Chef Chat

Aaron Sanchez: Pit Stop Houston

Photo by Fresh MGMT
Quaker State is on his side.

Chef and television personality Aaron Sanchez, currently a judge on Fox's hit culinary competition Master Chef, made a quick stop in Houston last week as part of his social media tour in partnership with Quaker State. On the list were four cities: Los Angeles, Atlanta, New Orleans and finally, Houston. The mission was to highlight a Hispanic-owned restaurant in each of the cities for Hispanic Heritage Month, which began September 15 and ended October 15.

In Atlanta, Sanchez discovered Puerto Rican cuisine with Chef Hector Santiago at El Super Pan before heading to New Orleans to check out Chef Melissa Araujo's Honduran cuisine at Alma Cafe. He then headed to Los Angeles, for Yucatan flavors at Ka'teen with Chef Wes Avila.

For Houston, Sanchez and his team chose Andes Cafe, the Ecuadorian restaurant owned by Chef David Guerrero and his brother, Antony Guerrero. Chef Guerrero operated the original Andes Cafe at 2311 Canal for six years before closing it in January 2020 when the property was sold. He reopened the concept at The POST development's food court in November 2021. A few months later, Guerrero launched his reservations-only ceviche bar in the Andes Cafe spot.
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Chef David Guerrero made Aaron Sanchez his version of ceviche clasico.
Photo by Fresh MGMT
We were given the opportunity to sit with Chef Sanchez at The POST before he began filming his cooking stint with Guerrero. While waiting for the chef and his crew to arrive, we spoke with Antony Guerrero about the chance to showcase Andes Cafe and his brother David's Ecuadorian cuisine with Chef Sanchez. He was very excited about the Master Chef star's arrival and Chef Guerrero was busy in the kitchen making preparations.

Soon we saw Sanchez and his crew making their way through The POST food hall without being spotted. The tattooed chef and I sat down at a table right outside Andes Cafe to discuss his culinary career and his reason for stopping in Houston.

By all accounts, Aaron Sanchez is a friendly and personable guy, which we realized right away. He puts people at their ease and is eager to talk about his passions. We began our conversation with his road trip around the country to discover various Latin staple cuisines. He described it as "utilizing my love for cars, and travel and adventure and food, with Quaker State Motor Oil as my conduit to get me place to place."

The literal conduit was a Chevy Silverado. Sanchez said, "Especially in Texas, you gotta have a truck. I am a Texas boy at heart. I'm from El Paso, Texas. This stop in particular on this culinary road trip is more significant. It's the final stop and it's Houston and my home state. It's exciting."
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Aaron Sanchez shows off his ride and his motor oil of choice.
Photo by Fresh MGMT
Chef Sanchez continued his praise for the Bayou City. "I tell people all the time that Houston is one of the big food meccas in the country. It's also a place where a lot of product from Latin America is distributed... I was always enamored of the city's growth, their commitment to multi-cultural food, not just Latin." He gestured around the food hall where we were seated. "This is a perfect example, where we are right now. For me, to be able to highlight all the cuisines I love within Latin America, not going to the obvious Mexican."

As for choosing to feature Ecuadorian food in a city that teems with Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants, Sanchez said, "I have a very interesting connection with Ecuador. I cooked in New York all my career and lived there and grew up there. There's a huge Ecuadorian community in New York City and also in the restaurants, so your kitchens are broken down with Mexicans and Ecuadorians. My chef that I had at Centrico (his now shuttered restaurant in NYC) for 15 years was Ecuadorian. So I have a lot of knowledge about the food and the culture and the people, so I am happy that we are concluding with this."
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Chef David Guerrero showed Aaron Sanchez the many influences on Ecuadorian cuisine.
Photo by Fresh MGMT
We touched lightly on Chef Guerrero's back story and his battle with brain cancer, which was first diagnosed when he was 27 in 2010. In 2015, Guerrero had to have a second surgery to remove a brain tumor. Sanchez had just the week before lost fellow chef and friend Colin Alveras, at 51, to glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. "I didn't want to bring that up because it's kind of bizarre. So young. Colin was so young, too. I don't know if it's from the stress... It's not the first time that I have heard chefs have issues with that. It's a very tough industry.."

But despite it being a tough industry, Sanchez is on the forefront of helping young Hispanics interested in the hospitality industry to prosper and find avenues beyond just the kitchen. His foundation was originally the Aaron Sanchez Scholarship Fund but it has recently evolved to become the Aaron Sanchez Impact Fund.

