When discussing the cultural and culinary curiosity that is the “celebrity chef,” it might be a tad surprising to see the conversation go back not decades, to the sepia-tinted days of Julia Child or the decadent glam of Wolfgang Puck’s halcyon years, but into previous centuries.
Corresponding with the increase in attention we give to the Bobby Flays and Curtis Stones of the studio kitchens, there’s been more recent reporting on history’s first celebrity chefs. Frenchmen Marie-Antoine Carême and Alexis Soyer were the Iron Chefs of the mid-19th century, developing grand, innovative methods and winning acclaim from every distinguished diner lucky enough to receive a plate of the chefs’ cuisine.
In more recent times, celebrity chefs have become social media stars, television moguls and emperors lording over multi-million-dollar corporate machines selling cookware, cookbooks, sauces, soups and frozen dinners. Gordon Ramsay, Tom Colicchio, Tim Love and Guy Fieri are perhaps known more for their personalities than for the brand of cooking that won them their first rave reviews.
Something each of the aforementioned celebrity chefs have in common, regardless of era, culinary specialty, or even gender, is the color of their skin. Still, even today, the holy realm of the celebrity chef is dominated by Caucasians. But El Paso-born chef Aarón Sánchez represents a new generation of celebrity chef, bringing his heritage with him as he climbs the ranks of fine dining and television.
Although he’s been seen regularly on a variety of food-focused television shows, perhaps most notably as host of the Cooking Channel’s Taco Trip and as a judge on Food Network’s long-running competition show Chopped, Sánchez’s culinary chops are undeniable. The 43-year-old son of legendary Mexican chef and author Zarela Martinez, Sánchez spent time working in the kitchen of chefs such as Paul Prudhomme in New Orleans before he became a small-screen regular.
He’s become known for not only his Latin creations but for the Cajun and creole flavors he blends in with his Mexican dishes that he showcases at his New Orleans restaurant, Johnny Sánchez. Blending flavors, backgrounds, styles and even artforms is something he’s found to be a valuable tool. In his newly released memoir, Where I Come From: Life Lessons From a Latino Chef (Abrams Press), Sánchez goes deep into his unique perspective as not simply another famous face in the ever-expanding galaxy of kitchen stars, but specifically, as a Mexican-American one.
It’s not a stretch to suggest that his near ubiquitous presence on television has helped raise the profiles of other Hispanic cooking stars. But the chef gives credit to food lovers everywhere for what he sees as a greater general respect for Latin cuisine.
“I see a major shift in the fact that salsa is bought just as often as ketchup at grocery stores now,” Sánchez told The Dallas Morning News in a recent interview. “That just shows the rise in including other cultures’ cuisines in everyday life. I think there is an increase in respect and a desire for diversity. I do think that people appreciate understanding the heritage and lineage of chefs and their food. It’s really storytelling through a plate and that’s what folks want.”
As a part of his promotional tour for the memoir, Sánchez has been welcoming friends from the food world such as fellow Chopped judge Scott Contant to join him during stops across the country. But the quartet of Texas tour events will feature a different sort of friendly stage-sharing.
As a music lover, Sánchez will welcome one of his favorite musicians, his friend Alejandro Rose-Garcia, to perform when he makes home-state visits to Dallas, Houston, Austin and El Paso. Better known as roots-rock artist Shakey Graves, the Austin-based musician and the star chef became buddies upon meeting at the Bottle Rock festival in Napa Valley a few years ago, another event that famously combines great food from a number of chefs with a massive schedule of live music.
“It was just kismet,” Sánchez says. “We’re both Mexican-American Texas boys and we have very similar upbringings. We also have the same sense of humor and enjoy doing a lot of the same things with our time off, so it was really just such a natural connection that kicked off our friendship.”
When cooking at home, the Master Chef regular is particular about the kind of music he listens to. Creating the right atmosphere is vital to the experience, he says. Along with favored artists including the Alabama Shakes and the Cure, Sánchez notes that he often makes a point to play “old country because I grew up hearing that quite a lot.”
“Food and music are both such a huge part of culture,” he says. “And I think a song and a dish can remind you of a certain place, time in your life or people that you love.”
And speaking of a dish that represents the colorful, flavorful diversity of his culture, Sánchez views mole sauce as a must-learn for any non-Latin home cooks. The beloved chili pepper-powered dish will both culturally enlighten and help refine one’s skills, all while packing a flavorful punch.
“It can be made a million different ways yet it is technical,” he says. “It’s something that is hearty and yet so elevated and impressive when someone cooks it at home.”
If mole sauce can help give an average foodie a taste for, and a greater appreciation of, Mexican cuisine, then helping to educate the next generation of Latin chefs might bring about a seismic shift in the way pop culture views chefs, both celebrity and lesser-known, in the future.
“It’s a huge honor and also a huge responsibility to be a Latin public figure,” he says. “I really just try to be the best man and chef I can be and pass on the torch to the next generation through my scholarship.” He started the Aarón Sánchez Scholarship Fund to give young aspiring Latino and Latina chefs “the opportunities and education necessary for them to become leaders in the industry.”
Thanks to well-publicized developments, including Texas Monthly recently naming its first Taco Editor, diners from all walks are seeing new faces share their love for regional cuisines. Such unique presentations have led to greater curiosity and has shown Sánchez that diversity is being more accepted. And that’s a great thing, whether you’re at home watching a cooking show or your grinding away in a restaurant’s kitchen, hoping to make a name as a young chef of color.
“I love to see how people are being more adventurous and becoming more educated in regional cuisines,” he says. “I think the more informed and curious customers are, the more specialty and regional establishments can thrive.”
The Sanchez Shake Up featuring Aaron Sanchez and Shakey Graves is Dec. 3 at 7 p.m. Deep Ellum Art Company, 3200 Commerce Street, Dallas. $65-$135. prekindle.com.