Aarón Sánchez parks his huge black Jeep Wrangler in front of Willie Mae’s Scotchhouse, a modest restaurant in a corner of a working class neighborhood in New Orleans. This is the home of the world’s best fried chicken, he says, and the size of the lines circling outside backs him up.
But when Sánchez approaches, the crowd suddenly parts in two like the Red Sea. “Hello brother! Hello darlin’!’” he exclaims, his greeting spiced with a typical Louisiana accent. A man who he embraces with a hearty slap on the back leads us to the corner table he’s been saving. It’s the only empty spot in the room.
“You’ve never eaten chicken like this,” Sánchez warns me, smiling from ear to ear. Around us, people whisper and take out their cell phones to get a photo or video with him.
“Come and I’ll tell you what’s so amazing about New Orleans,” he says to me in Spanish. “Here, the chefs are the real heroes. The chefs are celebrities, because here food is king.”
Sánchez gets it. In 2014, he opened Johnny Sánchez, a contemporary Mexican restaurant that serves carne asada tacos alongside fried oysters, a local delicacy. Sánchez wears his Mexican heritage with pride, but he’s fallen in love with the culture and the people of this city, whose courtesy, hospitality and family values go hand-in-hand with Mexican traditions.
“Here we’re not in the restaurant business,” laughs Sánchez. An imposing figure whose mustache matches his jet black hair, he is covered in head-to-toe tattoos. “We are in the business of happiness.”
Aarón Sánchez is not from New Orleans. He was born in El Paso, Texas. After his parents divorced, his time was spent both with his father in El Paso, and with his mother, the Mexican chef Zarela Martinez, in New York.
His love for New Orleans dates back to when he was a teenager. At age 16, after the death of his father, his mom sent him there to work with the city’s iconic chef, Paul Prudhomme, who years before had been Zarela’s own mentor. It was Prudhomme who really taught Sánchez the ways of the kitchen, and schooled him in its discipline and its ethos.
“My father was my mentor but I lost him when I was very young,” says Sánchez. “I was always in search of someone to guide me, and I found him in Chef Paul. He taught me the most important lessons about life, and not only in the kitchen: wake up early, work as a team, know your place and rise to the next level when an opportunity presents itself. It was all a great lesson. That’s how I began my journey as a chef.”
Today, at age 41, Sánchez is one of the best-known Latino chefs in the world, thanks to his constant presence on television: he has been a judge on the Food Network’s Chopped, and the host of Taco Trip on the Cooking Channel and 3 Minutes With Aarón on Fox Life.
On May 31, he premiered as a judge on what may be the most famous televised cooking competition, MasterChef (Fox), together with Gordon Ramsey and Christina Tosi. The winner of the three-month competition will take home $250,000 and a book contract. For Sánchez, whose cause has been to make the world understand Mexican cuisine, it’s a unique opportunity to spread the gospel and connect with the show’s massive audience.
“Aarón Sánchez is a Mexican-American phenomenon,” says Ramsey. “He brings knowledge to MasterChef that we do not possess.”
Sánchez is aware that being Latino and exploiting his “Latinness” has served him well in his career.
“For a long time, I was the guy who went to Food Network for Cinco de Mayo. If I hadn’t made that kind of effort at the beginning of my career, I wouldn’t be where I am now. [Mexican] food spoke to me, and I also felt the need to continue my family’s legacy.”
BETWEEN POTS AND BORDERS
Sánchez grew up in a kitchen. On weekends, his family got together with his grandmother, “A great home-cooking chef” who, like his mother, also wrote cookbooks. From her he learned to make traditional Mexican recipes, and from his family he learned the meaning of camaraderie.
“When I was a boy, my mom was a social worker in El Paso, and in her free time she cooked for private events. I helped her in the kitchen and my sister helped with the serving. We were a great team,” he remembers.
But it was Prudhomme who taught Sánchez’s mother how the business of food worked, and he was the one who urged her to open a restaurant in New York. When Sánchez grew up, he had a big goal: to be on television to create a platform for promoting his restaurants. He has had quite a few, most recently in New York (Paladar) and Connecticut (Paloma). When Prudhomme died in 2015, he appeared to Sánchez in a dream and “told me that he wanted me to come to New Orleans”.
