The Making of a Celebrity Chef: Aarón Sánchez
Aarón Sánchez writes about his cooking roots in his new book, “Where I Come From: Life Lessons from a Latino Chef.”
Today, the New York restaurant scene is nothing like it was for us. Rents have made it nearly impossible for independent operators to risk investing in a small spot. More often, they need the backing of some major restaurant group, and bootstrapping your own place has mostly become a thing of the past. But we were able to make Paladar into a reality on a shoestring. We financed and built it out for about a hundred grand. We had four thousand square feet and eighty seats for $4,200 a month—a number that would probably make small business owners in that area weep today. My contribution was sweat, blood, and skill in the kitchen.
Before I could cook a single carne asada, though, I was helping Eamon [Furlong] with the construction so we could be as economically conservative as possible. No one was consulting on the design side—no ordering fancy fixtures imported from Europe, no concern for whether our tables were strategically placed for optimal Instagram lighting. This was a totally traditional kind of place. Decisions were all designed to make it as easy as possible for us to do the best job we could for the least overhead. We would open for dinner during the week, and brunch Saturday and Sunday. We were cash only. We’d have a small, tight staff. Anything we could accomplish on our own, we did, with me in the kitchen and Eamon on bar.
The aesthetic was super-funky, Lower East Side kitschy-chic, and Eamon was putting his art skills to use for every element. He was handy and resourceful, and he knew how to use simple, inexpensive materials to make big splashes. He found fabric for vintage Latin curtains with a pattern of banana and mango and cut pieces of it to put on the tabletops, which he covered with liquid plastic. With so many small touches, he turned what someone might consider junk into an eye-catching fixture or piece of furniture.
When it came time to turn on the stoves, I was raring to go. Creatively, I was in the zone, and it wasn’t hard to find inspiration. New York’s dining scene was en fuego, and the Lower East Side felt like the epicenter. It was eclectic, full of weird, quirky people and diners who were fully willing to embrace more artistic, but honest, cuisine. When I wasn’t cooking, I was out there eating it all up. I spent more evenings than I can count at Prune, where Gabrielle Hamilton was showing the world that simple, rustic cooking in an authentic, no-bullshit kind of space could capture the hearts of guests just craving a spot that felt like home. Around the corner from Paladar, another little restaurant called wd~50 had opened up. It was named after the address (50 Clinton Street), and its chef ’s initials, a young dude named Wylie Dufresne. I sat at the bar many nights and watched diners come in and claim reservations they’d waited months for, so they could taste Wylie’s revolutionary food. I was witnessing the beginnings of a movement known as molecular gastronomy, a whole new frontier, and I was just as awed by his brilliance whether I was tasting his take on “bagels and lox” or the deconstructed eggs Benedict that set the culinary world on fire.
On Saturday mornings, I would get up first thing and hit the Union Square Greenmarket. It was like a convention of the biggest culinary stars in the city and was the first time I really started to see and feel part of a chef community. We all ran into one another, talked about what was new and exciting, swapped ideas and stories about restaurant life. It was also my first experience connecting with growers and producers, getting up close and personal with the product and having them be able to educate me on the spot about where something came from, the best methods of preparation, and care. Prior to that, I’d always ordered stuff from a big purveyor that delivered stuff to the restaurant in giant boxes and bags, handed over by disinterested delivery dudes. There was nothing romantic or noble about that, but at the market, I finally felt like I was connecting with my food, helping out the little guy, and improving my understanding of ingredients.
I met Colin Alevras, the chef at a restaurant in Nolita called The Tasting Room, and the guy was a total market nut. He was the one who really started to explain how things worked to me. He had this tiny kitchen and made a new menu every day. That kind of thinking is what today’s publicists and media refer to as “market-driven.” But what Colin was doing wasn’t about trends or buzz; it was just how he thought about cooking—that freshness and less fussing and manipulation made the best meal—which was still really unusual and progressive for the time. He was a knowledgeable and generous guy, and any time I had a question about something I leaned on him.
When I went back to Paladar, I tinkered with new dishes based on whatever I picked up that day. It was a small, stripped-down operation that felt honest and true, and that restaurant was a rebirth for me. The menu was a reflection of so many things I’d picked up over the years, not just in the Latin kitchens of Patria and Erizo, but the European and Asian ones, too. At the heart of it, the cuisine was pan-Latin bistro food, but I ruled nothing out—I wanted to cook without limits. I just wanted to make what was exciting to me, and I paid attention to what my diners and cooks responded to.
I made beef empanadas with a smoked-tomato pico de gallo. I did whole grilled sirloin with yuca frita and bitter greens salad with chimichurri. I did sofrito-stuffed pork chop with grapefruit mojo—a sauce made with tons of crispy garlic, grapefruit segments, and chiles—over a Cuban yam puree. I steamed mussels with smoked chipotle broth. Customers went wild for the coconut seafood stew. We had a conch dish: big slivers of sautéed, tenderized conch, served up over salt, which was then flambéed with rum. They were dishes and presentations that, at the time, were pretty fucking avant-garde. And I loved every minute coming up with them.
I went into the Paladar opening with a thicker skin, mentally preparing myself for whatever reviewers might have to say. I couldn’t let that bother me now—this was my restaurant, and I couldn’t fall apart over a bad review. Fortunately, I didn’t have to worry. Critical praise came early and often for us. New York magazine called Paladar “a colorful, lively circus of a restaurant that’s equal parts serious cooking and serious partying.” Then I had my redemption in the New York Times, when Eric Asimov featured us in his “$25 and Under” column, reporting that our food was “deft and controlled.” He went on to write that, regarding the “fad” of Nuevo Latino cuisine, “as long as Paladar and a few other solid restaurants continue to employ the Nuevo Latino vernacular in a sound and appealing way, it’s clear that it was deeper than a passing fancy,” he wrote. To me, the idea that what we were doing at our restaurant was solidifying this kind of food as a formidable, serious cuisine was a compliment far more rewarding than praise for any one dish.
I was thrilled with the critical reception, but it was the diners who really got me fired up. They came from all over. The Lower East Side wasn’t exactly a destination neighborhood in those days, so a lot of our patrons were regulars who lived in the area and returned often, sometimes once a week, some of them even every day.
It was so gratifying and humbling to see that these people were interested in what I was cooking, enough to bring their friends and family and spend money on our food—something I never took for granted—but also that Latin cuisine was not just some exotic, try-it-and-check-it-off-the-list kind of thing for them. Diners were incorporating it into their daily lives; they craved and came back for these dishes, and it was so cool to know that I could directly credit people I personally knew for making that possible. People like my mom. And Douglas [Rodriguez]. They blazed a trail that was now wide open for me to build upon, and it was my turn to take those next steps down the path. Thanks to their work, diners’ palates were primed and ready for fiery flavors and complex, layered dishes beyond the “margarita mill” staples of tacos and burritos. They were game for just about anything I dared to put on the menu. Our customers supported me, and I was so fulfilled every service, watching as people I’d come to think of as family enjoyed the food we cooked for them.
Excerpted from Where I Come From: Life Lessons from a Latino Chef. Copyright © 2019 by Aaron Sanchez. Used with permission of the publisher, Abrams Press. All rights reserved.