5/03/2013 12:45:00 PM

Chopped's Aarón Sánchez on Mexican Food Misconceptions, Food TV and More

Son of Mexican food legend Zarela Martinez, Aarón Sánchez has made a name of his own over the years with his restaurants (currently Tacombi in NYC, Mestizo in Kansas City and Crossroads at House of Blues nationwide) and TV shows (judge on Chopped, Heat Seekers, etc.). In honor of Mexican Food Week, we decided to catch up with Aarón and pick his brain about some hot topics including how Americans' perception of Mexican cuisine is changing, if Mexican chefs are underrepresented on food TV and more. Check out our chat with him below.

Zagat: What do you think are the most common misconceptions Americans have about Mexican food?
AS: There’s the idea that Tex-Mex is Mexican food, and it’s really not. The way my grandmother described it to me is that, she said Tex-Mex was born from Texas cowboys that used to go into Mexico, liked the food the locals were eating, and they just thought it was a little spicy or whatever and they started integrating milder chiles, flour tortillas, etc. That’s sort of where it was born. Americans think a lot of Tex-Mex dishes are actually Mexican, when really those dishes are homogenized.

Zagat: Do you think that perception has changed over the years?
AS: Absolutely. I think there’s a lot more awareness of what is regional Mexican food and where particular dishes hail from.

Zagat: People seem more willing now to pay top dollar for Mexican food, while in the past (for whatever reason) I think many Americans expected it to be cheap. Do you agree? 
AS: Yeah, I think it’s one of those things that’s always been very difficult. It’s also the same thing with Chinese food - you can do a crappy Chinese restaurant and be busy. You can do a crappy Mexican restaurant and be busy. So the incentive to work hard is not always there. How do you justify doing Mexican food that’s expensive when you can go down the street and get it for cheaper? I think that perception is changing. The way you do that is having a nice setting or ambiance, great location, awesome wine list. So when you have those elements in a Mexican restaurant, the perception changes, and they can embrace the idea that it can be technique-oriented and restaurants can charge accordingly.

Like with Obamacare, I want to provide health care for everyone, but in order to stay open I have to pass on that cost to my customer. I hope people keep that in mind when making decisions on eating, because it’s all relative. 

The other thing that’s very interesting is people think because they see me on TV, my food is going to be very fancy and my restaurants are going to be very elite and exclusive, which is not the case. 

Zagat: How has being on food TV changed your career?
AS: It’s changed my life immensely. Just to be clear, I had no desire/inclination to be on television. My dream was to own my own restaurant, that’s all I ever cared about. But I made the best of an opportunity. The reason I did TV was to bring people to my restaurant - that's the reason I did it initially, and I still do it for that reason. I have no desire to be famous or recognized. I want to be recognized for my food and not for, say, cracking jokes and all that.

The most important part of it is I’ve been able to touch people very quickly and help them have a real surface knowledge of Mexican food and culture. That’s the beautiful thing about TV. If I start talking about how a chipotle is a smoked jalapeno, I’ve already taught someone in Sioux Falls, Iowa, who doesn’t know what that is. TV affords me that ability to teach and to help people understand my culture and my food. That’s why it’s awesome. For that reason it’s worth every minute. 

Zagat: Are Mexican-American chefs underrepresented on food TV in America?
AS: Yeah. Well, first of all there are a lot of Mexican-Americans that struggle with Spanish - they don’t know their own language. The problem is that if you really want to be able to have that street cred, you need to be able to speak in both languages. So a lot of times what ends up happening is the Mexican-American diaspora is kind of not understood well, and then you have first generations that speak Spanish growing up and can’t necessarily relate to someone else who doesn’t know that way. I’m fortunate because growing up, I had both narratives. I spend a lot of time in Mexico; I have a show in Spanish. I’m always staying in touch and working on my Spanish and getting better at it.

Zagat: What do you hope to accomplish in the future?
AS: The big thing now is I want to help Mexican immigrants work in restaurants, help them get documented, get their families here from Mexico, help their children and teach them that they don’t have to live in fear of deportation. I want to help the backbone of restaurants in this country have a voice and have what’s coming to them. That’s a big push for me next year. I'm also going to do a little cookbook with poetry. I want to do a cookbook with more of a personal approach of all the things that inspire me.


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