Chef, author, restaurateur, TV personality, spokesperson, teacher. The titles almost match the number of Aarón’s tattoos, each representing a leg of his life’s journey.
For now, the title Aarón enjoys the most now is that of father. There in the sea of tattoos, among the face of Zapata, some Mexican art and Buddhist imagery, YUMA, the name of his infant son leaps out.
“He is my heart,” Aarón said. “Being a dad is the best title I could ever have. This experience has made me revaluate the meaning of success because nothing else really matters. Being a good parent is the only real success you can ever have.”
Aarón’s first tattoo — a lottery card of sorts that reads, “Mi Corazon En Tu Mano,” an imprint of his first heartbreak, is how it all began. “I love the permanence, how extreme it is, and the fact that it signifies your commitment to something. Tattoos also represent conquering fear because it is inherent but also very empowering when you overcome it.”
The co-star of Food Network's hit series, “Heat Seekers” and “Chopped”, Aarón is the chef/owner of New York restaraunts, Centrico and Tacombi, as well as Mestizo Restaurant in Kansas City. He is also the author of “Simple Food, Big Flavor: Unforgettable Mexican-Inspired Recipes from My Kitchen to Yours” and “La Comida del Barrio: Latin-American Cooking in the U.S.A.”
But it doesn’t stop there: Through a partnership with Fox Hispanic’s Utilísima network, he is about to launch his first show in Spanish, a television project that will bring him closer to his Latino roots than ever before.
The son of celebrated Mexican cooking authority Zarela Martinez, Aarón was born in 1976 in El Paso, Texas. Aarón’s first memories in the kitchen were of helping his mother prepare traditional Mexican foods for her thriving catering business. By 1984, the family had moved to New York, and Zarela launched the acclaimed Café Marimba.
“I didn’t do many things well when I was growing up,” he said. “I was very undisciplined, and the kitchen was the only place where I could find structure and mentoring, which are very important parts of growing up.
“So I started to cook at an early age, maybe 8 years old. I used to go to my mom’s restaurant after school and was intrigued by all of these guys cursing and being cool… I wanted to be like them. After Café Marimba, my mother opened Zarelas on 87th street. So I spent all of my childhood in restaurants.”
By his sixteenth birthday, Aarón left New York for New Orleans to take a master class with Chef Paul Prudhomme. “My mother is La Reina de la comida Mexicana, and she gave me a great foundation. My father also had a business, so I guess it would have been logical for me to work with them, but I felt the need to stand alone and be my own man. So at 16, I decided to leave and see what I could do for myself. Working with Chef Prudhomme was one of the best experiences of my life, and he was a huge influence and really it was in his kitchen that I got the bug to do this. After the course, I went back to work for him.
“I was then 18, and I was prepping at first, cooking tons of vegetables and peeling shrimp, and it was a very tough job, doing a lot of the ground work, but this also builds character. I learned that you have to check your ego at the door, in the kitchen you are all the same and working for a common goal and that is making people happy. I definitely learned the value of a hard day’s work. I never got into this to make money, but because I love it. You don’t cook for a living. If you want to be famous and make tons of money, this is not it because you work nights, sometimes until the early morning, and holidays and weekends, so it’s not the most ideal thing to do unless you are passionate about it.
“Things have changed and now people see me on TV, and they want t get into cooking because they want to be like me, but the reality behind it is just work, work, work. So you should only go into this if you are truly passionate about it, or you will not last.”
Once back in New York, Aarón started working with different chefs: “I had wonderful teachers like Douglas Rodriguez whom I worked with at Patria, and who taught me how to elevate Latino food and make it sophisticated, and showed me great techniques. Jonathan Waxman from Barbuto, with whom I learned how much fun food can be. And of course chef Prudhomme who taught me how to taste properly. They were all important for different reasons.”
Aarón then spent a year in San Francisco exploring the restaurant scene, and working with chefs like Reed Hearon at Rose Pistola, and soon after, he was ready to go back to New York and open his first restaurant, Paladar, which won the “Time Out” New York's 2001 Award for Best New Lower East Side Restaurant in its first year. Considered New York’s premiere pan-Latin restaurant for more than 10 years, it led to Aarón’s nomination as a “Rising Star Chef of the Year” by the James Beard Foundation in 2005.
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