Chef Aarón Sánchez reveals behind-the-scenes secrets about judging cooking shows and shares his favorite recipes

Aarón Sánchez is a celebrity chef and a judge on shows like "MasterChef."FOX Image Collection via Getty Images
  • Chef Aarón Sánchez is an award-winning chef, a "MasterChef" judge, and a restaurant owner.
  • Sánchez spoke with Insider about his experience as a judge on "MasterChef," his friendship with Gordon Ramsay, his partnership with Cacique, and his best tips for cooking at home.
  • His favorite part of being a judge is getting the chance to mentor chefs who are going after their dreams, but he doesn't like having to say goodbye to them.
  • If you're looking for a good dish to make for your family at home, Sánchez recommends a big plate of cheesy nachos.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Celebrity chef Aarón Sánchez is dedicated to spreading the joy and flavor of Mexican-inspired cuisine to home cooks around the globe through his Latin American-inspired cookbooks, authentic Mexican restaurant, and his longtime partnership with Mexican food brand Cacique.

He has also been a judge and mentor to contestants on shows like Fox's "MasterChef." With decades of experience and a passion for helping others, Sánchez told Insider that "it's very gratifying to see people chase their food dreams."

Chef Sánchez also spoke with Insider about his experience as a judge on "MasterChef," his friendship with Gordon Ramsay, his top home-cooking tips, and how fans can help support the restaurant industry during the coronavirus pandemic.Advertisement

Insider: As a chef, what is your favorite recipe to make at home?

Aarón Sánchez: I like to do things that are easy to share with my family, like my cheesy nachos, which are always a hit … The cool thing about nachos is that you can be very creative with the combination of toppings and it's a great place to use things that you have leftover.

It's a very all-encompassing kind of dish that allows you to be very resourceful and utilize ingredients alongside a couple of staple items.
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What are some ways home cooks can elevate their dishes, like nachos, to restaurant quality?

Sánchez: I think the idea is to try and bring in that big flavor we experience when eating out into the home ... It really starts with fantastic, authentic, high-quality ingredients. That's why I partner with Cacique, one of the country's leading Mexican food brands. They have some of the best ingredients for nachos … they're really what gives the nachos a lot of flavor.Advertisement

We're talking the Cacique ranchero queso fresco, some chorizo. They have this wonderful Mexican-style queso dip that you can also put on top of your nachos, and then finish with some beautiful crema Mexicana, which is a table cream.

Then you can add whatever garnishes you like — salsas, radishes, cilantro, the good stuff.

Speaking of food, our readers are big fans of cooking shows. Could you give us some behind-the-scenes insights about your experience judging on "MasterChef?"Advertisement

Sánchez: First of all, me, Gordon [Ramsay], and Joe [Bastianich] get along really well. We have fun on set.

I don't know if a lot of people know that Gordon is a real big practical joker. He loves to have fun and poke fun at us.

But what really makes the show so special, and what people don't realize, is that Gordon is an executive producer on the series. So you have one of the most decorated chefs anywhere in the world controlling the creative process on the show, and making sure it's authentic and as close to restaurant quality as we can get in a "MasterChef" kitchen capacity.Advertisement

Gordon curates challenges and makes sure we're going in the right direction ... I think that's really important.

Gordon Ramsay, Christina Tosi, Joe Bastianich and Aarón Sánchez on "MasterChef."Greg Gayne / FOX

What's your favorite part of being a judge on the show?Advertisement

Sánchez: I think, for me, getting a chance to mentor is what makes it amazing. The fact that, whether you win the whole competition or not, this experience is what can give you that confidence to do this for a living.

I love being a part of that. I love bringing people up. What is the most difficult part of being a judge?Advertisement

Sánchez: Saying goodbye to people. After you form a bond with them in a contestant/judge relationship … you're endeared to them. They have a bad day, and then they have to go home. That's the hardest part.

Aarón Sánchez enjoys meeting passionate chefs on "MasterChef."Greg Gayne/Fox

We hear that food is often cold by the time it gets to cooking-show judges. Is that true? What is the judging process really like? Advertisement

Sánchez: We taste everything hot.

As soon as we are done with, let's say a 60-minute cook, and we say, "That's it! 10, nine, eight … hands in the air!" As soon as that happens, all of the contestants are removed from the kitchen and we taste everything hot.

Every element, every [individual] component in its right state. That ensures that we're doing the right thing ... there are many different mechanisms that make sure we're doing everything legally and fairly. Advertisement

So the judging that we see on the show where everything is plated and presented for filming, that would be your second time tasting that dish?

Sánchez: Yeah, but really … for all intents and purposes, it's the first time we've tasted it in its entirety. Before, we're just tasting different elements of it.

What is your approach when it comes to judging?Advertisement

Sánchez: I'm very tough on people when they make silly mistakes or lazy mistakes. If you just take your time and work within your ability then I applaud that. I don't applaud lazy decision making.

What would you categorize as lazy decision making? Sánchez: I'll give you an example. If we ask [the contestants] to make a dish that speaks to who they are and they do a roasted piece of meat, mashed potatoes, green beans, and that's it … that's lazy to me. There's nothing creative about that.Advertisement

When you do something so basic, you're not pushing yourself.

Aarón Sánchez likes to judge dishes that have a balance of flavors as well as cultural significance.FOX

When you're judging, what do you look for in the perfect dish? Advertisement

Sánchez: Something that has some cultural reference. I also make sure it has good acid, good heat, good texture, and everything's properly seasoned.

What is the most difficult kind of food to judge?

Sánchez: Everything is on an equal playing field, no matter what ... I'm very well-versed on foods from all over the world — I've cooked in many different styles of restaurants [and] I've traveled a lot.Advertisement

There are ways things should be cooked and ways things shouldn't be cooked. So as long as the contestant does a good job explaining their dish, then we can capture the essence of their dish and judge it correctly.

Is there any particular ingredient or dish that you don't enjoy eating?

Sánchez: I'm not a fan of green bell peppers … [they are] not one of my favorite things. Advertisement

And lastly, the restaurant community has faced many challenges during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. How can people help support the industry right now?

Sánchez: We're doing as good as we can, but us in the restaurant business have been hit very hard. [To help, people can] get involved with the IRC (Independent Restaurant Coalition). They have a whole list of different outlets that people can participate in, donate to, and repost on their social media to raise more awareness.Advertisement

You can also go to LeeInitiative.org … A good friend of mine, Chef Edward Lee out of Louisville, Kentucky, has partnered with chefs to do relief kitchens all over the country so people from the restaurant industry can go in and receive a free meal package. He's doing some really beautiful work.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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