Season 1 Episode 21
Aarón Sánchez, celebrity chefMastering the culinary world with the mind of an ever-evolving entrepreneur

Aarón Sánchez is a celebrity chef, cookbook author and TV personality. He discusses some of the entrepreneurial savvy he’s gained over the years, the power of constant reinvention and how to establish a solid personal brand. The bilingual chef also highlights Spanish-speaking opportunities and how speaking additional languages can help you augment your career.

Aarón Sánchez is a multifaceted celebrity chef, restaurateur, TV personality and cookbook author. He guides us through his fresh take on building a personal brand and how he uses Spanish to expand deals and find new opportunities.

In this episode of The Entrepreneur’s Studio, Aarón also breaks down the power of constant reinvention and why it’s a great idea to introduce old concepts to new audiences.

This is part two of our full interview with Aarón Sánchez. Check out part one of the interview if you’d like to catch up before this episode.

Below is an edited transcript of the conversation. In the episode, you’ll hear about:

  1. Building a personal brand
  2. Supercharging growth through multilingual deals
  3. Reinventing yourself and trying new things
  4. Rapid-fire questions

Building a personal brand

Chris: Something that we were talking about is the [intellectual property] IP. You’ve got a personal brand.

Aarón: Yeah.

Chris: How in the heck did you get on TV?

Aarón: That’s a good question. We were talking about what the perception is and how you are perceived, and my admiration for Gordon and how he’s navigated his career.

Gordon, for example, he’s maintained three Michelin stars for 20 years in England.

Chris: It’s amazing.

Aarón: You know how hard it is? You’re reviewed twice a year by the inspectors. You’ve got to keep that standard and that quality at an all-time high, and be consistent and diligent. I just find that fascinating then.

But he’s a chef first, then he’s an entrepreneur, then he’s a TV person, and then he’s like all these different things. But he’s a chef and that’s what I am. My dream was always to have my own restaurant. I wanted to be the captain of my ship, I wanted to cook the food that spoke to me, I wanted to make people happy through my craft and have others grow with me and have opportunities to be successful. That was a goal.

Television came knocking on my door because that was really, I’m a good-looking, young chef at the time. Latin food was starting to get a bigger understanding and appreciation. Food Network started coming back in its infancy, and I was brought in initially to do a Cinco de Mayo. They say Mayo, they wouldn’t even say Mayo, it’s like Cinco de Mayo Taco Party or Mexican Christmas, and I would do these little appearances on the network initially, and they were like, “Man, you’re well spoken, you’re good looking, you’re talented.”

And then I would be asked to do another show, and it kind of just started snowballing like that, and then I still do this. I only wanted to do television, not to promote myself or any of that, but to have people come to my restaurant. I wanted to use it as a marketing tool.

Now, it’s changed so much because now I’m like this cultural ambassador for Latinos and cooks. Now, my mission, and the presence on television is so much more different, but initially, was just to get people to come into the restaurant.

I was part of the celebrity chef launch. It was right there. I remember Food Network was on 44th Street and 6th Avenue, they were in a building like this. Can you imagine? I had to bring all my prep with me from the restaurant. I had everything in these little plastic containers, I’m bringing this up in a taxi. I’m trying to get up there and I’m cooking this dish and the damn fire alarm is going off because they don’t have the proper venting because you’re not supposed to cook in a corporate building like that. All that kind of stuff.

We just didn’t really know what we were doing at that time. I remember going into the studio and seeing all the set pieces all tucked into this corner because they literally just had one big room that we were doing all the shows in.

From there, it started coming, and other shows were coming. I’ve been doing television for 24 years, 23 years. I’ve been on television a long time. I never thought that that was going to be such a big part of my life. I really didn’t. I thought I’d fall out of favor or some other hotshot, young chef is going to come here, kind of bump me off or whatever. And it hasn’t happened.

Chris: Why do you think that is?

Aarón: Because I continue to redefine myself. I continue to find things that motivate me and inspire me. So when I come in, I’m not the same trick pony. I’m coming in with a new love or a new facet of something that I just took a trip to Mexico, and I’m really excited about this regional food from Michoacán, or I’ve just been to Peru and I was blown away with the ceviche master, Javier Wong, and he taught me how to do it.

