Celebrity Chef Aarón Sánchez Paves the Way for More Latinos in the Culinary Industry

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

It goes further than that, with dishes like the new shrimp ceviche appetizer, showcasing the flavors that Sánchez and those close to him before him have perfected.

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

It’s one of many Mexican/Latin dishes he’s brought to his restaurant since Johnny Sánchez opened in 2014, but that’s not all people know about him. Sánchez achieved 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 the footsteps of his mother, Zarela Martinez, and his grandmother, Aída Gabilondo. Martinez has published three books and Gabilondo has published one, which made Sánchez feel like a future in the kitchen is possible.

“At my root, in my heart, I am a leader. That’s what I do every day,” he said. “My grandmother and my mother are flavor keepers and flavor creators. I therefore have the enormous responsibility of carrying their legacy.

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

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

“How do you plant seeds? We are planting seeds by taking care of our most precious asset which is our youth,” Sánchez said. “When I started, I felt there was a huge disparity between Latinos getting leadership positions in kitchens. I didn’t want education to be the crutch. I wanted to make sure that they had a foundation that would allow them to be decision makers as they grew.

Of the 11 scholarship recipients, three are from the New Orleans area, including Camila Arias. She recently left New York and is now back home serving Johnny Sanchez’s clients as a sous chef.

“It didn’t (settle),” Arias said. “I don’t really tell people that I’m a sous chef. I come back around 7:30 am to open the kitchen and I stay until 5:30, 6 am to make sure the kitchen is working well.

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

“Showing my grandmother that I’m a sous chef in a restaurant when she started out as a cook, really makes me feel like I did it for her. It shows that all the work she has fact, leaving her family and shoving it around, was totally worth it,” she said.

And now, as Arias looks to advance her culinary career, she’s looking for those who come up and also try to fulfill their dreams.

“It’s kind of crazy to think I’m 21 and a role model,” she said. “I want to be the person like Chef Aarón was to me, helping students and helping people in this industry.

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