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Aáron Sánchez: My Mom Taught Me Everything About Hispanic Representation

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Zagat Stories asked Latinx chefs from across the United States about their experiences being Hispanic in the restaurant industry, how it has shaped them, and what needs work.

Aáron Sánchez is chef and owner of Mexican restaurant Johnny Sánchez in New Orleans. He is a judge on MasterChef and co-starred on Chopped and Chopped Junior. Sánchez is founder of the Aarón Sánchez Scholarship Fund, which empowers aspiring chefs from the Latinx community to attend culinary school. He’s the author of cookbooks La Comida del Barrio and Simple Food, Big Flavor, and the forthcoming memoir Where I Come From. He is also a brand ambassador for Cacique.

I think there is a general understanding that Latinos and Latinas are the backbone of the industry, so we always have a sense of camaraderie when there is a group of us working together. It’s a well-known fact that Hispanics make up the lion’s share of the workforce in the lower ranks of the restaurant industry, as well as a large portion of the farmers in America. As a Mexican-American chef who has been able to achieve all the things that I have, I feel it is my honor and duty to serve as a source of inspiration and to share my culture through food.

This is also one of the reasons I started my foundation, the Aarón Sánchez Scholarship Fund—to give the next generation education through culinary school scholarships, mentoring, and resources so that they can become executive chefs, business owners, and so on. Culinary education is the foundation to give students the resources to ascend the ranks, and this is also why mentorship is so key as well. I felt the need to give back to an industry that has been so good to me, and so I am planting seeds for the next generation as my thank-you to the food world.

I think working at the now-closed Patria was one of those times in my life and career that really changed everything for me. Getting to work for a Latino business owner and celebrate Latin culture in a meaningful way that was impactful and exciting for the customers really changed my perception of what was possible for myself. Having a Latin mentor like Chef Douglas Rodriguez, who was also the owner, and seeing all the amazing careers that came out of that kitchen really inspired me to set my sights high and to know that we can accomplish anything we set our minds to. We really elevated Latin cuisine there, and it was such a special experience watching people’s opinions change in front of your eyes, and knowing that they would forever have a different view of what our different cultures’ cuisines can be.

Representation is so important. Seeing people who look like you and people from your community in positions of power is so motivating and shows you that it’s possible. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote my memoir—to be a cautionary and inspirational tale. As I was reliving those days and going through the memories, I think I really felt so humbled and grateful to all the people I had the opportunity to work for and look up to, from my mom, Zarela Martinez, to Douglas Rodriguez. I’m always just trying to pass on the torch and honor the gifts that I’ve been given.

Photo: Aáron Sánchez and his mother, restaurateur Zarela Martinez.

I’ve always had my mom and her restaurant as an example of what is possible. I know it’s taken a while for people to see Mexican cuisine as something that can be very high-end and nuanced, along with the regionality of different dishes and techniques. I think people are so much more informed now, and they value the more traditional cuisine that is being offered in so many amazing spots. Access to authentic ingredients and information is so important to understanding culture.

When my mom first came into the New York dining scene in the 80s and 90s, the knowledge about Mexican food was fairly limited, and she became such a beacon for information and celebration of Mexican cuisine. I think that humble dishes like tacos and burritos are some of the biggest staples that have been embraced, but I also see such a love for things like ceviche, mole, and homemade sauces that really take a lot of finesse and a deep understanding of ingredients and flavors. We need to keep sharing our culture and legacy through food and honoring our heritage. As we learn more about cultures through food, we all learn to expand our palates and perspective, and we learn to appreciate the nuances.

We definitely see a lot more representation across the board in terms of diversity, which is amazing. One of the biggest issues that is very much coming to light now is how much capital is needed to start a restaurant, and to keep it going through tough times. Especially in big cities, it’s just such a hard business model to get right. To have the connections and opportunities to get financial support is really difficult, given that many of these aspiring entrepreneurs come from humble backgrounds.