I’m always constantly trying to seek out new things or sometimes old things, but bringing them to a new audience.

Chris: Reinvention and reintroduction.

Aarón: That’s kind of how I’ve continued to stay relevant. Also, my style is so unique. Television is really interesting because it will expose you for better or for worse. If you’re a good person, you’ll come across that way. If you’re a [jerk], you’re going to be [portrayed as a jerk]. It’s going to come out.

Chris: Garbage in, garbage out, apparently. Haha.

Aarón: Absolutely. But it’s been fun. I’ve got a lot of opportunities in life because I’ve been able to do television and people admire what I do. But I’m always of that mindset that I have to be prepared for it not to be part of my life because it’s kind of fickle, man.

You’re at the mercy of other people making decisions about you, and sometimes that freaks me out because I like to control what we’re doing. I’m pitching a show right now to multiple networks, and it’s one of the shows I’m really excited about making, and I’ve been turned down by four networks already. And I’m thinking, and I’m overlooking the deck, and I’m talking to our team and I’m like, “What’s wrong? Why is this not getting bought?” And then they’re like, “Look, it’s the end of the year, people don’t have their budgets yet. People are not pulling the trigger on food shows. It’s a saturated genre right now,” or whatever it is. And I have to come to grips with that.

But then I’m hellbent on doing it because when I want to get something, I go get it.

Chris: That’s good.

Aarón: I wanted to get that MasterChef job, the one I have now. I wanted that job badly and I got it. You have to be like that in life. You have to have somebody that you look up to, that you want to get to. In business, especially if you’re an entrepreneur, you have to have that. Unless you’re just working aimlessly without direction, you don’t know where you want to be.

Some people are content with what they have, and that’s OK, too. But me, I have this insatiable need to be better, and to influence others, and help our team grow. It’s our team. I hate when people say “my team.” People are not objects. I hate when people say that. Our team, we’re all in this together, and we’re all striving for the same goal, and that’s making people happy through food.The wording and how you have the structure of the team is so important. It’s a big reason why I’m allowed to be successful.

But you know what’s so funny in the restaurant business? My mom always had [bad] coffee at her restaurant. People would say it all the time, “Let’s work hard on this.” So my mom, she had a restaurant for 30 years. It was like the bastion of all Mexican cuisine in New York. And people would come and just rave about the food. We used to have all of these crazy celebrities like Anthony Quinn, Robert Palmer was a good friend of my mom, Paul Newman. Paul Newman was probably about 70 years old and he had 25-year-old women charging him. We had to push people back at his age because that’s Paul Newman, man.

Chris: Yeah.

Aarón: So anyway, people would always come in, love the food, rave about it, and then they go, “You have horrible coffee. Horrible [bad] coffee.” And then she did an interview once and she was like: “Well, what’s the story with the coffee? I have horrible, [bad] coffee because I want people to get up and get out. And I need that table.” Talk about an entrepreneur.

Chris: It’s brilliant.

Aarón: Yeah. That table is real estate. And what people don’t realize is that as an entrepreneur, your restaurant, everything is precious. Everything has a value to it.

Chris: Yes.

Aarón: And I think that gets lost on people. And how the business has changed. I remember sitting on this panel and it was one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever been part of. There was a gentleman named George Lang, a very famous, super elegant, older guy who was the owner of Café des Artistes, which was one of the venerable, sort of French-inspired, very elegant restaurants on the Upper West Side.

And he called everybody darling. And we asked him, “So, Mr. Lang, what is your opinion on the current restaurant scene in New York and in general?” And he goes, “Darling, the restaurant scene has gone the way of prostitution. It’s full of amateurs.” Like that. He said that. And everyone was like…[in shocked silence]. But the guy’s like 75 years old, so no one’s going to tell him anything.

Chris: Yeah.

Aarón: I’m like, kind of inappropriate—

Chris: Yeah. Really not a good analogy.

