Chef Aarón Sanchez is no stranger to the kitchen. Following in the culinary footsteps of his mother, Chef Zarela Martinez, Sanchez has made a name for himself in Mexican and Latin cuisine. Starting at Paladar on the Lower East Side and earning the Rising Star Chef Award from the James Beard Foundation in 2005, he is currently the executive chef and a partner at Centrico in Tribeca and designed the menu for Tacombi at Fonda Nolita, a downtown New York taqueria. And you've no doubt seen him on the Food Network, where he can be found on several shows.
Your mother is Zarela Martinez; did you grow up being comfortable in the kitchen? What did you learn from her? My mom is a pioneer of Mexican cuisine, and my grandmother before her, so I've been very comfortable in the kitchen since I was young and it's something I've always cherished. The biggest lesson my mom taught me was to understand how rich our Mexican culture was in food and that you need to really study it before you cook it.
When did you decide to turn to cooking as a career? When I was a teenager, I realized that this was the path I wanted pursue; I was working at night and going to school and it just seemed so natural... even though at that time, kitchens were often filled with misfits.
Who have been some of your most influential culinary mentors? Paul Prudhomme was one of my biggest influences; he taught me how to taste and understand how to season food properly. He became a father figure to me. Douglas Rodriguez was the chef who taught me that Latin food deserved respect as one of the great cuisines of the world. And Jonathan Waxman taught me how to make ingredients shine and that cooking was a form of hospitality... He showed me that while cooking is hard work, it's also a lot of fun.
What was the most challenging moment for you in Chefs vs. City? I think when we had to eat the Spicy Goat Phall in New York City. I never thought eating spicy food would be such a struggle and that I'd come away with such respect for it at the same time.
What was it like being a judge for the Vendy Awards? It was great to sample the true culinary landscape of New York in one place. I was taken aback by how each person had such a personal connection to their food.
Where do you like to eat in NYC? I love Barbuto—super delicious food from my mentor Jonathan Waxman. A new restaurant I recently fell in love with is the Red Rooster up in Harlem. The food, vibe and energy is incredible. And the Meatball Shop—the name says it all!
Do you think it's harder for NYC residents to entertain due to our cramped apartments? Any advice for us? It doesn't have to be hard; sometimes the cramped quarters can actually make the evening more fun, especially when cooking/preparing foods together! But in general, if you have a tighter space you should keep it simple. Rather than having a huge spread of food, plan three simple courses and pair each with a small cocktail using one base spirit in three different ways. You'll feel less scattered and won't be completely out of space with all of the elements you'd have to incorporate if you made a ton of different dishes. Make it even easier on yourself and have a potluck so you only have to worry about making one dish while your guests bring the rest, another great way to entertain!