Together with his friend, the chef John Besh, who specializes in New Orleans cooking, Sánchez opened Johnny Sánchez (a name formed from the names of its two owners), which also has an outpost in Baltimore. Located in the center of New Orleans, it’s a contemporary Mexican place, decorated with wooden doors and windows that celebrate the two cultures.
Sánchez, who also owns a tattoo parlor in New York, brought one of his tattoo artists to paint an enormous, bright-colored mural. At its center are two Mexican skulls marked with the names Adolfo Sánchez (Aarón’s father) and Aida Gabiondo (his grandmother).
Sánchez speaks Spanish perfectly (“When you lose your language you use your homeland,” he says decidedly), but he also embraces New Orleans traditions, and he tries to teach both to his only son, Yuma, who is six years old.
Yuma, who lives in Los Ángeles with Sánchez’s ex-wife, goes to a bilingual school, and Sánchez speaks with him in Spanish, “It’s a struggle but now he understands the importance of it,” he tells me. “And he also understands about etiquette. My mom went to glamour school in Mexico in the 1950s, and she taught me the importance of good manners. I’m glad that my son spends time in Lousiana, where good manners are important, because that’s something that will take you far in life.”
DREAMING ABOUT FOOD
Sánchez is the kind of man who opens the door for you, who introduces people, who pulls out your chair at the table. Wherever we go on our tour of New Orleans, he says good day, please and thank you. In the afternoon, when we enter his house – one of those big old New Orleans homes with wood floors and fruit trees – he immediately opens a chilled bottle of rosé.
It’s a large kitchen, where he entertains his friends on Sundays, his day off, the same way that Prudhomme did years ago, inviting dozens of people to dinner on weekends. He is often with his uncle Mario, who has lived with him for years and assists him with all aspects of the business.
The power of food as a great equalizer is something that Sánchez now wants to transmit to a new generation of Latino chefs through his Aarón Sánchez Scholarship Fund, a new scholarship that covers the cost of a culinary education for a young Latino from New Orleans. (Aaronsanchezscholarshipfund.com)
“Everyone has their own perspective on their image, inspiration and work,” he says. “To help all those boys and girls who are trying to make it in the kitchen is what I want to do with my work, my image, my brand.
“When I started, my goal was to have my own business,” he adds. “Now I want to transmit powerful and cultural messages that allow for someone in Iowa, for example, to create the food we grew up with. Most people can’t sing like Shakira or jump like Kobe Bryant. But, yes, they can replicate my recipes and cook what I cook. That’s something beautiful.”
American Airlines flies to New Orleans.
AARÓN’S MUST-HAVES IN THE KITCHEN
A good wooden spoon
A griddle for cooking tortillas and quesadillas
A tortilla press (Aarón Sánchez brand)
AARÓN’S ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS
Banana leaves for wrapping and cooking
HIS FAVORITE PLACES
From sublime to entertaining:
The Pontchartrain Hotel
“It’s one of the most iconic hotels in the city; all of the jazz musicians and politicians stay here.” Recently renovated, it conserves its old glamour with a contemporary touch, restaurants and bars. The fantastic Hot Tin Rooftop Bar on the terrace has “the best view” and “the best happy hour” in the city, and it recreates the 1940s feel reminiscent of the world of writer Tennessee Williams, who lived in the hotel.
Willie Mae’s Scotch House
This family restaurant that’s been open since 1957, “serves the best fried chicken in the world. The Obamas also ate here.” The menu has not changed, and the prices are reasonable.
At this bar in the Faubourg Marigny historic district, you can listen to excellent live music and drink an incredible selection of beer, with no smoking, something that’s unusual in New Orleans.
St. Roch Market
The many stalls of this picturesque market serve everything from traditional gumbo to fresh oysters, and, of course, cocktails all day.
One Eyed Jacks
Live music in the heart of the French Quarter. This is the destination for alternative entertainment, from burlesque to jazz. The party heats up here.