Where I Come From: Life Lessons from a Latino Chef

Where I Come From: Life Lessons from a Latino Chef

by Aaron Sanchez
Where I Come From: Life Lessons from a Latino Chef

Where I Come From: Life Lessons from a Latino Chef

by Aaron Sanchez


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America’s most prominent Latino chef shares the story behind his food, his family, and his professional journey

Before Chef Aaron Sanchez rose to fame on shows like MasterChef and Chopped, he was a restless Mexican-American son, raised by a fiercely determined and talented woman who was a successful chef and restaurateur in her own right—she is credited with bringing Mexican cuisine to the New York City dining scene. In many ways, Sanchez, who lost his father at a young age, was destined to follow in his mother Zarela’s footsteps. He spent nights as a child in his family’s dining room surrounded by some of the most influential chefs and restaurateurs in New York. At 16, needing direction, he was sent by his mother to work for renowned chef Paul Prudhomme in New Orleans.

In this memoir, Sanchez delves into his formative years with remarkable candor, injecting his story with adrenaline and revealing how he fell in love with cooking and started a career in the fast-paced culinary world. Sanchez shares the invaluable lessons he learned from his upbringing and his training—both inside and outside the kitchen—and offers an intimate look into the chaotic and untraditional life of a professional chef and television personality. This memoir is Sanchez’s highly personal account of a fatherless Latino kid whose talent and passion took him to the top of his profession.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781419738029
Publisher: Abrams Press
Publication date: 10/01/2019
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Aaron Sanchez is an award-winning chef, TV personality, cookbook author, and philanthropist. He is the costar of the hit series MasterChef and MasterChef Jr. and has starred and guest-starred on many television series on Food Network and Cooking Channel. He lives in New Orleans.

Read an Excerpt



I'll never forget the first time I saw the city.

It was after dark when I opened my eyes, and I had to adjust to the fact that I was waking up to a night sky. I was totally disoriented — not just by the time of day, but by my surroundings. I'd been in the back of my mom's catering van tons of times, but it still took a few minutes for me to remember exactly where I was — and why being there this time was so different from the rest. It was a rickety, white Econoline with the words "Zarela's Catering" splashed across the side in green and red paint. It had the permanent, piquant aroma of chiles and guisados — the super-savory and comforting traditional Mexican braises that my mom served at so many of her catering gigs. I loved those smells, and I loved that piece-of-shit van. When she first bought it, it might as well have been a stretch limo. To me as a kid, it seemed gigantic — even luxurious. But most importantly, it was always packed full of my mom's most delicious food. Gorditas filled with her signature salpicón de huachinango — a red snapper hash made with fresh jalapeños and tomatoes, perfumed with a blend of cinnamon, cloves, and cumin. Spicy macarrones con salsa poblana — a buttery, cheesy pasta dish that was about as close to Italian food as I had ever seen in those days — and grilled meats of all kinds, served with rich and classic rajas con crema(roasted poblanos). It was a wonderland of her greatest culinary hits.

I loved to tag along to her different jobs and help out with whatever I could. My sister, Marisa — my father's daughter from his first marriage — would come and help with the serving. I couldn't carry much in those days, but I thought I was being a big help, carting jars of chilespiked salsa de cilantro or hotel pans layered down with fresh tortillas for her guests to enjoy. I also always had the privilege and super-critical task of packing the cookies. They were good times, and I always tried my best. I did a lot of work in that van — and I stole a lot of snacks. But one thing I hadn't done up until that point was sleep in it. And it definitely never had the couch in the back that I was sitting on when I woke up that night.

The passenger side of the front seat was papered with Rand McNally maps, a few days earlier set open to southeastern US routes, and now creased to display northern states so she could follow along (there was no Google Maps back then). My twin brother, Rodrigo, was passed out next to me. I figured I must've fallen asleep somewhere in Virginia — a state that felt never-ending. We were pretty tuckered out from singing along to endless rounds of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, and all the other classic country tunes Mom was blasting and belting out through the first few states of our journey. Her favorite was Rockin' Sydney's "Don't Mess with My Toot Toot," which she played on repeat, tapping the steering wheel, just because it cracked us up to hear her sing it. She knew she had two pretty terrified six-year-old boys in the back seat — two boys who had only ever seen their Texas hometown, and had absolutely no concept of the faraway land of New York City she told them they were moving to. She made it her mission not only to deliver us safely, but in good spirits.

