Johnny Sánchez brings Aarón Sánchez back to New Orleans to team with John Besh – by Todd A. Price, Times-Picayune

Johnny Sánchez brings Aarón Sánchez back to New Orleans to team with John Besh – by Todd A. Price, Times-Picayune

The first time Aarón Sánchez came to New Orleans, he was 16. His dad had died three years earlier, and his mom sent him down from New York to intern for the summer at K-Paul’s with chef Paul Prudhomme. That was the first time Sánchez had been away from home on his own.

Sánchez is now 38, and he is as well-known for his Latin cooking as his ease before the cameras on shows like the Food Network’s “Chopped” and “Heat Seekers.” He has restaurants in Connecticut and Kansas City, with another set to open in New York later this fall. In August, he teamed with John Besh to open a taquería in Baltimore called Johnny Sánchez.

This week, Sánchez and Besh will debut the second Johnny Sánchez in New Orleans’ CBD.

When he first arrived on a Saturday afternoon in 1992, he checked into the old YMCA on Lee Circle. After looking around, he found a pay phone, called his mom and said he was coming home to New York.

“This is what being a man is about,” Sánchez recalls his mom telling him. “Don’t make me look bad. This man has done a lot for us.”

Zarela Martinez, Sanchéz’s mom, was a divorced mother of twins with a catering business in El Paso, Texas, when she took a cooking class in New Orleans with Prudhomme. Her skills impressed the chef. She told Prudhomme that she was looking for something new.

“You’ve got too much personality to be in New Orleans right now,” Prudhomme told Martinez, according to Sánchez. “I’ve got a friend, Warner LeRoy. He owns Tavern on the Green. I’ll call him and get you a job.”

She went on to write cookbooks and become an authority on Mexican cooking. In 1987, she opened in Midtown Manhattan the restaurant Zarela, which closed in 2011.

“What better place to be 18 and have a paycheck,” Aaron Sanchez said about his early time in New Orleans.

“(Prudhomme) would come to New York,” Sánchez said, “and he would only eat at one restaurant. My mom’s restaurant.”

The second time Sánchez came to New Orleans, it was 1994, and he was 18. This time he was going to work at K-Paul’s.

“What better place to be 18 and have a paycheck,” he said.

After a year in New Orleans, however, he decided to leave, enrolling in culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. At the time, he wasn’t sure there was a place for him in New Orleans.

“I thought there were only Louisiana restaurants and everybody had a tuxedo on,” he said. “For me, I didn’t feel well-versed in it. I didn’t grow up in it.”

He was also impatient.

At K-Paul’s, he saw cooks who had started as dishwashers and worked their way up over 15 years. He knew he couldn’t wait that long.

Sánchez would go on to work for Douglas Rodriguez, a pioneer of nuevo-Latino cuisine. In 2001, Sánchez opened the pan-Latin Paladar, his own New York restaurant, which he sold in 2010.

It was television that brought Sánchez back to New Orleans.

In 2007, he was a contestant on the Food Network’s “The Next Iron Chef.” So was John Besh, whom Sánchez first met when he worked at K-Paul’s and Besh cooked across the lake at La Provence.

Chefs John Besh and Aaron Sanchez discuss Johnny Sanchez, their new taqueria at 930 Poydras St.

The two reconnected. They started hanging out when they could; they worked charity events together. Eventually, they talked about collaborating on a Mexican restaurant.

“I would have never thought of doing something such as Mexican without somebody who is an authority,” Besh said.

At a preview brunch a few days before opening day, the food from Johnny Sánchez’s kitchen, led by executive chef Miles Landrem, had the kind of precision you would expect to find at Restaurant August.

Tostadas topped with raw tuna and caviar shimmered. Grilled sweetbread tacos were artfully arranged. And the familiar dish arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) practically stole the brunch with its crispy rice and pops of heat from thin rounds of serrano peppers.

Sánchez knows that Johnny Sánchez joins a wave of new Mexican restaurants in New Orleans. Seeing his culture become fashionable makes Sánchez a little uneasy.

“Trendy means that it’s going away,” he said. “I don’t like that term.”

The vogue for tacos is global.

Celebrated Southern chef Sean Brock opened Minero in Charleston, S.C., this month. Danny Bowien, who first got attention for his hallucinatory takes on Chinese food, now has Mission Cantina in New York. And chef René Redzepi of Copenhagen’s Noma, widely regarded as one of the world’s top restaurants, has been studying tortillas.

“Apparently everybody can make a damn taco. I didn’t think I could make gravlax, but maybe I should try,” Sánchez said. “Maybe I come from a different school, but I would never try to do Southern-style food. At the same time, I feel honored that chefs want to tackle this kind of food.”

Why are chefs around the world suddenly mad for Mexican? Sánchez has a simple answer.

“Because chefs want to eat it when they’re done with work,” he said.

This time in New Orleans, Sánchez plans to stay. He still lives in Brooklyn, but he has been house-hunting here. Sánchez has a 3-year-old son who lives in California. He thinks New Orleans would be better for the boy than New York.

“I want him to grow up with the Besh boys,” he said. “I want us to have cookouts on the weekends, and I don’t get that in New York.”

Sánchez also sees a change in New Orleans.

The Hispanic population is growing. He wants Johnny Sánchez to be part of that community: He’s recruiting Spanish-speaking employees for the restaurant and has been looking for ways to introduce himself to the local Hispanic community.

“We have a super opportunity. This restaurant couldn’t have come at a better time with the awareness of the Hispanic community and what is happening in New Orleans,” Sánchez said. “That’s why I want to live here. I want to be part of something that’s new.”

Johnny Sánchez: 930 Poydras St., New Orleans, 504.304.6615