Aarón Sanchez grew up the spirited son of legendary Mexican cooking authority Zarela Martinez in a household that prized independence and Latin culture — and the ability to make magic in the kitchen.
So it’s little surprise that Sanchez would follow in his mother’s footsteps, then blaze a trail of his own, becoming a renowned chef and restaurateur while showing off his natural affinity for teaching and communicating the intricacies of cooking and dining in a series of Food Network guest spots and starring roles.
We caught up with Sanchez to talk about his current dual role on the network, chasing down the country’s spiciest cuisine with co-host Roger Mooking in Heat Seekers and serving as the judge most likely to keep his cool on Chopped.
Channel Guide Magazine: You were literally raised to be an authority on Latin cuisine — and you even go so far as to post your gratitude for your mother’s guidance in that on your web site in really touching fashion.
Aarón Sanchez: I think it’s important to give homage and respect. I was brought up in a household and in Mexican culture where the emphasis is on respect and honoring the people who have created opportunity for you and given you a foundation. I credit my mom for a lot of that and I’m very fortunate to have had that as a base for myself.
CGM: Was there ever a time when you thought you might do something other work in the food industry?
AS: It was not really an option in the sense that I never really thought about doing anything else because it’s something that felt very natural to me. I love the frenetic pace in kitchens. I love that every day is an opportunity to work in a team environment. It’s something that’s really useful — you’re all striving for a common goal. Those are all really attractive elements working in the food industry. So I really never thought about anything else. I mean, I flirted with becoming a professional basketball player, but then I realized I’m 5’11” so…
CGM: How’d your twin brother wind up being an attorney?
AS: It’s interesting! For a long time, he was more of the intellectual introvert and I was more of the social, outgoing athlete. He just always more of the studious guy and really had this analytical way of being, so becoming an attorney was a logical fit for him. We’ve always been really independent because my mom has always worked a ton and left us to our own devices so to speak and so we formed our own direction apart from her — obviously with her support — but she never pressured us about anything.
CGM: So can he cook?
AS: Everybody in my family can cook! Everybody. My brother, for Christmas this year, made homemade vermouth. He gave us all this whole bottle of homemade vermouth. And his wife gave him a deep fat fryer for Christmas. So you can imagine. My sister is wonderful cook; my older brother is a great cook. My aunts are awesome cooks. It’s just something that we all grew up being able to do.
CGM: To make sure you stayed out of trouble, your mom’s form of enrolling you in summer school was sending you off to be trained by Chef Paul Prudhomme by age 16 — not exactly the worst tough love a guy could get, is it?
AS: Being in Chef Paul’s kitchen and at K-Paul’s wasn’t just a training ground for me, but I actually learned so many lessons about life. He never had children so he treated me like his son and he took me under his wing and I was really grateful to be there. He taught me how to season food and how to create different levels and dimensions of flavor — he’s the one guy that I get very scared to cook for. Whenever he comes into one of my restaurants to eat, I always get nervous and have to make sure everything’s perfect.
CGM: Tell me about your transition from chef/restaurateur to chef/restaurateur/television personality.
AS: My relationship with the Food Network has been one that’s spanned over 10 years. They’ve been great partners with me and they’ve allowed me to share my passion with such a large audience. Anytime there was need for an appearance with a Latin twist, a little Latin flavor, they always called on me. So as the years went on, it was a natural evolution for me — because I love to teach and I love to let people know about my culture and where I’m from and what my story is, and Food Network has afforded me that opportunity.
It’s been pretty flawless, because they’ve been so supportive and they’ve developed shows around my personality. You couldn’t ask for anything more. It’s been a very organic process, very fluid and very natural and I’m very grateful for the opportunity.
CGM: They also do programming that is appealing across dining preferences, across generations — it really is the ultimate form of family-friendly programming.
AS: It’s sort of like Harry Potter. Everyone can go and see a Harry Potter movie and have a good time. Everyone can watch Chopped and have a good time. It appeals to everybody. And I think that’s what is special about the show and also Heat Seekers as well. I can’t tell you how many kids have come up to me and said, “I love spicy food and I tried spicy stuff just cause you do it and I like how my tongue gets all tickly!” and it’s beautiful to hear that!
CGM: So many Americans — especially in my midwestern part of the country — still associate spicy food with Taco Bell and Chili’s and Buffalo Wild Wings. Is it fun to do a show that puts out there how many great cultures and cuisines are a part of the spicy-food realm and the American fabric?
AS: One of the main ideas of the show is to get people to embrace spicy foods, not from a heat factor, but from flavor. How heat can be incorporated into a dish where the result is a truly enjoyable eating experience — not something that’s a novelty, like, “Only 8 people in the world have finished this!” Well, you know, that’s cool, but how does that equal a good time?
What we try to focus on on the show is to meet really interesting characters with a story to tell and then get some insight on why they created this dish. Is it a cultural dish? Is it something they grew up eating? Is it an evolution of their guests asking for more heat?
So there’s so many different layers of storyline behind each of our visits, and it’s truly remarkable to see how many people embrace the heat.
You’d be surprised how easy it is and accessible it to get some of these chiles that just a few years ago were very challenging to obtain. Now you’re getting stuff from Trinidad, from India, from Southeast Asia. All of these peppers — or strains or hybrids of them — are starting to be planted here in the States so you’re able to get them more readily. And now what people are doing is using their recipes and their techniques to create interesting new dishes.
And I can tell you that, as many cities and as many restaurants as we visit, very rarely do we see any repetitions as far as flavor profile or concept of any dishes. It’s so varied and so distinct that it’s mind-boggling sometimes!