Aarón: Yeah. And we’re all, “OK.” Yeah. So my mom kind of would do little tricks like that. You know what I mean? And then she would have the downstairs in a restaurant with no reservations upstairs. She took them and she would tell people, “Look, I can give you a table, but I need it back in 48 minutes.” And people would do it.

Chris: Wow.

Aarón: You can’t do that anymore.

Chris: No. No.

Aarón: People will write a Yelp of you and kill you. You know what I mean?

Chris: Yeah. Yeah, they will.

Aarón: But anyway, that’s just kind of how far things have come. You know what I mean?

Supercharging growth through multilingual deals

Chris: Yeah. And I think one of the things that has been really interesting is like, just even your mother and the heritage that you have, not only with cultural heritage, but just the heritage that you have with being a restaurateur with your mom and all that kind of stuff. And then one of the things that I have thought has been really interesting is this phrase that you have of, “Lose your tongue, lose your country.”

Aarón: Yeah.

Chris: Right? So tell us about where that comes from and how are you employing that?

Aarón: Yeah. Well, in Spanish, it’s, “cuando pierdes tu lengua, pierdes tu patria.” You lose your country when you lose your tongue. And right now, being Latino is very popular. It’s in style. It’s in vogue right now. And I feel like everyone’s claiming their heritage and [saying] “I’m a Latino, and I’m this,” but you don’t speak a lick of Spanish. So there’s always a huge disconnect when you go back to Latin America and you try to claim and rescue your roots and get back to that place that obviously is very important to you that you want to discover and figure out more about. But somewhere along the way you lost your language. So you’ve lost one of the most intimate parts of getting to know that part of yourself.

And I think it’s endemic with a lot of generational Latinos because what’s ended up happening is that you get first-generation Latinos, or their parents immigrated, and then they want to assimilate. So one of the ways to do that is to not have your kids viewed as immigrants. So that’s why Spanish isn’t taught a lot at homes from certain generations because the parents wanted to separate themselves and raise American kids rather than Mexican kids or whoever. So that has changed now because now everybody wants to kind of rescue their roots.

And now first-generation Latinos are really all about that. But I kept up with my Spanish because my mom only spoke Spanish at home and I would constantly go back and visit with family where we only spoke Spanish. And then now I’ve kept up with it because I have friends who I speak in Spanish with every day. I keep up with it. I’ve worked in kitchens my whole life. So what the hell do you think we’re speaking in kitchens? You know? Spanish.

Chris: Yeah.

Aarón: So it’s like all of that has helped me have that connectivity. And how it also influences the entrepreneur side of me is that I’ve gotten so many opportunities to do business because I’ve kept up with my Spanish. So if a brand solicits me for instance, and they say, “OK, Bounty.” They want me to do a campaign with Bounty. And then we’ll come and say, “OK, I’ll do it for this, but I need Spanish.” We’ll do the same marketing campaign in Spanish. So I get paid twice, once in English and once in Spanish. See what I’m saying?

Chris: Brilliant.

Aarón: So that’s how important it is because you’re literally leaving money and you’re leaving opportunities on the table just because you didn’t keep up with your Spanish. And my son who’s 11, lives in LA. His mom and I put him into an immersion school for the first six, seven years. You know? So he was like eight and he just couldn’t take to the language so we had to pull him out.

Chris: Wow.

Aarón: So that’s disappointing to me because he’s literally going to miss out.

Chris: That’s your thing. Yeah.

Aarón: Yeah. He’s going to miss out on stuff. You know? And especially, think about it. When he goes back to Mexico to visit with his cousins and everyone’s speaking Spanish and then feels left out, and then he ends up not liking going to Mexico because he’s not vibing with his family.

Chris: Yeah. He feels like a second-class citizen or an outsider. Yeah.

Aarón: Yeah. And it’s very important. I’m a co-owner of a production company called Cocina where we create Latin content. OK? So we post recipes on social media but we also create content. So I’m an executive producer of my shows. That’s like the evolution of talent. When you’re on TV, you’ve done this for as long as I have, I know what to do when it comes to producing a show. I know how to put cameras in positions now, I know how to write a script. I know how to do all that now. And that’s what’s exciting for me. Identifying new Latin talent and then having them grow their brand with the help of me and my experience. And that’s really rewarding to me. You know what I mean?