"The Impact is an opportunity to give back to an industry that's been so good to me. The idea of why I shifted from a scholarship is because I thought I was being kind of narrow in my focus. The Impact Fund, yes, that means the culinary education is going to be the focal point, but now, you get to perhaps do seed money for businesses. The word impact is more broad and I've partnered with the Emeril Lagasse Foundation." That umbrella Sanchez says allows them to do more things.

And Sanchez also wants young people to know that there are many arenas in the food industry. "You don't necessarily have to be a restaurant chef, you don't have to do what I did. You can be a recipe developer, you can be a personal chef."
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Antony and David Guerrero prepare to impress a celebrity chef.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Of course many young culinary professionals fantasize about being celebrity chefs or rubbing elbows with the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Joe Bastianich but Sanchez says that that is not as much a part of his life as people might think. " I think the biggest misconception is that I do TV all the time and yes, I do it quite a bit. That's a very small portion of my year. The rest of the time, I'm cheffing. It's what I do. It's all I know how to do."

Sanchez added, "Now, the mission has changed quite a bit. Now, I'm like this representative for Latin Culture. Now, I'm this example. Now, I'm mentoring."

"I live a blessed life. I push myself to learn more about cuisines, travel and again, this culinary road trip with Quaker State Motor Oil has been about that; not just me and my growth but the celebration."

As for his own New Orleans restaurant, Johnny Sanchez, he says that people often think that his menu is a fusion of Cajun and Mexican cuisines but Sanchez says, "We're a Mexican restaurant that happens to utilize Louisiana product. Everything's within the Mexican vernacular, just utilizing local product."

For his restaurant's menu, Sanchez has mined the culinary prowess of female family members with his grandmother's albondigas and his mother's mole sauce and chicken flautas. His mother, Zarela Martinez, is an acclaimed cookbook author and restaurateur who sent her son to work with her mentor, Paul Prudhomme, in New Orleans, at the young age of 16.

Sanchez, who now calls New Orleans home, is planning to open a second location of his Mexican restaurant in Lake Charles, Louisiana by the new year. It will be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He is also working on a project set to open next door to the Johnny Sanchez in New Orleans called Showbird, a breakfast and lunch concept that he is hoping to open in early 2023.
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Gordan Ramsay, Christine Ha, Joe Bastianich and Aaron Sanchez on Master Chef: Back to Win.
Photo by FOX
As we wandered into discussing the Food Network years, Sanchez was approached by a mother and daughter who wanted a selfie which he obligingly provided and which, he told us, was an important part of his responsibilities as a television personality. After some gushing and a few photos, the pair went off, thrilled to have met Chef Sanchez.

Afterwards, the chef said "We were just talking about that. You know, chefs are very different than like an actor or a musician or an athlete. We're relatable. I can't dunk a ball like LeBron or sing a song, but you can make my chicken recipe."

"In one's career, you start to take a real big inventory of what you've accomplished and what you have. With Quaker State Motor Oil, what we're doing here, allows me to give back and to continue to sort of feed my interests which are cars. I love cars. I have old cars. I have a '64 Bellaire, a '68 Lincoln, I have a '66 Bug. I love the idea of adventure and I love the idea of being prepared. Having Quaker State Motor Oil on your side, that's awesome."

He continued, "My ''64 Bellaire-I haven't figured out what I want to do with it, yet. I maybe want to drop it and do a lowrider, 'cause it's the same thing as an Impala, but an Impala is $30,000 more expensive. And you know in New Orleans, we are the pothole capital of the world, so..."

On the subject of cars, we wrapped up our interview, though we had so much more to ask. We suggested he stop by the Art Car Museum and investigate some of the lowrider car clubs and the slab culture in Houston.
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Chefs David Guerrero and Aaron Sanchez pose in the ceviche bar.
Photo by Fresh MGMT
As fans began to surround us, Sanchez said that maybe he would make a return visit to Houston to do something more about cars. "And you know what kind of motor oil I use, " he added cheekily.

Then, he was off to pose for photos before making ceviche clasico with Chef Guerrero who planned to showcase not only his Ecuadorian cuisine, but also the influences of Argentina, Venezuela  and even Japan (via Peru) on his restaurant's menu.

For those wanting to see Chef Sanchez's road trip with Quaker State, information can be found on his Instagram page or Tik Tok account. His visit with Chef Guerrero at Andes Cafe is still under production.