CGM: Do you guys have any say in the destinations or subjects for each episode — a great restaurant or chef you’ve heard about or something along those lines?
AS: Our production team in Denver does a great job, and they really take the time and research places. You know, for us a lot of the magic of the show is the spontaneity and us not knowing what’s going on till “the day of,” so to speak. If we have preconceived notions of the place that we’re going to visit, then it ruins that original reaction, which is so important. And that’s not really our role — our role is to be the guides through this experience.
Everything that we do is genuine — there’s no funny business going on. We don’t ever taste until the end, so we make sure that all the reactions you see on camera are genuine. And we make sure that we get [a dish] the way the customers would get it, that they don’t soften it up. But a lot of times, you’ll see that they want to kick it up and make it hotter for us because they think, “Well, they’re Heat Seeks; these guys can probably handle it!” And we’re very adamant that, “Hey, we can handle it, but we still want you to make it the way you would make it, because what if someone comes to the restaurant and they don’t have it the same way?” It’s going to be a problem. So we encourage the chefs to be on the level.
We like to highlight the process of what happens when you eat the food. And sometimes the challenge is to bring out those elements: the little bit of agitation, little bit of joy, little bit of pain, the multiple emotions that take place when you eat spicy food. We like to pick challenges that make sense and there’s a reason behind it.
CGM: The final challenges are often hilarious — you guys make no bones about how much pain you are frequently in. Do you think each of you has a specialty — one is better at curries, the other is better at chiles — or is it always a surprise to see who handles what best?
AS: Now that we’ve done this for a fair amount of time, we’ve discovered what the Achilles heels are for each of us.
For me, I really excel at the Mexican chiles — the chile habanero, the Scotch bonnet — all those kinds of chiles don’t affect me that much. But the one thing that is like my kryptonite is the ghost pepper. I always have trouble with it. Roger does a good job of eating it. But I have trouble eating that one, for some reason.
One of the things that make us good at this is that we grew up eating hot foods. Roger grew up eating Scotch bonnets and curries — those were all a part of his upbringing in Trinidad and Canada. So he had that sort of foundation. And same thing for me. So I think that makes us good people to do this show, and equal matches. I think Roger’s whole thing is that he’s a very headstrong guy, very driven and focused, and I think those are all elements that help him persevere through all of these experiences.
CGM: I also spoke to Roger about the show and he said that you two had not met before you were paired up for the programming, but that you were instant friends. Agreed?
AS: It was like a long-lost brother when I saw him. We have a very mutual respect for each other and we have a great time working together. We don’t have this sort of bickering situation that sometimes you see co-hosts go through. We have just a really a great rapport. We’re like the odd couple — except we’re not odd. We were destined to be buddies.
We both would have been very vocal if we didn’t feel that sort of love. It’s been a real pleasure and I hope that we do more down the road and really the skies the limit where we can go with the show.
CGM: You’re also back on Chopped this season — another big hit in my household. Given some of the great human-interest stories that are often part and parcel with the participants, how tough is it to sometimes have to dole out criticism with your critiques?
AS: My particular faith is I’m a Buddhist and it’s my foundation as far the way I live my life One of the huge principles is to tap into everybody’s Buddha nature or their enlightened self. I believe everyone has the ability to be wonderful and great, and when I talk to people, I want to make sure that I tap into the best parts of them. So that’s what I focus on first and that’s what I build my critiques around. That’s how I would like to be critiqued and I hope I project that same way of thinking to the people I judge.
It’s not easy — it’s actually really hard. Because at the end of the day, you have a hand in somewhat disappointing three people every show. That’s pretty hard to live with. So you have to make sure you take your time and that you’re thoughtful and that you consider all of the elements and make your decisions accordingly.
It’s an emotional rollercoaster, I have to tell you. You have no idea the way someone is going to react. You have no idea what their story is for them to get up to this point. It’s almost like the baskets are the vehicles to get into these people’s heads and their hearts and it’s truly remarkable. The one thing that we have to be very adamant about and very focused on is that we judge the food, we don’t judge the person. That’s the only fair way of doing it. Because we hear a lot of stories that are heartbreaking, but we can’t judge based on that — we have to judge the food. That’s the only fair way of doing it.
That’s why we want to have people defend their food. Because we don’t necessarily pick up on everything. If there’s a reason that you chose to serve this a little underdone or choose not to season this, well tell us why. We need to hear that from the competitors so we can make educated decisions. So that’s why we challenge the competitors to respond.
CGM: The make-up of the judging panel always seems to be a well-balanced thing.
AS: It’s kind of the same thing as with Roger on Heat Seekers — I trust whatever he’s going to say is going to be an educated, well thought out statement. He’s traveled the world; he’s seen it, been there, done that. And I have very wide and expansive experience as well. And it’s the same for Chopped — all of us have at least 20 years of experience cooking, so odds are we’ve seen whatever is in that basket in some shape or form.
CGM: Seeing you casually dressed on Heat Seekers has given your fans the chance to have a peek at some of your body art — is that fun for you?
AS: I’ve always lived my life to extremes, and I’m a big fan of all forms of art — music, cooking, the art scene. Tattoos are a big part of that. I love the extreme part of it. I love the permanence. I love how each tattoo tells a story. I love how it represents my culture; I love how it represents who I am. And I really hope people understand that when they watch: don’t judge me by my tattoos. Just fall in love with who I am — the tattoos are one small part of it.
Heat Seekers airs Monday nights at 8pm/7 CT on Food Network.
Photos: Food Network