You probably recognize award-winning chef Aarón Sanchez from his costarring roles on Chopped and Chopped Jr., his showstopping tie with Masaharu Morimoto on Iron Chef America or his latest role alongside Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich and Christina Tosi on MasterChef. And while the chef can clearly cook a whole host of mouthwatering cuisines, it's his flair for traditional Mexican fare that put him on the map. We spoke with him about what he keeps his fridge stocked with, why whale blubber isn't high on his list of cuisines and how he felt about eating capybara, the world's largest rodent.
SheKnows: Tell us a little bit about what’s in your fridge.
Aarón Sanchez: I visit the farmers market fairly often and tend to pick up items to pickle. I get a lot of chilies in abundance, so I’ll take one day to just put those pickled goods in jars. You’ll often see everything from pickled ramps to pickled chilies in my fridge — and also pickled jicama and cauliflower.
I definitely have tortillas, both corn and flour. I have great Cacique cheeses, including queso fresco and cotija, delicious creams like crema Mexicana, eggs, milk, avocado and cilantro. I wrap all of my fresh herbs in paper towels and store them in plastic bags so they don’t go bad.
One thing I make sure to never put in the fridge is tomatoes because they will get mealy and mushy. They should always be left out.
SK: What about your freezer?
AS: I always have chorizo in my freezer. And you can often find sorbets in my freezer. Another thing I keep is frozen bones to make stocks — for instance, I have beef bones to make beef broths. I also have frozen shot glasses made out of cool marble, which help make the liquid stay cold for longer. And I have sauces, chili purée and mole. Mole is really great to freeze.
SK: Are there any items you always make sure to keep in stock?
AS: High-quality cheese. Growing up, my family used authentic, high-quality ingredients in the kitchen, such as Cacique's all-natural queso fresco. Its fresh, milky flavor and crumbly texture add delicious creaminess to just about any dish.
SK: What’s your go-to healthy snack?
AS: I love to have cucumber, jicama and mango with a little bit of chili powder, salt and lime.
SK: Can you give us an example of one of your favorite weeknight meals?
AS: I’m a big sucker for roasted chicken with a nice chili rub on the outside stuffed with preserved lemon, garlic and fresh herbs over salad.
SK: What would you consider the ultimate comfort food?
AS: Enchiladas with really good braised chicken or beef inside and in a nice red sauce. And of course, with some Cacique crema Mexicana and queso fresco on top.
SK: Any foods you absolutely can’t stand?
AS: There are some elements of Alaskan food that are a little rough. They eat some wild stuff — they dip food in sea oil and they eat whale blubber. I also don’t like stinky tofu or too much fish sauce on things.
SK: What’s the strangest food you have ever eaten?
AS: Cobra heart! And I’ve eaten something called a chigüire, which is also known as a capybara, the largest rodent in the world. In Columbia, they spit-roast these on the side of the road.
SK: Would you eat it again?
AS: I actually liked the rodent, but I didn’t really dig the cobra heart…
SK: What’s it like behind the scenes of MasterChef?
Well, it’s absolutely a beautiful mix of having fun, but business too. What makes MasterChef so different behind the scenes is that Gordon [Ramsay] is executive producer as well as talent. He curates every food challenge. When we are not working on camera, we are in the kitchen checking in with his team and all of the culinary people, making sure everything is tasting right and going right. We want to make sure the challenges are set up in a way that the contestants are set up for success.
Behind the scenes, there’s also a lot of downtime. A lot of time is spent in my dressing room catching up on work or reading up on the contestants.
In the morning, it’s fun because we all get makeup, and Gordon gets makeup right outside of my dressing room. I always hear him talking, usually amped up on some green juice, while I’m, like, half asleep. He always shouts, “Bebe! Hey! Salsa Inglese.” Salsa Inglese is a name for "Worcestershire sauce" in Spanish, and after I told him that, it became my nickname. We have a good time!
We have meetings in the morning in his dressing room with all the producers and crew to get dialed in. It’s very structured and professional.
SK: Is Gordon Ramsay really as tough as he comes across on TV?
AS: Gordon is wonderful. He’s someone I admire so much and look up to. He seems tough, but he has very high standards, and we should all have that. So when he does come across as tough, I think it’s a good indication that people applaud mediocrity too much here. He’s from Europe, where if you’re not first, you’re last — that’s just the difference. He got his butt kicked training as a chef, and therefore, he expects everyone to put in the same time that he did. He likes to remind everyone that this is a world premier cooking show, so he must be tough at times.
SK: What’s your favorite part of working on MasterChef?
AS: One of the best parts is working with Joe [Bastianich] and Gordon and being inspired by them. But the mentoring part of the show is the most rewarding thing. You are helping the contestants forge ideas, and for many of the contestants, this competition is the one thing they needed to go and pursue the food world as their profession. It’s a beautiful catalyst for people chasing their food dreams.
SK: As a seasoned Chopped judge and frequent competitor yourself, what is the most challenging basket ingredient you have ever seen?
AS: It has to be a combination of pork bung — google it — or duck testicles.
SK: Which other chef would you be the most nervous to compete against?
SK: Getting kids into the kitchen is something you are passionate about. What are some of your best tips for parents who want to start getting their young kids involved with cooking at home?
AS: The best thing to do is expose them as much as you can to the restaurant setting and have them join you when you eat at restaurants. Take visits to the kitchen to see what it’s all about. Take them to the farmers market and have them taste ingredients in their original states before they become composed dishes. Another idea is to peruse the supermarket with your kids and have them tell you what they like. Ask them to try something new by telling them it tastes like something they are already familiar with and enjoy eating.
SK: It’s finally fall, and that means one thing — Hatch chili season. What’s your favorite way to use Hatch chilies? Any recipes featuring them that you would like to share?
AS: Simple Hatch chili mac and cheese is one of my favorites. It has to be roasted though! Dice it up, sauté it with some onion, garlic and tomato, then mix it into a mac and cheese and enjoy. Another dish I love to do is a Hatch chili dip — like adding roasted Hatch chili to a queso fundido for an extra pop of flavor.