Chef Aarón Sánchez and the Importance of Mentorship
Award winning chef, restaurateur, TV personality, author and philanthropist, Aarón Sánchez joins me for a multi part series on lessons learned through his career as a chef. I’m incredibly honored to get some time with this very talented and busy entrepreneurial Latino. In our one hour meeting, we cover so much insightful information that everyone can take something away from even if we’re not aspiring to be Master Chefs. On first glimpse of Chef Aarón, all I see is a tough looking exterior. Before he even speaks, those tattoos and gruff look have me a little concerned about our conversation. I should really know better since he’s such a beloved celebrity chef and and a pro on camera as a judge for MasterChef. I really begin to look forward to our talk because I think he will have a no holds barred attitude on what we talk about. What I end up learning by the end of our interview is that at his core, he is a hard working and determined entrepreneur. He is also someone who truly cares about supporting and building up the Latino community and is doing something about that by supporting the youth, and staying true to his Mexican roots.
The next thing I realize is how well rounded Aarón is in his knowledge of the total restaurant business, from the creative vision of a chef’s ability to create a recipe that delights customers, his understanding of melding and merging tastes, understanding the ins and outs of the profitability of the business, being able to lead a staff at a high profile restaurant, being in front of a camera, and a million other things. So much of his knowledge comes from his many years of experience but also the incredible mentorship he has had along the way starting with his mother. Today we’ll touch on the importance of mentorship.
Sánchez’ trajectory as a chef in some of the most high profile restaurants are as chef at NY’s Centrico, owner and chef of NY’s Paladar and currently now as chef/owner of Johnny Sánchez in New Orleans. He is also a judge on FOX’s hit culinary competition series MasterChef. His more recent accomplishment is penning his latest book, Where I Come From. Life Lessons from a Latino Chef, an autobiography about his upbringing as a Latino and his learnings both in the food industry and outside of it. Aarón likens it to sharing cautionary tales about life and the often chaotic business of the food industry.
Growing up as the third generation in the business of food, he is passionate about preserving his family’s legacy through food. In addition to the revolutionary approach that his mother Zarela Martinez took, his grandmother, Aida Gabilondo, was a well known cookbook writer from Mexico. He also encourages diversity in the kitchen and empowering aspiring chefs in the Latino community with the creation of the Aarón Sanchez Impact Fund (ASIF). The fund offers a scholarship that provides Latino youth with full scholarships to attend culinary arts school as well as continuing mentorship.
Chef Aáron Sánchez’s story
Chef Aáron Sánchez story starts when he was born in El Paso, Texas. At the age of six, his trailblazing mother, Zarela Martinez picked up and left Texas with he and fraternal twin, Rodrigo, moving them to New York City. It was certainly a bold move for a single woman in the early ‘80s, but she had an opportunity to share her knowledge of Mexican food at a time when this cuisine was not represented the way we know it today and see it everywhere in our country. She would have exposure to the movers and shakers of not only the food industry but important people in New York city social circles. Then and today his mom is a powerhouse of a chef and a culinary ambassador to Mexico.
Zarela eventually went on to launch her own restaurant in 1987 named Zarela’s. Chef Aarón likens his mom to being the Mexican Tina Turner knowing that she wanted to make a name for herself and support her children. She wanted to make her own future and not depend on anyone else for it. It’s the beginning of Chef’s narrative and why he feels that he is also driven to do what he does. His mother set the foundation for him as an original entrepreneur. She impressively figured out a way to get through the New York politics of starting a business in the midtown area and opened her own restaurant without any business partners, which is almost an impossibility these days. She borrowed money from family, namely his Tio Ernie . She asked him to trust her and that within two years she would be able to pay it all back. Aarón gives his mother all the props saying that she just had a lot of self confidence and was willing to bet the money on the house (meaning herself) that she would be a success.
Aarón says – “At that time she was super pioneering and a bit of free spirit hippie going to college in San Francisco in the late 60s. She completely changed that traditional sort of cliche, Latina woman persona and said, look, this is who I am. I’m gonna be out there. I’m gonna raise twin boys. I’m gonna wear funky clothes. I’m gonna hang out with all these eclectic people in New York City in the 80s and that’s how I’m gonna do it”.
Chef Aarón says that he always knew that food was it for him. He says that his mom did a great thing by not giving him or his brother an allowance. She made them work. He remembers being about 11 or 12 and working the coat check at the restaurant. That was how she started instilling these principles of hard work and letting them know that nothing’s going to just be given to you. You have to go get it yourself.
Growing up in the business
Growing up in the restaurant business, Aarón understood the importance of the industry and helping people by using food as a vehicle for this. He started to amass his experience working with other chefs as young cooks do in their early years. I asked Aarón what he loved as a kid about the restaurant business and he replied – “ I just loved the energy of the restaurant. I loved the fact that every day was sort of like theater and you never knew who was going to walk through that door. Then I just started taking to that and I’ve never been afraid of hard work. I’ve never been afraid of pressure situations so the kitchen was always someplace that I loved because it was a place for all kinds of misfits.”
