National Hispanic Heritage Month has officially commenced. As Sept. 15 marks the anniversary of independence for several Latin American countries, the United States begins a monthlong celebration of Hispanic cultures and histories on this date. These weeks are a time to celebrate the many gifts that Hispanic cultures have given us, so it is only fitting that we take a moment to think about their culinary impact.
To give Latin American cooking its due, we discussed National Hispanic Heritage Month with celebrated chef Aarón Sanchez. Star of Food Network’s hit series Chopped and Heat Seekers, Sanchez is the executive chef and owner of New York City’s Centrico restaurant and Kansas City’s Mestizo. As the son of legendary cooking authority Zarela Martinez, Sanchez was exposed to the art of Latin American cooking from a very young age. Today, he fuses the traditional cooking he learned from his mother with modern techniques and presentations to create groundbreaking contemporary cooking. Sanchez celebrates his Hispanic heritage on a daily basis through his work and his cooking, so we sat down with him to discuss his recipes, Latin American cooking, simple cooking, and everything in between.
The Daily Meal: Where and when did you fall in love with cooking?
Aarón Sanchez: I’ve always been around cooking, but it all clicked for me when I went to New Orleans for the first time and started working under chef Paul Prudhomme. I fell in love with the vibrancy of the food and the culture.
TDM: We’ve read in New York Magazine that you’re known for transforming the familiar; in what ways have you done this when it comes to ingredients and technique in cooking?
AS: My approach is taking traditional dishes and flavors and elevating them using contemporary techniques and presentation. For example, I make mole fritters instead of just serving mole on the side. It can also be as simple as the presentation of the dish, [such as] removing the rice and beans from the plate and serving them separately.
TDM: What do you think is the most important thing to remember when cooking modern Latin American cuisine as opposed to traditional?
AS: With modern Latin American cuisine, you want to keep the core elements and flavors intact, but put a spin on the creation and presentation of the dish.
TDM: What key element distinguishes modern Latin American cuisine from the more traditional style in your mind?
AS: For me, it’s about the time it takes to prepare a dish. Modern food is what you eat out, and it’s prepared in a much shorter time period than traditional food typically takes. Traditional cooking is what you have at home with your family; it’s what the family has been working to create all day. There’s never any rushing with traditional food.
TDM: We have a lot of home cooks that often think that modern Latin American cooking is too difficult or complicated. What are some useful tips you can give them that will help them tackle their fears in their kitchens?
AS: The most important thing is to never be afraid to try something new. A lot of techniques that sound difficult really aren’t when you try them yourself. You should start with the basics and build your skills, as you feel comfortable. There are a lot of recipes you can make using simple ingredients and techniques. That’s what I do with my book, Simple Food, Big Flavors. I start with a base sauce and build out recipes from there.
TDM: What are a few easy-to-find ingredients that come to mind when you think of Latin American cooking?
AS: Chipotles, tomatillos, plantains, fresh coconuts — these are all readily found ingredients that I use all the time.