On a breezy, late July afternoon on Wolffer Estate’s sprawling vineyard in Sagaponack, New York, The Latin Kitchen caught up with tattooed, hipster chef Aarón Sanchez at the James Beard Foundation’s annual gastronomic tasting party Chefs & Champagne.
JBF was honoring Sanchez, along with his fellow cast mates of Food Network’s, award winning television show Chopped at the Foundation’s annual summer benefit. The extravaganza features culinary offerings from a select group of more than 30 chefs from JBF award winning restaurants, as well as lots and lots of bubbly.
Sanchez, the Texas born, Brooklyn-based-restaurateur, television personality and author dished on everything from the Kansas Latin food scene to comfort food to San Francisco’s foodie Mission District neighborhood.
TLK: Do you have a food philosophy?
SANCHEZ: My philosophy is that I take traditional Latin dishes, not those that just encompass Latin America but also Mexico, and put my fingerprint on them with a contemporary technique and lots of seasonal ingredients.
TLK: What do you mean by “contemporary technique”?
SANCHEZ: I take all this great homestyle food and make substitutions without taking away from the essence of the dish. For example, if a recipe calls for tilapia, I’ll do it with tuna.
TLK: What’s your personal comfort food?
SANCHEZ: My comfort food would have to be “The Queen of Mexican Food”, my mom, Zarela's, sopa seta. It is a dried pasta in a roast tomato cheese broth. It’s something I beg her to make. She doesn’t make it for me as nearly as often as I’d like.
TLK: You recently opened a restaurant in Kansas. Why Kansas?
SANCHEZ: My investment partners are out of Wichita and they came to me and said ‘Hey man, why don’t we go to this affluent area that needs good Mexican food.’ It’s right across from the Spring Campus and it just made so much sense. It’s really exciting for me because I feel Mexican food is so poorly done in so many parts of the United States, even though it’s such a popular food.
TLK: What’s the Latin food scene like in Kansas?
SANCHEZ: It’s growing. There’s a couple of areas off of downtown Kansas City that have a strong Mexican community and they're doing their thing. It’s burgeoning, it’s growing like many other Latin and Mexican communities across the country.
TLK: Any neighborhoods around the country that have Latin food concentrations that inspire you?
SANCHEZ: The Mission district in San Francisco is a big one. It’s not just Mexican food, but Peruvian and all different Latin countries that are represented. It’s about as close to authentic as you would get in those native countries. That’s what I like about it – the diversity.
TLK: We know that you’re a third generation chef. Your grandmother and your mother, Zarela Martinez, had a groundbreaking restaurants in midtown Manhattan for over twenty years. Does your 11-year old cook at all?
SANCHEZ: She’s very interested in the cuisine. Sometimes she’s a little intimidated by cooking in the kitchen with me, but she has a very ferocious appetite. Believe it or not she makes this really wonderful Italian, sweet fried polenta. I tried it and I was just blown away.
TLK: Chopped is a cult hit. Do you have any behind the scenes anecdotes to share?
SANCHEZ: Being on Chopped is wonderful. It’s also very difficult at times because you’re breaking three people’s hearts. But what I enjoy about the show is that you get genuine critiques by chefs. There are very few scenarios where you can be judged by your peers and have that experience as a chef. Plus, there’s a conclusion in 22 minutes of taping. I love that.