Aarón says that as a young person in the restaurant business, people do seek and crave for mentorship. He shares with us some of the additional people who were influences on his life as a young chef. He highly regards the brothers, Drew and Tracy Nieporent who have been the backbone of the New York culinary scene since the early ’80’s, since then establishing the well known Myriad Restaurant Group. Tracy Nieporent joined us on our interview for a bit of his thoughts on Aarón’s journey.
Myriad Restaurant Group (NOBU, Tribeca Grill, etc) Partner Tracy Nieporent weighs in
Tracy says – “Obviously Aarón is a very talented chef. He’s also very charismatic and dynamic and articulate – a very, very good communicator. That’s something that’s not that common with many chefs or restaurateurs for that matter, but it is something very important to the promotion of the restaurant and also to inspiring the staff to feel that they’re part of something that’s special and unique. So when they have a leader that has great charisma and leadership ability and an ability to communicate well, and who will get positive attention, everybody on the team feels good about that. I think that’s something that’s lasted now for all these decades and we’re very proud. I mean, when we watch one of his food television shows, we say he’s one of our own. He’s doing a wonderful job and his judgment is sound. He’s got these chefs trembling but he gives them good advice and he urges them on. That’s very important and I especially really love the camaraderie that I see.”
Aarón shares back that the Nieporent family taught him how to be a restaurateur. “Back in the day, we had a great run at Centrico. I was proud, we were very proud of what we did there. You know, Tribeca is a fickle beast in New York City, but with the Nieporents to help show me the ins and outs of the restaurant business, to be financially viable, to be able to understand the clientele, cook, make food that is accessible and doesn’t exclude people. All of these wonderful lessons, Drew and Tracy and the team taught me and reeled me in at times, which was very necessary to be successful. I’m so grateful for them being such a big part of my professional career. The whole landscape has changed now. I was there at the onset of the celebrity chef era when it all started happening. All I know is that we got paid this much one year and the next year we got paid this much (showing his hands widening to reflect how lucrative the celebrity chef business for TV has become).
Another influential person in Aarón’s life is Chef Paul Prudhomme from his early career in the restaurant business in New Orleans which is where Aarón is now based. Chef says – “He taught me how to taste. I think all my mentors had very specific roles and I think everybody should have that in their career – to have somebody that just teaches them certain things and he taught me how to taste and understand how to express ingredients in a very cultural way. So when you make a dish, you don’t necessarily just throw things together, make sure that it has a cultural reference and it comes from a traditional place because sometimes fusion equals a confusion kind of thing. When you think about someone like Jonathan Waxman, who’s great in New York City, who kind of takes five ingredients and makes them sing. You’re like, how did he do that? If I did something with those same five ingredients, they just wouldn’t taste the same.
Lastly, Aarón chats about Gordon Ramsay– “I work with him on a daily basis. I just finished shooting season 13 of MasterChef. I’ve been on the show for six years and he’s been instrumental in my life. He has done what I think chefs in television should do. He is considered a chef first and a TV personality second. He did a really good job of establishing that. I look at him and think, he’s maintained three Michelin stars in England for over 20 years! Yeah, that’s pretty unbelievably impressive and he hasn’t lost focus of that while he’s doing all these other things. That’s top-level important and then everything else kind of follows from there. The lesson in that is to think about the credibility of somebody like that and pay attention to what they have to say because there’s usually a lot of substance behind it.
When it comes to mentorship, Aarón wraps it up saying – “You know character and you see the good in people and try to inspire that and encourage it. That’s very important. Being able to identify talent and nurture it is very important. What you try to do is make sure that whatever the potential of that person is, you get them to that level. You bring it out. That’s a big genesis of what we’re doing with my Impact Fund. When I started thinking about my trajectory and what I have been through, I said, look, what is the best way that we can say thank you? The way to do that is by taking care of our youth. Our youth is our most valuable commodity that we have in life. If we don’t nurture them and set them up for success, then we’re failing. When I started cooking in kitchens, Latinos were prep cooks, dishwashers, maybe line cooks, they were not the chefs. I said, I’m not going to let that continue to happen. Tracy and Drew are not in that conversation because they were already doing that 20 years ago, empowering Latinos and I’m also not going to let that happen. I said, what do we need to do? Well, we need to make sure that there’s no crutch, right? Let’s get the educational part of this established and send them to the best culinary school in New York City, and we began working with French Culinary Institute. We sent our initial group of scholarship kids there and we’re continuing to build on this.
Mentorship is a huge part of Aarón’s success story. Check out more about Chef Aarón’s Impact Fund and how it’s helping the Latino youth in the food industry.
Join us for more insights from Chef Aarón as we discuss the following topics.
- The Importance of Understanding all Aspects of the Restaurant Business to be Profitable
- Mental Health in a Chaotic Business
- What it Takes to Start a Restaurant
- The Aarón Sánchez Impact Fund