Before we left El Paso, and our tiny apartment on the west side of town, she tried to prepare us for the road ahead. "Boys, this is going to be a big adventure," she sat us down and said. "I have an amazing opportunity, and the three of us are going to start something totally new." She promised we would love it. In the weeks leading up to the trip, she told us all sorts of stories about how magical the city was, and how lucky we'd be to live there. I wasn't so sure about this New York place, but while she was busy packing up the last of our things the morning we left, I stole a peek at the really important stuff. It was clear this was a special trip, because inside the cooler she'd filled for the road were all my brother's and my favorite snacks. Flautas and picadillo dulce tacos, albóndigas, and her homemade tortilla chips with tomatillo salsa. I didn't know where we were going, but I was sure as hell I was going to enjoy the getting there.

But then the time came to actually take off. At that age, it was nearly impossible for me to really grasp what was happening. We'd spent the weekend with my dad, and the morning we were to leave town, we had to say our good-byes to him and the rest of our relatives. We had a big, tight family, and it wasn't out of the ordinary for all of us to spend time together, but I could tell by the sober faces that this was something different.

"Don't worry, I'll see you in just a few months," my dad said, squatting to meet me and looking from beneath his worn cowboy hat in the springtime Texas sun. My parents had already worked out an arrangement: Rodrigo and I would fly down and spend summers with him. I idolized my father, and even though my folks had already been split up for a few years and we weren't living together, the idea of not being able to see him on a regular basis was a concept I couldn't quite wrap my head around — and I didn't want to.

He told me to take care of myself. He told me he loved us and would see us soon. "This is going to be a good thing for you boys and your mom — don't think of it as something scary," he tried to reassure us.

Looking back now as a father myself, I can't imagine how he managed words of support, when I'm sure my dad — who absolutely adored his kids — didn't want to let us go. But he tried to impress on us that this was important to the family, and he knew I always wanted to be a man like him. He hugged Rodrigo and me, and a few minutes later we were dropped off at my mom's. We climbed into the van, which was filed up with a trailer on the back, got settled on the couch, and watched the only home we'd ever known disappear in the rear window of the old Ford.

The distress of leaving was quickly replaced by the excitement of the unknown. Maybe it was adrenaline — or maybe just that I was a six-year old without the foresight to be too concerned about where we'd been or where we were going — but I thought it was amazing to see the country from the road. My mom had done the research ahead of time so we would filed iconic regional foods along the way. First, we trucked through our own massive state, sampling slabs of Texas toast the size of my head, slathered with butter, rubbed with sweet roasted garlic, and broiled to golden, crispy perfection. We stopped in St. Louis, where I ripped into my first rack of baby-back barbecue ribs — the leathery, smoky bark so black it was almost blue. In the Carolinas, it was chowchow and pralines. When we got up north and passed through Amish Country, Rodrigo and I filled up on fresh apple butter while my mom browsed antique shops and promised us that someday, when we had the cash, we'd come back for that furniture. It was my first real taste of the world, not to mention its many foods, and my first time traveling. I was totally enamored by it. In fact, I loved the road so much, I almost forgot where we were headed.

Making our way along those interstates, I also witnessed for the first time the power of food, sheer kindness, and a genuinely hospitable spirit to connect with people. Mom was the kind of woman who was a hit no matter where she went — even in the middle of nowhere. All along the journey, we'd run into these big, tough-looking trucker dudes at gas stations and rest stops. I thought they were scary as hell, but not my mom. She made fast friends every time. "You want to know how to make enchiladas?" she'd ask them. These people were from all over the country; a lot of them had probably never had a real enchilada or anything even close to it, and certainly weren't used to having a square meal. So she shared her recipes, and in giving them the ins and outs of a simple Mexican dish, she gave each of them a little of herself. It was always a sight, to see my little Mexican mother talking to some big, bearded Southerner about the filler points of broiling chile rellenos, but most of these guys were family men far from home, and they were deeply appreciative. A lot of times, knowing she was a single mother, they took it upon themselves to look after us, sort of our truck stop guardian angels.

