Aarón Sánchez: El Paso celebrity chef on heritage, life lessons

El Paso celebrity chef on heritage, life lessons

  • 7 min to read

Aáron Sánchez set out to answer one question: Where do I come from?

The journey to that answer took the celebrity chef from his native El Paso to cities across the globe.

But more than where he’s been, the journey took him on an emotional ride that led him to realize that where he comes from is not a place on a map.

Sánchez, 43, writes of his personal and professional journey in his new memoir, “Where I Come From: Life Lessons from a Latino Chef.”

“It was very different from anything else I have written before, like a cookbook, for example,” Sánchez told El Paso Inc. Magazine. “I had to be incredibly honest with myself – and vulnerable.”

The memoir is filled with heartfelt, straightforward and humorous stories of his rebellious years, fighting his inner demons, finding his place in the kitchen and embracing his identity. (And yes, recipes throughout.)

“It was really fun and also challenging to remember all the ups and downs, the successes and the hardships and to relive all of that was kind of an emotional rollercoaster,” Sánchez said.

Sánchez grew up in West El Paso before his mother, Zarela Martinez, took him and his twin brother Rodrigo (now an attorney) to New York in 1984 after divorcing his father, Adolfo Sánchez. 

Martinez, who emigrated from Guadalajara, ran a catering business out of an old Econoline van. 

That’s where Sánchez’s culinary interest piqued – although he might not have known it at the time.

Through his mother’s rise in the culinary world – she became a renowned chef, restaurateur and author – Sánchez met and was mentored by celebrated chefs in and out of the kitchen.

Sánchez recalls the moment his “cultural and personal identity” collided and decided he did not want to be cornered into being known only as a Mexican food chef.

He fought stereotypes and worked to expand his pallet, his skills – and his name.

Sánchez soon appeared on popular TV cooking shows, including the Cooking Channel’s “Taco Trip,” in which he once featured El Paso’s Chicos Tacos and other borderland restaurants. He has appeared on the Food Network’s “MasterChef,” “Chopped” and “Chopped Junior.” In New Orleans, he’s executive chef and part owner of the popular restaurant Johnny Sánchez.

But reaching “celebrity chef” status wasn’t a smooth journey.

Sánchez was living in New York and just 13 when his father died in El Paso. Growing up, he dabbled in alcohol and weed, and still battles depression and anxiety. He had to overcome moments of feeling self-conscious about his accent, often not feeling quite American or Mexican enough, he writes in his memoir.

He married and divorced, and said he's working to become a better and more present father to his 8-year-old son, Yuma. He’s never made so many grilled cheese sandwiches, he quipped.

Today, Sánchez believes that where he comes from is not where he was born or raised, but from a heritage rich in history and culture – and food.

Here’s what Sánchez told El Paso Inc. Magazine about where he comes from – and what might be next:

You talk about where you come from not being a place, but an idea, family, heritage, culture. How is El Paso part of that? 

El Paso for me is not only the place but the community. The fact that it’s a bicultural border town also affects the zeitgeist so much.

I can feel my heritage in a palpable way when I am there, not only because it is home, but because most people there have a similar story to mine and my family’s. I love going there and feel it’s important to visit often and never forget my roots. 

Your mom, Zarela, is central to your story. Has she read the book?

Of course, she had to be, and yes she has (read the book) and she said she really likes it. I think she was a little wary of how she would be portrayed, I was very honest and yet I think I got across my deep appreciation and admiration for her.

She was tough on us and is very eccentric, but I love and respect her for all she has sacrificed for us and how she stayed so true to herself through so much adversity. 

Your father’s death had a great impact on your life. How has that shaped you as a father to Yuma, and in you wanting him to know where he comes from?

Yeah, that had a huge effect on me and made my adolescence challenging to navigate at times. I feel incredibly grateful for all the time I get to spend with my son. I try to be the best example of a man I can for him. I try to teach him to be well rounded, and to have good manners and all those things my Dad did for me.

I’ve also made sure that he keeps up on his Spanish because that is the best way to stay connected to your heritage. We have a saying, "Cuando pierdes tu idioma, pierdes tu lengua,” 

which basically means when you lose your tongue, you lose your country.

 I think it’s so important for second and third generations to continue to speak the languages of their ancestors because it keeps the legacy alive. 

You talk about your struggles with depression and anxiety. What message do you have for people with similar issues?

I think the stigma is lifting a lot, and it feels so good to see a community of people emerging all sharing their experiences so that we all don’t feel so alone in these struggles.

I just think being honest and communicating what’s going on with you with your friends and loved ones is the best way to continue to create healing. 

You recently established the Aarón Sánchez Scholarship Fund. What do you hope the program does for future generations of Latino chefs? 

I hope that young Latinos and Latinas who have the drive, passion, talent and work ethic to be in this industry get the resources, education and experience they need in order to succeed. I know I am incredibly lucky that I grew up with a Mom that supported my dreams and had so many amazing mentors who helped me along the way that I really just want to pass on the torch.

I want to spread the message that we are not just the backbone of the industry, we can also be the leaders for generations to come. 

Any plans to someday open a restaurant or culinary arts school in El Paso? 