Chris: Yeah. That’s good. Yeah, for sure.

Aarón: And that’s why when you charge, you always have a high value of what you’re worth. You know what I’m saying? And chefs, especially as artists, we always undermine ourselves because we don’t have a good grasp about what we’re worth. I’ll give you an example. I turned down a lot of $100,000 deals. You know why? Well look, check it out. So after I pay my agent 15%, 20%, the government takes 40 cents out of every dollar I make. So that $100,000 is really only $50,000. You know what I’m saying?

Chris: Yep. Yep.

Aarón: And then am I going to really want to work that hard for just that? You know what I’m saying?

Chris: Yeah.

Aarón: And you got to make those decisions. And that’s why it’s so important to have a day rate, because I tell people all the time. They’re like, “How do I charge what?” Figure out what your day rate is. So when you get approached, you do campaigns or you get approached to do some business and work with them, you know how to work backwards.

Chris: Yeah.

Aarón: You say, “My day is worth this. And this amount of work that you’re asking me to do is going to take this much. So that’s what I charge.”

Chris: Yeah. That’s good.

Aarón: You know what I mean? Just as a piece of advice to people out there trying to figure out how to, when you’re negotiating in the contract about your work, find your day rate. That’s what I always tell people. Find your day rate. What are you worth?

Chris: Yeah. Well, being an author, you do a lot of things. Right?

Aarón: Yeah.

Reinventing yourself and trying new things

Chris: You do a lot of things. You’re a restaurateur for a number of concepts. Then you’re on TV, and you’ve been there for 24 years. And now you’ve got the author thing going. So what was the reason that you said, “I’m going to write this book”?

Aarón: Well, I’ve written three books. And my mom actually has written three books. And my grandmother wrote a book. So I’m actually a third-generation cookbook author, which is—

Chris: Oh my gosh.

Aarón: Which is crazy. Right? And I initially started with the idea of just cataloging the recipes and having a point of view and having something that’s tangible that someone can walk away with and recreate at home. I love that idea of a book because I cook out of books. I have a huge library. And I love to get a book and not necessarily follow the recipe per se, but just get inspiration from it. I’ll glance over it. But I just think it’s interesting to do that.

So I did my first book, “La Comida del Barrio,” which is this deep dive into Latin neighborhoods across the country. Then my second book was more just about my flavor bases and recipes I’ve developed over my career. And then my latest book, “Where I Come From: Life Lessons From a Latino Chef,” is really my love letter to my mentors, to my story, to me and my mom and our family and our culture, and just letting this be an inspirational tale but also a cautionary tale. I’ve had to go through a lot of roadblocks and a lot of obstacles in my life to get to where I’m at now. And it’s a constant process of betterment and of evolution, of growth. You know? I wanted this book to sort of be a representation of all the things I’ve been through.

Chris: Yeah. So facing all those challenges. I always say everybody’s got their signature, their core message. Right? You talked about depression earlier and you talked about somebody struggling with mental health. What is sort of like how your life’s message has been crystallized, maybe distilled into like a couple of things that you would say to those people?

Aarón: Yeah, that’s a great question. First of all, it’s OK. I tell people don’t be ashamed of your situation. You know what I’m saying?

Chris: Yeah.

Aarón: And I think there’s a lot of shame associated with mental health especially because you feel like you’re kind of a failure. You’re not a happy person and everyone around you is happy. Your wiring isn’t right. You know what I mean? And I remember when I went through that, there’s such a hopelessness and despair that you feel that you’re letting all these amazing experiences go by you and you have no appreciation for them.

Chris: Oh wow.

Aarón: And that’s when it was rough. I remember like I didn’t want to go out. And I wasn’t drinking and I wasn’t going out and socializing and sort of disconnecting from the business or letting everything go. I was just wound up and I felt like there was something missing every day.

Chris: Oh wow.

