Celebrity chef Aarón Sánchez paves the way for more Latinos in the culinary industry

Published: Oct. 12, 2022 at 6:34 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A meal at Johnny Sánchez in the CBD is meant to tell the story of executive chef Aarón Sánchez.

When customers walk in, they are greeted with a mural of tattoos that spans the size of an entire wall. Each design is one that Sánchez has on his own body, serving as a way to immortalize family members, like his grandmother, and honor his Mexican American heritage.

It goes further than that, with dishes like the new shrimp ceviche appetizer, showing off the flavors that Sánchez and loved ones before him perfected.

“It’s just a beautiful sort of starter,” Sánchez said. “It’s a beautiful coconut shrimp ceviche, with chile habanero, tons of lime, plantain chips.”

It’s one of several Mexican/Latin dishes he brought to his restaurant since Johnny Sánchez opened in 2014, but that’s not all people know him from. Sánchez has risen to celebrity chef status after his many years on TV shows like FOX’s MasterChef and Food Network’s Chopped.

He also has two cookbooks to his name, following in his mother’s, Zarela Martinez, and grandmother’s, Aída Gabilondo, footsteps. Martinez has published three books and Gabilondo published one, which made Sánchez feel like a future in the kitchen is possible.

“At my root, in my heart, I’m a chef. That’s what I do every day,” he said. “My grandmother and my mom are the gatekeepers of flavors and tastemakers. So, I have that huge responsibility of carrying their legacy.”

And after two decades of leading kitchens across the country, Sánchez felt he needed to be like his family role models and help the next generation of Latino chefs. That’s what inspired the Aarón Sánchez Scholarship Fund.

Since 2016, the fund has given Latino youth interested in culinary work the opportunity to stay in New York City, attend eight months of classes at the Institute of Culinary Education and industry experience.

“How do we plant seeds? We plant seeds by taking care of our most valuable commodity which is our youth,” Sánchez said. “When I started, I felt that there was a huge disparity in Latinos getting leadership positions in kitchens. I didn’t want education to be the crutch. I wanted to make sure they were provided with a foundation that allowed them to be decision makers as they grew.”

Of the 11 scholarship recipients, three have come from the New Orleans area including Camila Arias. She recently moved out of NYC and is now back home, serving customers at Johnny Sanchez as a sous chef.

“It kind of hasn’t (settled in),” Arias said. “I don’t really tell people I’m a sous chef. I come in around 7:30 in the morning to open the kitchen and I stay until 5:30, 6 to make sure the kitchen is running well.”

The 21-year-old says advancing so fast in her hometown would not have been possible without the help of Sánchez and his fund. And just like how he made his family proud as a chef - Arias, whose family immigrated decades ago from El Salvador, gets to do the same.

“Showing my grandma that I’m a sous chef at a restaurant when she started off as a prep cook, really just makes me feel like I made it for her. It shows all the work that she did, leaving her family and hustling out her was actually worth it,” she said.

And now, as Arias looks to advance her culinary career, she is looking out for those coming up and trying to achieve their dreams too.

“It’s kind of crazy to think that I am 21 years old, and I am a role model,” she said. “I want to be the person like how Chef Aarón was to me, to help out students and help out people in this industry.

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