed to a bad element. Cutting school, smoking pot. My mom, as a sort of intervention, called Paul Prudhomme and said, I have this kid with a lot of potential but I need you to get him right. He was a big force in my life. I wouldn’t be successful if he hadn’t taught me to taste food properly. His whole thing was layering flavors and how seasoning affected food. He really taught me how to think, and develop my palate. He was a man of very few words but, boy, when he talked, you listened. He was arguably the most recognized chef in the country. I used to go to book signings with him and he’d have 500 people waiting for him.
An Anglo-American chef, a gringo chef, opening a Mexican restaurant that’s all good, but God forbid I open a French restaurant
You were a featured player in the early days of the Food Network, which had a huge impact on your career and what you’re doing now. Your name is more than just a name these days. You’re a brand. Do you think that’s a fact of life in order to be relevant as a professional chef or public figure these days?
I just want to be clear, my goal in life was to have my own restaurant, to be the captain of my own ship, so to speak. To be able to cook with food that spoke to me and makes people happy. And that still holds true today. The whole thing with the Food Network, especially early on, was it was another tool to get people into the door of your restaurant. That’s why I ended up doing it initially. I guess I did a good enough job to have kept being invited back and it started to take off from there. I can’t think of myself as a brand. I just know that I have a lot of passion in life and I love intersecting with different groups of people in a positive way. From books to philanthropy to restaurants — it’s about connecting with people. That’s my goal. It’s about making good food. If television happens that’s a good thing, but I’m a chef first. Everything else I do is secondary. It’s about the food. It’s about the craft.
As you became more popular you were concerned about being, as you write, “the go-to token Latino chef” in food media. But at the same time you wanted to champion representation. Is your Aarón Sánchez Scholarship Fund a way for you to help young Latino cooks to break out beyond the back of the house?
I’m going to be honest with you. An Anglo-American chef, a gringo chef, opening a Mexican restaurant that’s all good, but God forbid I open a French restaurant. You know what I mean? It’s a double-edge sword in that respect. I wanted to create the scholarship because I didn’t want to any excuses. I didn’t want someone’s color or lack of education to be an excuse for lack of acceleration in the kitchen, as far as getting executive positions and being leaders and decision-makers. Mentoring is a huge part of it. It allows us to have a network for a new generation of chefs that will have a huge impact on the future. We’re planting seeds for the future. That’s how we look at it.
Knowing your relationship with your former business partner John Besh, when reading the book I kept waiting to see if you would address it. And you do, very matter of fact. I’m curious how the reckoning sparked by the #metoo movement changed the way you operate a business and manage a team of employees?
How we operate our restaurant is with 100 percent respect and that’s always been our mission. I only operate my restaurant with like-minded people and people’s safety and comfort is paramount to us in the restaurant setting. I can’t speak for anybody else, but what we do on a daily basis is top notch, keeping our employees’ needs at the forefront. That’s what we do.
With legacy restaurants closing and popular new spots often not lasting a full year, the restaurant landscape can be pretty bleak. Do you think this reality has any hope of improving or will only majorly-funded restaurants stand a chance?
It’s pretty crazy how it’s changed so much over the years. You used to get a restaurant basically ready to rock and roll from someone who was shutting down. Now, you almost always have to build it out and have some serious funding. I still think the little guys can make it. You just have to be really smart and keep your costs very low so you can build capital. You have to have a solid business plan and have a steady stream of income to stay afloat. The big guys will probably continue to dominate, but I do still have hope that people with good ideas and a savvy business mind can make a living.
You’re a partner in Daredevil Tattoo in New York and you mention you used to barter comped drinks and meals in exchange for ink. Judging by the amount of tattoos you’re rocking, that was a lot of margaritas. Are you still adding to your collection?
Yeah, our relationship is really awesome and it started genuinely out of respect for each other’s work. I’ve started saying that I’m running out of paper when folks ask about new tattoos. I still touch things up here and there and cover things from time to time, but yeah I’ve basically used up all the space for big pieces.
You’re now living in New Orleans after a long time in New York. Is this where you’ll finally settle down?
There’s so many different things about New Orleans, but to come full circle in life means so much. My career started here and I didn’t realize it’s where I’d end up for the latter part of my career. I just love the fact that it’s a hub for chefs and a melting pot of cuisines. It really speaks to me. I love the people and my friends and business colleagues. It’s just a beautiful place. It’s exactly where I want to be.
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