Aaron Sanchez has a clear mission.
The Mexican-American chef has been building his culinary empire for over two decades, entertaining fans with a variety of television shows and cookbooks. And now, more than ever, his purpose is to pave the way for the next generation of Latinx chefs, all while elevating Mexican cuisine to new heights.
Sanchez, born in El Paso, Texas, was raised by two dynamic women: his mother, Zarela Martinez, a New York City-based restaurateur and cookbook author, and his grandmother, Aida Gabilondo, also a published cookbook author from Chihuahua, Mexico.
“My mom and grandmother’s legacy is pretty impressive. My grandmother is super traditionalist,” Sanchez tells ET exclusively, noting that she’s as regal as any grandmother can be — always making sure to have a full face of makeup on before receiving any visitors, his family included. “My mom, on the other hand, was very revolutionary when she started out in the mid-’80s.”
“I took a hybrid approach when I started out and now I’m going back to a traditional style. It’s funny how your style changes as you get older,” adds Sanchez, who is the chef/owner of Mexican restaurant Johnny Sánchez in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he resides.
The 42-year-old MasterChef judge says that following in his mother’s footsteps seemed to be a clear choice for him, but she wasn’t too keen on the idea. Sanchez was 16 years old when he realized that food was his calling.
“My mom is my biggest fan and toughest critic. She’s a force of nature,” Sanchez explains. “She felt [at the time] like I needed to learn more and continue to grow. As I’ve done different things she’s accepted it more. She’s now beaming with joy and happy that I’m carrying on the legacy.”
Sanchez’s long list of notable credits includes starring in multiple Food Network shows like Chopped, Next Iron Chef, Iron Chef, Guilty Pleasures, Best. Ever., Heat Seekers and Chefs vs. City. He’s also the author of two cookbooks, “La Comida del Barrio” and “Simple Food, Big Flavor: Unforgettable Mexican-Inspired Recipes From My Kitchen to Yours.” He recently partnered with Cacique, a company that’s been producing authentic cheeses for 40 years, to identify new food trends.
But finding success as a Latino chef proved to be a very challenging journey for Sanchez, who says it came with a hefty price to pay.
“It’s extremely difficult. My career has cost me my marriage, it’s cost me spending time with my family. It’s been a hard road, it’s not easy,” he says. “There’s been many moments of self-doubt and asking myself if I’m doing the right thing. You just try to put that aside and go forward.”
“When I first started, I wanted to own a restaurant and be the captain of my own ship,” he continues. “As the mission got bigger, I started representing every cook that’s in the kitchen, every Latino that’s in the kitchen, so the goal got a lot bigger. When you’re on television and able to transmit messages quickly and very concisely,… there’s now a certain amount of responsibility that comes with it. And, it’s my duty to continue to redefine my style, find sources of inspiration.”
Sanchez, now a source of inspiration for others, advocates for representation on the small screen and in kitchens across the U.S. He describes the feeling as “unreal” when realizing that he’s part of an elite group of Latinx chefs making a huge impact in the culinary world.
“It makes me feel unreal, and that’s why last night I was in bed at 8 o’clock. Because I feel this pressure to make sure I’m putting out the best version of myself forward. I’m representing so many people,” he says. “The best thing that I can do is to make sure that we are planting seeds and making sure that the next generation is prepared and equipped to be the best representation of our culture.”
“I’m very blessed,” he adds. “Latinos, we work harder than anyone else. We put our head down and le echamos ganas.”
The season finale for MasterChef airs Sept. 19 on Fox. For more on Sanchez, watch the video below.