You know, we’re working on expanding and doing some new projects. It’s always hard to have so many operations that you can’t be at on a regular basis, especially because I’m a public figure and a lot of times people expect me to always be at the restaurants when they come in.

But you never know! 

I’d love to open something in my hometown.

Below are some recipes from

"Where I Come From: Life Lessons of a Latino Chef"

by Aarón Sánchez

 

Sauteed Hominy

with pico de gallo and oregano

This is a hearty, rich side dish, and is a great way to use leftover pico de gallo. I originally developed this at Centrico, where I served it with a roasted half chicken. But I loved the flavors of the oregano and simplicity and versatility; it can really go with just about anything. 

For this recipe, look for canned hominy, which is very easy to find.

You want the whole, big kernels; "dry hominy" is split into smaller pieces and doesn't cook the same way. Just be sure to wash it well after draining from the solution in the can.

INGREDIENTS

YIELD: 4 to 6 servings

• 4 heaping cups drained hominy (from about three 15-oz/440 g cans)

• 1 small white onion

• 2 medium tomatoes, cored and finely chopped

• 2 scallions, thinly sliced, plus more for serving

• 1 jalapeño or serrano pepper, grated or minced

• ½ cup (16 g) cilantro, chopped

• 2 tablespoons (30 ml) lime juice

• 2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano, divided

• 1 teaspoon kosher salt

• 2 tablespoons (25 ml) grapeseed or vegetable oil

• 2 tablespoons (30 g) unsalted butter

• 4 strips bacon, diced

• 2 tablespoons (5 g) fresh oregano, chopped

• 2 cloves garlic, minced

DIRECTIONS 

1. Rinse the hominy well, spread it in a single layer, and blot dry.

2. Finely chop the onion; reserve half for the sauté. Add the other half to a mixing bowl with the tomatoes, scallions, jalapeño, cilantro, lime juice, 1 teaspoon dried oregano, and salt.

3. Add the grapeseed oil and butter to a large skillet (preferably cast iron) over medium heat and line a plate with towels. When the butter stops bubbling, add the bacon and let it render its fat, stirring only occasionally, for 5 to 10 minutes. When it gets crispy, use a slotted spoon to transfer it to the lined plate, leaving the fat behind in the pan.

4. Add the reserved onion and remaining 1 teaspoon dried oregano to the pan and sauté for about 5 minutes, until the onion is golden and soft. Stir in the fresh oregano and garlic and cook for about a minute before folding in the hominy. Cook for another minute or two, until the hominy is beginning to lightly brown along the edges, then add the bacon.

5. Reserve ½ cup pico de gallo for garnish. With a slotted spoon, scoop the rest into the pan, allowing excess juices to drain into the bowl. Increase the heat to medium-high for a minute or two, until the juices reduce. Serve warm, garnished with pico de gallo and sliced scallions.

New Orleans Shellfish Étouffée

This is the first dish I cooked for my mom at a dinner party after I finished training in New Orleans. It’s a rite of passage in a cook’s life to really get to show off for the people they love, and I couldn’t wait to make for everyone when I came back. I must’ve been seventeen at the time, and seeing my whole family take such pleasure in eating my food was a really defining moment.

Later, when we had a challenge to celebrate New Orleans culture and food heritage, I cooked this on “MasterChef.” Everyone, Gordon (Ramsey) and Joe (Bastianich) included, ate it up.

INGREDIENTS

YIELD: 4 to 6 servings

• ¼ cup (60 g) unsalted butter

• ¼ cup (35 g) all-purpose flour

• ½ yellow onion, finely chopped

• 1 green bell pepper, finely chopped

• 2 stalks celery, finely chopped

• 2 teaspoons kosher salt

• 4 cloves garlic, minced

• ¼ cup (60 g) tomato paste

• 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, minced

• 1 teaspoon sweet paprika

• ½ teaspoon celery seed

• ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

• ¼ teaspoon ground white pepper

• 1 bay leaf

• 2 cups (240 ml) seafood stock

• 1 ½ to 2 pounds (680 to 900 g) peeled shrimp, crawfish tails, lump crabmeat, or a combination

• 2 cups (240 g) cooked white rice

• 4 scallions, thinly sliced

• Crystal hot sauce for serving

DIRECTIONS 

1. Melt the butter in a Dutch oven or large cast iron skillet over medium heat. When it stops bubbling, reduce the heat to medium-low and stir in the flour. Cook, stirring regularly, until it’s smoothed out a bit and is a dark blonde color.

2. Add the onion, bell pepper, celery, and salt to the pot, giving them a good stir to combine. Turn the heat back up to medium and sauté until the onion is translucent and vegetables beginning to soften, 5 to 8 minutes. Stir in the garlic, tomato paste, thyme, spices, and bay leaf and give them a minute or two to toast.

3. When the tomato paste no longer smells raw, pour in the stock and bring to a simmer. Cook for 5 to 10 minutes, until the broth has thickened slightly but is still actively, rapidly simmering, then fold in the seafood. Careful not to overcook—it’ll only need 3 to 5 minutes—and remove from the heat when the meat is opaque but still tender.

4. Ladle the étouffée over scoops of white rice and top with fresh scallions and hot sauce.

 

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