If you’ve ever watched the Food Network, tuned into MasterChef Junior—where he frequently and endearingly calls the young contestants mijo or mija (“my son,” “my daughter”)—or have even a passing interest in Mexican or Latin American cuisine, you’ve likely heard of celebrity chef Aarón Sánchez. The El Paso native is the owner of the splashy yet traditional Mexican restaurant Johnny Sanchez in New Orleans, as well as the son of a celebrity chef in her own right, Zarela Martinez.
Sánchez recently published the memoir, Where I Come From: Life Lessons From a Latino Chef, a frank and vulnerable account of his life, from his earliest days along the Texas-Mexico border to his youth in New York, then his TV career and fatherhood. It offers those interested in a career (a life!) in restaurant kitchens a no-holds-barred look at the industry’s ups and downs. This December, Sánchez is returning to his home state in support of the book. We spoke with him ahead of his tour swing through Texas about the soul-bearing it takes to write a memoir and what the rest of America can learn from El Paso. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Texas Monthly: How difficult was it to open yourself up for the book and get into the groove of writing it?
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Aarón Sánchez: It was probably one of the most arduous tasks I’ve had to do because I had to really be honest and recall all these very pivotal and poignant moments in my life. You know, we’re talking about highs and lows and letting it all out and kind of baring your soul. And that’s no good. When you think about how people are perceived and you kind of just have to forget about all that and just hopefully let this story speak for itself. It was very challenging—the writing process and just cataloging all these steps, all these different emotions, and all these different experiences of my life. But what was fantastic about it was that I felt that I was living it all again. So I had a really deep sense of appreciation for what I’ve been through and the successes that I had. It was great to kind of get back in those footsteps and remember all of it.
TM: Much of the book emphasizes place. The title is, after all, Where I Come From. That includes El Paso but also the border, Mexico, New York, and New Orleans. You call “home” not just a location. Home is the people and the love in it. El Paso had that “and then some,” you write in your book.
AS: My tierra is El Paso. It will always be home, and it’s somewhere that I spent a lot of time, where I’m very proud to be from. When I think about home, when I think about where I’m from, El Paso features prominently, obviously. I never forget my roots, and I think that’s extremely important as being a Mexican American and bicultural and understanding those cultures very intimately. I speak Spanish perfectly, and I speak English really well. I think that’s really helped to create who I am. I go back to El Paso very frequently. I’m spending my Thanksgiving there this year, and I was just there for my brother’s wedding. We did a fantastic fundraiser in El Paso to raise money for the victims in that horrible shooting tragedy that happened. I’m constantly connected to the city.
Texas Monthly: Do you think the rest of the country can learn a thing or two from El Paso?
AS: Absolutely! I think El Paso can really enlighten people from a culinary point of view. It’s the fact that we work with great green chile. We have Chico’s Tacos. We have elements of Mexican cuisine you only find in El Paso. So, you know, we have the asadero cheese that’s made on the east side of El Paso. We have all these little gems. We have great gorditas and machaca—the machaca from Kiki’s. And we have the sopes and gorditas from Chopes. And we have all these very iconic restaurants and food that have been there forever that continue to speak and inspire. There’s definitely room for people to learn about a different style of Mexican cuisine in El Paso.
TM: Have you considered bringing Johnny Sanchez or another restaurant concept to Texas?
AS: We’re definitely thinking about doing a restaurant in Texas, and we’re really looking forward to the future. We’re looking at cities like Houston, and we’re looking at cities like El Paso and those kind of areas that I think really have really burgeoning food scenes that I think would be really great. I have to come back home again.
TM: What is one misconception about Mexican food, generally or specifically regarding your restaurant, that you feel people have or they carry with them?
AS: It really encompasses so much. It’s extremely regional. I envision a lot more regional Mexican restaurants opening it up in the next coming years. I think you’re going to start seeing places that only do barbacoa and places that only do moles and that only do those kinds of things that specialize. That’s very exciting. It shows how much the food has grown and how much appeal it has.
TM: The Texas book tour has a city-specific curated lineup. Austin has food from La Condesa chef Rick Lopez. Houston’s menu includes Sánchez family favorites. Southern-style barbecue will be served at your Dallas appearance. Why did you choose non-Texas smoked meat for Dallas, and what else can you tell us about the tour?
AS: A big part of it is because I’m friends with a gentleman named Chris Lilly. He’s out of Decatur, Alabama, and I thought Texas has a great history of beef barbecue, but I wanted to bring a different flavor. And I think it’s also a great cuisine. It’s very communal. It’s casual, and it kind of goes in line with my personality. So I just thought this would be a good example to be able to do that for everyone. I’ve got a good buddy of mine, Shakey Graves, out of Austin. He’s a fantastic musician and Shakey is going to play music.
It’s going to be this unbelievable expression of Texas art and barbecue and food, and I want it to be all encompassing. We’re going to tell stories. All my different friends and colleagues and family members are going to interview me through the process, which will be lots of fun. It’s going to be really a window into my life through people that that I admire and that I call colleagues.
I want everyone to know that Texas is home and that we’re really excited to be doing the Texas tour, “A Sánchez Shake Up,” as I’m calling it. And we’re going to shake things up, baby. We’re going to make people happy through food. We’re going to inspire everyone. This is kind of my love letter to Texas.
Find tour dates and purchase tickets to Sánchez’s appearances here.