For over two decades, Aarón Sánchez has been building his culinary empire—from restaurants and cookbooks to TV shows, media platforms and philanthropic work. You may recognize him today as co-star of FOX’s MasterChef and MasterChef Junior, but he wasn’t always a household name. Even before he judged culinary hopefuls on the “chopping block” in the early 2000’s on Food Network—a time when culinary TV was just gaining in popularity—Chef Aarón was following his dream to have his own restaurant and be the captain of his own ship. Not only has his hard work and determination allowed him to do what he loves every day, but he’s also helping other young chefs do the same. Through his charitable foundation, The Aarón Sánchez Scholarship Fund, he’s empowering aspiring chefs from the Latin community to pursue their culinary passions, providing recipients with mentorship and full culinary scholarships to the International Culinary Center. The result is encouraging diversity in the kitchen, something we can all get behind!
So, when Sánchez took the podium to give the keynote address for our annual commencement ceremony at Carnegie Hall, he needed no introduction. The crowd, including graduates and their families, was buzzing with excitement to hear what wisdom the acclaimed chef would impart on the future chefs, pastry chefs, sommeliers, bakers and cake designers of the industry. At the end, he left the diverse group of graduates inspired to embark on their next tasty adventure, and the audience hopeful for their bright, and delicious, futures ahead.
Whether you’re thinking about going to culinary school, just starting out in your career, or are already a seasoned professional, you’ll do well to heed his advice!
1. Follow Your Passion
“Be mindful of your culinary identity. Figure out what genre of the cooking world you want to be in early on.”
There are many ways to become successful in our industry and cultivate your love of food. “You can be a food stylist, a personal chef; you can work in food production or be a catering chef. There are so many different areas that you can pursue your love for food…Don’t feel compelled to be a restaurant chef necessarily.” While Chef remarked that it may be important to have the experience of working in a restaurant, you will find success when you follow your passion.
2. Find A Mentor
“Mentoring is the primary thing you should extract from your moment in the culinary industry.”
Sánchez shared that he was a troubled kid growing up; for him, “restaurants were my salvation…and my mentor in life, Chef Paul Prudhomme, got me right. He not only taught me lessons in the kitchen, but life lessons that I think were invaluable.” As he told this story, he implored graduates to make a list of chefs who inspire them and seek them out. These are the people who will stand up for you, recommend you for jobs, and push you to excel as the best version of yourself.
3. Go The Extra Mile
“The reason that you will get noticed in kitchens is that sadly, so many people just go through the motions and do just what they’re asked to do. If you take that extra step, come in early, engage your chef and make yourself available, you’ll get noticed. Trust me.”
People will take note when you do more than what you’re asked to do. Even if you find yourself doing something monotonous, remember that even someone like Sánchez was in the same place that you are. Take those moments to make plans for your future and trust that there is always a lesson to be learned—patience, consistency, all those things that are invaluable to be a great chef.
4. Understand Your Fear Vs. Your Potential
“Your potential, coupled with your ICC diploma, will put you in the game. You’re already in the running. Don’t be scared to live your dreams, not your fears”
There are things that might scare you, like seeking out your dream job or travelling. Don’t let these things hold you back from realizing your potential. Use your potential, and your education at ICC, to help propel you in the direction to achieve your dreams.
5. Reflect On Your Culinary Memories
“Savor every culinary moment, every trip to a place where you learn who the best cook is—take on every lesson from those people. Make sure you remember that!”
By sharing this piece of advice, Sánchez recalled how appreciative he is to remember everything that he’s done throughout his career. He’s able to look back on his life now and these incredible chef experiences, cherishing the memories and lessons learned. By using the skills that others taught him, he became a knowledgeable, respected chef. But this didn’t happen overnight. He encouraged graduates not to “rush the process, make sure you have a foundation of mentoring, a foundation of travel, and understanding of your craft.” Don’t be afraid of the repetition, take your time, you’re already ahead of the game!
6. Become A Well Rounded Person
“I thank my mom for encouraging me very early on to read the paper. Why? Because chefs tend to be boring sometimes! We talk about our industry, our food, restaurants, and my mom was very adamant about allowing us to find inspirations in other facets of art.”
By going to museums, listening to music, writing poetry, traveling, reading newspapers and learning about other cultures, Sánchez expanded his knowledge beyond the kitchen, which in turn helped to inform his cooking. He encouraged graduates to “become multi-faceted and a lover of all things beautiful and artistic.”
7. Build A Reliable Team
“People say, ‘you are the sum of your parts, you are the people you surround yourself around’, and my team has been invaluable—but I don’t say my team. I say OUR team, because people are not objects. So, when you come to that position of being in a leadership role, say OUR team, because we’re all dedicated to the common goal of being successful.”
When you have a good team surrounding you, you will be able to realize your loves and passions. As Sánchez shared his final guiding words, he remarked that there’s a difference between hospitality and service. Service is putting down a fork and taking an order; hospitality is an innate need to foresee your customer’s needs. Hospitality is bringing people joy! Build a team who shares your love for bringing people joy, because at the end of the day, that’s what the hospitality industry is all about!