The trip took four days. Rodrigo and I were restless kids — and these were the times before TV screens were mounted into headrests. There were no iPads to keep us occupied or babysit us for my mom's relief. But when we weren't eating or bickering or generally driving her bonkers, we tried to make our own fun. We played little travel-sized board games and magnetic checkers. We read. We slept a lot. We made a sport out of ticking off license plates from different states, counting potholes, that sort of thing. I spent a lot of time looking out the window, imagining where the other cars were coming from or where they were going, how long their journeys were, and whether they'd been to this magical land of New York City. And my mom told tons of stories. She made us feel warm and secure, at a time when she was probably pretty terrified herself.

The journey was a total eye opener for me, and while we were still crossing through, living in between worlds, it felt a little like a daydream. But what I saw when I woke up — crossing the George Washington Bridge and seeing those big city lights — it was like smelling salt that snapped everything back into focus. I could finally put a visual to what my mom had been talking about all that time. It was so big and foreign, and all I could think was, "Wow. This is real." I felt like an explorer, at the start of an exhilarating adventure. It was exciting and new. And it was really, really scary.

* * *

I don't know what was going through my mom's head at the time that we made the trip, but I know she had to be scared, too. She was taking a major leap of faith — leaving the safety and comfort of our home in Texas where she was surrounded by family — to set up shop in one of the biggest, most hectic and intimidating cities in the world, with two kids in tow and nothing but a gut feeling that she was somehow guiding us to a better life.

Things had been tough for us back home since my parents split a few years before. Mom was a social worker for the Texas Department of Human Resources in El Paso. She had immigrated from Guadalajara in 1971 and married my father after she lost her own dad in 1974. Her dad really influenced her in the kitchen — they experimented together a lot. She would say that after my grandpa was gone, the memories of their time together were a big part of what kept her inspired all those years.

I'll always remember how hard Mom worked. When she came home at the end of the day to cook for my brother and me, she looked like she'd run a marathon (being a single mom to twin boys and keeping up with a full-time job was probably not far off). The day job helped pay the bills but it definitely wasn't a passion. She was running a catering business on the side just to supplement her income, mostly doing gigs servicing medical office in town for their lunch breaks or meetings. But little by little, she began to build up her clientele, and started to filed herself really falling in love with the food business.

In her spare time, she looked for recipes everywhere, and she got them from everyone who would give them up. She cooked from stacks of Gourmet magazine that I flipped through when she wasn't poring over them and dog-earing pages to revisit. She read and reread all the cookbooks she could get her hands on. She didn't limit her education to strictly Mexican food, either. I remember some wild Middle Eastern experiments with pomegranates and eggplant, unheard-of Chinese foods and exotic Indian dishes; she also tinkered with techniques, like corning beef. Looking back, it was pretty advanced stuff for the time. These weren't cuisines one just found on any street corner in rural Texas — or really anywhere in the 1970s and '80s, for that matter.

She knew traveling would help build up her repertoire, so she started journeying to new places whenever time and budget allowed. She wanted to get serious about cooking, and to find a way to get ahead, not just get by. In 1981, when I was five years old, she and my grandma — an incredible and dedicated cook in her own right — planned a pilgrimage to New Orleans. The trip was structured around a lineup of cooking classes, but the itinerary ended up falling through at the last minute. They felt defeated, but still wanted to make the most of the trip. My grandmother suggested they eat their way around town and take notes, so they decided to splurge on a meal at a restaurant that had become legend — K-Paul's.

Mom still talks about that dinner — the sticky chicken she had, the smells of simmering gumbo and powerful creole seasonings, the sound of andouille sausage and blackened swordfish sizzling in cast-iron skillets. It had such soul, and the flavors were unlike any food she'd tasted before. My grandma encouraged her to introduce herself to the chef, a man who had become a culinary kingpin at a time when such a thing didn't really exist yet — Chef Paul Prudhomme.

