Aaron Sanchez embraces the heat but keeps his cool

Chopped (tv program)Food Network (tv network)

Food Network favorite Aaron Sanchez grew up the spirited son of legendary Mexican cooking authority Zarela Martinez in a household that prized independence, Latin culture and the ability to make magic in the kitchen.

But Martinez wasn't his only famous mentor. To keep her boy out of trouble while she worked during the summer, Zarela sent Aaron off to Louisiana to work in the kitchen of renowned Cajun chef and TV personality Paul Prudhomme. Sanchez is still in awe of the experience.

"Being in Chef Paul's kitchen at K-Paul's wasn't just a training ground for me -- I actually learned so many lessons about life," he says. "Paul never had children, so he treated me like a son. He taught me how to create different levels and dimensions of flavor -- he's the one guy that I still get very scared to cook for. Whenever he comes into one of my restaurants, I always get nervous and have to make sure everything's perfect."

With such talented tutors in the culinary arts, Sanchez would soon blaze a trail of his own, becoming a renowned chef and restaurateur while showing off his natural affinity for communicating the intricacies of cooking and dining in a series of Food Network guest spots and starring roles spanning almost a decade.

These days, Sanchez divides his on-air time between chasing down America's spiciest cuisine with co-host Roger Mooking on Monday's adventurous "Heat Seekers" and serving as the judge most likely to keep his cool on the Tuesday favorite "Chopped." Sanchez says it's the human-interest appeal and family-friendly nature of both ventures that he enjoys most.

"What we try to focus on on 'Heat Seekers' is to meet really interesting characters with a story to tell, and then get some insight on why they created a particular dish," he explains. "Is it a cultural dish? Is it something they grew up eating? Is it an evolution of their guests asking for more heat? And then we like to highlight the process of what happens when you eat the food -- to bring out those elements. The little bit of agitation, little bit of joy, little bit of pain, the multiple emotions that take place when you eat spicy food."

As for the "Chopped" contestants, whose cuisine and cool under pressure are equally tested in each episode, "you have no idea what their story is for them to get up to this point," Sanchez says. "It's almost like the baskets are the vehicles for us to get into these people's heads and their hearts, and it's truly remarkable."

Once he's there, Sanchez says, he makes sure he has only positive things to offer them.

"I'm a Buddhist, and it's my foundation as far the way I live my life," Sanchez explains. "One of the huge principles is to tap into everybody's 'Buddha nature' or their enlightened self. I believe everyone has the ability to be great, and when I talk to people, I want to make sure that I tap into the best parts of them. I focus on that first, and that's what I build my critiques around. It's how I would like to be critiqued, so I hope I project that same way of thinking to the people I judge."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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