Aarón: And that’s a big part of depression is that you feel something’s missing. I felt like I was off. You know? I wasn’t appreciating all these cool things I was doing or even wanting to grow or get better. I just was kind of languishing. You know what I mean? And then when I started seeing the therapist and getting some medicine and kind of understanding what was wrong, it really helped. And it helped me to be more productive. And just that understanding that there are a lot of people that deal with it. You know? Being a chef is an extremely stressful job.

Chris: Yes.

Aarón: And then you couple that with a little bit of depression and you can see how people can go over the edge.

Chris: Yeah. That’s right.

Aarón: So I just tell people, “Look man, keep your eye on the prize. It’s totally normal. There’s a lot of places you can find help and know that I’m out there supporting you. And I’ve been through it.” You know? And it’s always a constant struggle.

Chris: Not alone.

Aarón: Yeah. And it’s a struggle. It’s like something that’s always around the corner. So you kind of have to keep an eye on it. You know? Like anything else. Well, man, I can get back there if something catastrophic happens.

Chris: Yeah, yeah. You have to find a way to stay present. That’s the big takeaway that I took from you as well, is there’s always awesome things going on. And if you’re looking towards the next thing or you’re regretting something that happened in the past, you’ve got something to hold you back, you’re missing out on what’s happening.

Aarón: Exactly. I always say that it’s not about where you’ve been or even now sometimes, it’s about where you want to go, where you want to be. Like, what do you want to be? Because I watch these things on Warren Buffett. And he always says, he goes, “You know what? Everybody in this room has the ability to do what I do and more. But if that doesn’t happen, it’s because you got in your own way.”

Chris: Wow.

Aarón: You know what I’m saying? And you can’t get in your own way. You have to be able to be liberated from yourself and make failure your friend. It’s OK to fail. You know?

Chris: And fail fast.

Aarón: Yeah. And also, when you’re out here and we’re out here working, getting better, being stronger, there’s somebody else that’s [messing] around and not taking those things seriously, and you and I are getting better. So when you’re messing around and you’re not doing that, think about someone else taking what you could potentially have.

Chris: That’s good.

Aarón: That’s how I think. I think someone’s going to take what I got or someone’s going to get to it before I do and I’m going to be upset when that happens.

Chris: That’s that competitive edge too.

Aarón: Yeah.

Chris: Well, I think I have really been impressed with just how you look at life, how you look at your career, and then how willing to help others that you are. I just think, to all the listeners, it’s one of those things that we’re just so thankful to have people like you who have been through it, whoa are willing to share, willing to give back.

Aarón: Thank you.

Rapid-fire questions

Chris: And it’s been freaking awesome to sit down and have a conversation with you. But I do have some rapid-fire questions to ask you.

Aarón: Oh, I love that. I love rapid fire.

Chris: Ready?

Aarón: Yes, sir. Let’s go.

Chris: All right. All right. What’s your favorite tattoo? I see that you have a few.

Aarón: My son. There’s a baby rattle that I have and it’s actually his birthday.

Chris: Oh, that’s awesome.

Aarón: Yep.

Chris: All right. Favorite artist or music to cook to?

Aarón: Favorite artist to cook to? Well, I love Lenny Kravitz. I’m a huge fan. I love Amos Lee and a bunch of Mexican music. But I usually cook to ranchera music and mariachi.

Chris: OK. All right. I’m in New Orleans for one day, for 24 hours. Where am I going to eat?

Aarón: Oh, you’re coming to my restaurant for sure.

Chris: All right. That sounds good.

Aarón: And then you can go to Bacchanal [Fine Wine & Spirits] and listen to a little show and have some beautiful wine in an outdoor patio setting. I think that’s an absolute must.

Chris: OK. All right. What’s your most memorable dish that you’ve ever tasted on TV?

Aarón: Most memorable dish I’ve ever tasted on TV? Oh, that’s a good one. I think a couple seasons ago we had a young lady who was from Burma, which was I guess with Myanmar. Myanmar? Yeah. And then she made us this laksa, which is kind of like this curry-based soup, that was so freaking amazing. And she cooked things that I didn’t know we had in the pantry. You know? Master chef. She brought bamboo sprouts and all this kind of stuff. I was like, “What? What the hell’s going on here? I didn’t realize we had that.”