She'd only intended to say hello, thank him for the wonderful meal, and maybe ask for a tip or two. But, as I would come to know very personally in my own life and experiences with him, Paul was such a warm and caring human being, it was in his nature to want to know more about this young woman who'd approached him. Chef Paul was as generous and genuine as the New Orleans summer days were sweltering — and so after that very meal, a young Zarela Martinez found herself sharing her story with one of the world's most famous culinary figures. She was a young, single mom, bonkers about food, ambitious and full of file for her craft Paul hadn't known my mom more than a few minutes when he made an offer that would change her life forever. He asked her to stay in town for a few days and work with him — he'd teach her some of his secrets, and in exchange, he asked that she share a few Mexican recipes. At the time, the only people eating Mexican food were Mexicans — and there were definitely no go-to cookbooks or tools for someone who might've been interested in the cuisine. To Chef Paul, who had the foresight to understand the food of Mexico had serious potential on the global culinary stage, my mom was an invaluable source of knowledge and information. They had a deal.

After she came home, Mom kept in touch with Chef Paul. A month later, a major food event was being planned in New York City — the Maîtres Cuisiniers de France at Tavern on the Green. It was to be an introduction to American food, attended by more than two hundred French chefs. Cooks from all over the country were coming to represent their regional cuisines and show off our collective national palate. The New York food elite looked to Chef Paul for an opinion on who might be able to cook up the Mexican food they felt would best represent Southern states. He had just the cook in mind. "Listen, Zarela," Paul said when he called my mom. "I need help pulling this thing off." He invited her to come with him to New York City. To say she was intimidated by the offer was an understatement; other than those couple of days at K-Paul's, she hadn't cooked for any critics tougher than her own kids and the few doctors that ordered her frijoles for their Friday office lunches. But Mom's philosophy was always that if she worked hard, studied, and prepared diligently, she could figure anything out. She would never, ever let a little something like fear meddle with opportunity.

A few days later, she packed her bags and headed for the city — and she was never sorry she did. The event was like a culinary coming-out party. Mom cooked for an elite crowd, was interviewed by top food writers, and instantly became a fixture in the city's dining scene (and by extension, the national one). In an article published that year, the famous New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne explained, "We also wanted to have Mexican-style food from Texas. When we canvassed our contacts for the best cook of the region, we were told that person was, hands down, Zarela Martinez-Gabilondo." He went on to rave about her cooking and later made a referral that would lead to her cooking for President Reagan. Suddenly, food was opening up more than just the doors to the old Econoline.


Excerpted from "Where I Come From"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Roux, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction, ix,
Chapter One: El Paso to New York City, 1,
Chapter Two: Mi Casa Es Su Casa,
Chapter Thee: Two States of Mind,
Chapter Four: Pushing Boundaries,
Recipe: Zarela's Pineapple-Ginger Chicken Wings with Soy-Pineapple Glaze,
Chapter Five: A Lesson in Loss,
Chapter Six: On the Road and in the Street,
Recipe: Tio Mario's Famous Chili con Carne Colorado-Style Burritos,
Chapter Seven: Into the Wild,
Chapter Eight: The Big (and Not So) Easy,
Recipe: A Quick New Orleans Shellfish Étouffée,
Chapter Nine: A Lesson in Higher Learning,
Recipe: Caldo Gallegos of White Bean, Chorizo, and Swiss Chard,
Chapter Ten: Nuevo Latino 101,
Recipe: Mixed Seafood Ceviche Negro with Citrus and Chiles,
Chapter Eleven: California Dreaming,
Recipe: Pumpkin Ravioli with Sage Brown Butter,
Chapter Twelve: Return to New York,
Chapter Thirteen: Living the Dream,
Recipe: Bacalao-Stuffed Sweet Plantains with Crema Mexicana,
Chapter Fourteen: Food Gets Famous,
Chapter Fifteen: Mexican Cooking on Camera,
Recipe: Seafood Stew with Coconut and Chipotle,
Recipe: Sautéed Hominy with Pico de Gallo and Oregano,
Chapter Sixteen: Centrico,
Chapter Seventeen: Ife & Yuma,
Recipe: Seared Salmon with Pumpkin Seed Mole,
Chapter Eighteen: A Painful Split,
Chapter Nineteen: A Wider World,
Recipe: Tequila-Battered Cauliflower Tacos with Chimichurri and Chipotle Mayonnaise,
Chapter Twenty: New Orleans Calling,
Recipe: Johnny Sánchez Brussels Sprouts Salad with Butternut Squash, Cotija, and Jalapeño Vinaigrette,
Chapter Twenty-One: Feeding Change,
Chapter Twenty/Epilogue: Where I Come from ... and Where I'm Going,


New Orleans, LA

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