Most New Yorkers didn’t know a chipotle pepper from a habanero until pioneering chef Zarela Martinez introduced them to sophisticated regional Mexican cooking. Martinez, a native of Chihuahua, opened her eponymous Midtown restaurant in 1987, spawning a nearly a 30-year institution. At the time, her precocious 11-year-old son, Aarón Sánchez, was plotting his own future behind the stove.
“I knew from a young age I had the skills, and my mother always said the worst thing in life is to waste your talents and not pursue them the best you can,” Sánchez says. “I was never bothered by the idea of standing up all night in the constant heat, or working 15 hours straight. I just wanted to be the best at what I did, and the kitchen seemed like the place to make that happen.”
While El Paso-bred Sánchez was inspired by his mother’s talents in the kitchen, he “didn’t want to live in her shadow. I needed to be my own person.” He started laying the bricks to his own culinary legacy early, working with Creole legend Paul Prudhomme in New Orleans. After graduating from Johnson & Wales University, he returned to NYC to cook at Patria before opening the lively Lower East Side restaurant, Paladar, at just 25 years old. His big break into the spotlight came in front of the cameras, though, when the the heavily inked chef became a fixture of Food Network and FOX Life shows like Chopped, Heat Seekers, and Next Iron Chef.
TV is an opportunity that anybody would seize—if they say they wouldn’t, they’re full of shit.
“I’m not an actor; I’m a chef. But I did it at first because I wanted people to come to my restaurant. I didn’t realize the ramifications and how big a deal it actually all was. TV is an opportunity that anybody would seize—and if they say they wouldn’t, they’re full of shit,” Sánchez says.
Beyond the screen, the James Beard Award-winning Sánchez is a passionate, energetic restaurateur. He’s opened four new restaurants this year alone, including two outposts of the upscale taqueria Johnny Sánchez, a collaboration with chef-pal John Besh. Alegre, in New York, is around the bend. Although Sánchez admits it’s a crazy pace, he’d love to open even more restaurants. But he’s also realistic about the woes of rapid expansion: “The more you have, the less you can be there. It’s a struggle.”
If anyone can navigate that delicate balance on his terms, it’s Sánchez, who constantly zips around the country to tend to his empire. “This is how I cook,” he says. “I’m never going to be Thomas Keller or Jean-Georges. You have to get happy within your own skin; that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned as a chef.”
From fragrant red chilies that bring him back to childhood, to velvety queso from his mom’s playbook, here are 10 of the dishes that define Sánchez’s approach to playful-yet-soulful Latin comfort food.
This is a dish regularly eaten in the northern part of Mexico, and when I come home from traveling it’s the one thing I ask my uncle to make. The pork simmers in a sauce that is all about the red chile, but it’s mild, cooked down with a bit of oregano and a touch of vinegar. It’s nostalgic for me. (Photo: Michael Harlan Turkell)
I have a love affair with Peru and the food from down there. To me, ceviche is about equal parts acidity, heat, and herbs. Really, it’s the idea of using citrus other than lime juice that fascinates me. People tend to get caught up in traditional recipes, but with lobster ceviche there is so much versatility. Mango or passion fruit can really augment the natural flavor of seafood. I also love how the taste of this dish changes the longer it marinates. (Photo: Simple Food, Big Flavor)
Mole is a pretty awesome sauce. People gravitate towards it because it is sweet and savory, but really, it’s about pureeing the sauce. There are [many] moles in Oaxaca, but the iconic poblano [from Puebla], with chocolate and mild chilies, has gotten the most attention. What’s better than chicken thighs slowly cooked in a rich mole poblano? (Photo: Daily Meal)
Chicken Empanadas with Smoked Tomato Pico de Gallo
I made these at Paladar for a long time and people loved them because they were unexpected. I slowly cooked and simmered ground chicken in traditional spices just like a beef picadillo. For the pico de gallo, I cooked the tomatoes low and slow until they were charred. There are so many dishes in my memory bank that I need to start making again. This is one of them. (Photo: Food Network)
I never crave lamb, but I know other people do, and I don’t want to be a chef who only cooks what he wants. I liked the idea of beef slowly cooked and braised in chile sauce, so for Johnny Sànchez, I thought lamb would be a good alternative—lamb necks with mole poblano, queso fresco, pickled onions, and crema. Already it’s becoming a signature dish. (Photo: Twitter/@ericfaivre)
My mom had queso on her menu for 27 years. It’s a canvas that leaves a lot to the imagination, because you can put anything from chanterelles to poblano peppers in it. It’s also a fun and social dish. People like it because it’s communal and they can share it. There are so many crappy versions of this, but when it’s done right, it’s some decadent fucking cheese. (Photo: Rush Jagoe)
There are some renditions of this stew with beef, but traditionally it’s made with goat. In Mexico, they call it consommé, like the classic French broth. We serve it with radishes, pickled onions, and cilantro at Johnny Sánchez, but really it’s about the natural essence of goat and dunking the homemade tortillas into the liquid. These are the types of recipes we have to make sure we bring back so these culinary traditions stay relevant. (Photo: Graham Blackall)
Pollo con Pepian
Pumpkin-seed mole is different from any other because of its earthiness and freshness. The herbs, the epazote, the cilantro, and the roasted tomatillos are integral. Some people puree it ahead of time, but we fold it in fresh at Paloma so it stays vibrant and green. (Photo: Noticias 24)
Just like you would use leftover risotto to make arancini, I decided to do the same with paella. I was traveling to Spain and had the arroz bomba and it was like, let’s rock and roll. I make a powerful, awesome lobster broth and add saffron. While that’s simmering, I add in the poached seafood and fold in the roasted peppers and herbs. You don’t want to overcook it. Then I serve these little fritters with saffron aioli. People love the idea of not having to eat a whole plate of paella. (Photo: Spaces Kansas City)
My mom used to make fried plantains with mole, so that memory inspired me to do something similar: combine sweet plantains with mole and chorizo in an empanada. I serve these at Paloma and love how the complex flavors complement each other so well. (Photo: Clay Williams)