Celebrity chef, cookbook author and restaurateur
Aarón Sánchez has had a long-lived love affair with New Orleans and its cuisine. Sánchez moved to the city from New York at the age of 16, and trained under the watchful eyes of Chef Paul Prudhomme, a personal friend of Sánchez’s mother (herself a prominent restaurateur).
In his new book “Where I Come From: Life Lessons from a Latino Chef,” Sánchez recounts his culinary upbringing, from his mother’s kitchen to Chef Prudhomme’s side, to celebrity chef appearances on Food Network and beyond. Sánchez currently owns Johnny Sánchez, his Poydras Street restaurant that marries the traditional Mexican from his childhood with the fresh, bold flavors of New Orleans.
Q: Your mom seems to be a part of who you are and a huge inspiration. What did you learn from your mom about cooking and running a kitchen and a restaurant? My mom was adamant that I develop my own style of cooking. Mexican cooking has so many nuances and complex depth of flavors, so I started with a pan-Latin approach. She wanted me to have my own voice in the kitchen.
Q: How did you come to move to New Orleans at the age of 16 and work with Chef Paul Prudhomme? I lost my father when I was 13 years old, and I was just running around, getting into trouble. She knew I needed an intervention. She had developed a friendship with Chef Prudhomme since taking a cooking class from him in the early 1980s.
This was before food television had taken over. He had his PBS show, and there were others like Julia Child and Jacques Pepin, but he really became the voice of Louisiana cooking the old fashioned way, through good food and word of mouth. He was a soft-spoken man, but had much to teach. He had such a presence.
Q: What was it like moving to New Orleans at the age of 16? I moved to a dirty room at the YMCA in the Warehouse District, and I called my mom from a pay phone and told her I didn’t think I could do it. She told me to “you better stick with it” and that in a couple of days I would be staying with Chef Paul at his home. I made it and went to work.
Q: How does traditional Mexican cuisine fit in with traditional New Orleans cooking at your restaurant Johnny Sánchez? At my restaurant, I wanted it to be inspired by the same flavors that are in traditional Mexican cuisine. This was not going to be a Cajun-Mexican restaurant. It was always going to be Mexican food with fresh local ingredients that we are lucky to have here, the fresh redfish and black drum, shellfish and seafood. Both Mexican cuisine and New Orleans flavors are about being inspired by big, bold flavors.
Q: Why did you want to write this memoir now? So many people told me that I needed to tell my story. I always felt like I was too young, but I have been working in kitchens for so long. I had a career of my own by the time I was 18. I wanted to represent other people like me that might not be the best student, who might have been a fuck up, that you can be a success and go out there. Especially now, I think it’s important to represent and hopefully inspire those kids.
Q: What advice do you have for a young person looking to get into the culinary business? It’s important to find a mentor. Make a list of potential mentors that work with different genres of cuisine (like pastry, restaurant chefs, etc.), seek them out, write them a proper letter and try to work with them. It’s important to dedicate sufficient time with each mentor so you have a good variety of experiences and people that influence you.
Q: What is the thing you feel your readers will be most surprised by after reading your latest book? I think that people will be surprised by how much they can relate to my story, but also the fact that I’ve been able to travel and do so many different things. All of my life, my experiences, in and out of the kitchen, have impacted where I am and where I’m going.
Q: What are the places you to have to go to immediately when you come to New Orleans? It’s so hard to say just one or a few things because there are so many. I’ve got to get my poor boy at Parkway. I love the chargrilled oysters at Drago’s. But there are just so many.
Born/raised: New York.
Favorite TV show: Vikings, Last Kingdom (I love history).
Favorite book: I am reading “Buttermilk Graffiti” by Ed Lee.
Favorite flavor sno-ball: I don’t really eat sno-balls, except with my son, but I like flavors like pomegranate.
TRUE CONFESSION: I am a practicing Buddhist; it brings a level of spirituality to my life, it’s about being grateful and keeping life balanced.