So anyway, it was great because it was a cuisine that I don’t know about. I love when I’m stumped because it’s a learning opportunity. I love when I don’t know something. It’s like that should be everyone’s goal sometimes. You know?

Chris: I love it. All right. How do you stay balanced in your life with everything you got going on?

Aarón: A great family. And my work family. I think everybody keeps me grounded. And Buddhism. I’m a Buddhist, Nichiren.

Chris: OK.

Aarón: I chant Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō and that has helped me really have perspective. And then it’s a constant battle. You know? You have to schedule personal time like you schedule work. And that’s something that I have to figure out and that I’m getting better at.

Chris: Yeah. All right. Well, what’s your biggest passion outside of food?

Aarón: My biggest passion outside of food? Probably music, tattooing, tattoos, and then travel.

Chris: OK.

Aarón: Travel is something. I travel over 200, 225 days a year. And a lot of it’s for work obviously, but I still find time to go and travel. I love it. I love exploring new cuisines. I love tasting new things and meeting new people, all that.

Chris: What’s your most memorable Gordon Ramsay saying or phrase?

Aarón: I love when he says “donut” to people like: you’re a knucklehead. Yeah. You’re a donut. He goes, “That dish looks like my dead grandfather’s big toe.” He says that sometimes. I think he said, “colonoscopy bag,” which was pretty awesome. He says bollocks a lot. So it’s basically English terminology. And I’ve gotten really savvy at it because it’s funny—

Chris: Do you pull it out on him sometimes?

Aarón: Hell yeah. But it took me three years to have the confidence because he’s my boss.

Chris: Oh yeah.

Aarón: Talking about bosses. So I have to be kind of cool about how I go about it. But it’s all good. Yeah.

Chris: All right. Well, you’ve talked about Gordon. Who’s another entrepreneur who inspires you?

Aarón: Oh, that’s a good one. Another entrepreneur who inspires me. There’s so many. God, where do I go from there? Who does multiple things but does it extremely well? Who do I really love? I mean, if you want to talk about food, I mean obviously someone like Gordon’s a fantastic entrepreneur. I love music, like I said. I love somebody like Lenny Kravitz. I brought him up a little bit because Lenny actually has a lot of different things that he’s involved with. He has a home in the Bahamas. He has a ranch in Brazil. And he’s really all about helping sustainable sort of parts of the world proliferate and making sure that the land rights are taken care of and all the eco implications are sort of kept in mind. So I really admire Lenny. I mean tremendously.

Chris: Oh, that’s so good.

Aarón: Yeah.

Chris: You mentioned something earlier. What’s next for Aarón Sanchez?

Aarón: Well, right now we’re really sort of working on a new show that’s going to have to deal with youth, which I’m really happy about. So I’m hellbent on selling this damn thing. And then creating more content for Cocina, which is my production company. And then doing a couple new restaurants and then eventually just trying to empower our team so they can continue to grow. And I also want to play a little bit more in the Spanish-speaking audience. I have Tamara who’s on my team, our team, who’s amazing. And I really want to go into that arena and sort of establish myself a little bit more in the Latino community here. Not necessarily in other Latin countries.

Chris: I love it.

Aarón: Yeah.

Chris: Well, it’s been an absolute pleasure to be able to sit down and have a conversation with you. Thanks so much for coming to the studio and for sharing everything that you did.

Aarón: Oh, absolutely. And then I have to have you on my podcast, which is called “Cooking in Mexican from A to Z” on Heritage Radio Network.

Chris: Man.

Aarón: And then you can make up something. Act like you’re an expert in Mexican food.

Chris: I’ll give it a shot.

Aarón: Yeah, yeah. Just we’ll talk—

Chris: You can make fun of me along the way.

Aarón: Yeah, just do Colorado green chili or something.

Chris: All right.

Aarón: We’ll go from there.

Chris: All right. Sounds good. Thank you, sir.

Aarón: Thank you. I appreciate you, brother.

Chris: Absolutely. Thanks for coming.

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