MasterChef’s Aarón Sánchez on Staying Connected to His Roots

'We are losing touch with the present moment by always having access to other people, places and things that are not your current reality.'

When you have the opportunity to ask some of the most interesting people in the world about their lives, sometimes the most fascinating answers come from the simplest questions. The Thrive Questionnaire is an ongoing series that gives an intimate look inside the lives of some of the world’s most successful people.

Thrive Global: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed? 
Aarón Sánchez: Right when I wake up, I like to set the tone for my day by putting on music and lighting an incense. I generally put on something relaxing and soulful like Alabama Shakes or Amos Lee. The sounds and scents you surround yourself with have a huge impact on your state of mind, so I like to have Nag Champa or a smell of something bold and earthy to start my day. I have a very hectic schedule many days, so this is my time to create a calming environment for me to prepare myself for what the day will bring. It feels very sacred to me, and at this point in my life, it is a ritual.

I generally wake up as early as I can to give myself as much time as possible to relax and mentally and physically prepare myself for the day. I try to work out first thing in the morning whenever I can for this same reason. It makes me feel armed and ready for whatever I have to tackle that day. Because I travel so often, it is hard to maintain this morning ritual, but I always try to pack pieces of home to bring with me. I always bring incense and a holder so that I can create this space and moment for myself before I head off to that day’s event, meeting, interview, whatever it is. This feels really grounding and gives me a chance to remind myself of my message and goal in life.

TG: What gives you energy?
Coffee, fruits and vegetables, and lots of water. I like to start my day with an iced coffee as most people do to give me some fuel. I usually go for a cold brew when I can, but sometimes it’s just a good old drip coffee. I like to have fruit for breakfast to give me energy and kickstart the metabolism. I generally don’t eat much during the day as I’m usually running around and very busy, so I will just snack on vegetables throughout the afternoon. I like to have those little ziplock bags filled with mango and pineapple with chili and lime like you see on the streets in Mexico. They’re flavorful, healthy and super easy to keep on hand when I have a hectic day.

Lastly, I drink tons of water. I live in New Orleans and it’s usually really hot, so it’s important to stay hydrated. I’m working in hot kitchens many days and it can be chaotic at moments, but I have to remember as the leader of my team it is important to take care of myself so I can serve as an example to my employees. A lot of the time it’s easy to become dehydrated quickly without realizing it if you’re in the middle of service. I always encourage my staff to nourish themselves with what they need in order to perform at the highest level possible.

TG: What’s your secret life hack?
AS: Having loved ones around to support me. It sounds simple, but having a good support system is really crucial, especially when you have a lot going on. I keep my family close and I feel that it allows me to stay grounded. I like to stay in touch with my roots and remind myself of where I came from as much as possible to not lose sight of my goals and why I am doing all of this. My loved ones are my main inspiration to keep going when I have moments of doubt or fatigue. Having people around me that know me extremely well and know how to soothe me in times of turmoil is essential. My family and loved ones are my rocks, they know just what to say or do when I’ve had a long day or week.

My Tio Mario has been with me for a long time and I am so grateful for him always having my back. When I get home after a long day of traveling, he always has a comfort dish brewing on the stove. It is such a nice welcome home to have people there caring for me after a grueling day. I have a large team that helps me get through everything, and between them and my family, I have a lot of love around which I am really appreciative of.

TG: Name a book that changed your life.
AS: Near a Thousand Tables by Felipe Fernández-Armesto really changed my life. After reading this, I understood in a deep way how important food has been and will always be in society. It goes through the history of mankind and all the different ways that food has played huge roles over time across all cultures. I am very fascinated in the ways that different ingredients and techniques being introduced to civilizations has had a huge impact on their lives.

I have studied Mexican culture since I was young, and my Mom has always taught me about the ways that Europeans created such a large shift in Mexican cuisine and style of living. This sparked the interest initially in learning about different cultures around the world and the way migration and colonization left lasting changes on their society and ultimately the way they cook, eat and gather. Now, in today’s world, there is so much information that is easily accessible to get more details on this, and it’s really beautiful to understand the history of how we got to where we are today. As a chef, I find this studying and researching to be crucial to being a leader in the culinary world as knowledge is power. I like to stay curious and keep learning and finding new sources of inspiration.

TG: Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you?
AS: I try to charge it outside of my bedroom so I can disconnect when I don’t have early mornings. I usually have my phone with me at all times as it is important to my business to be connected, but I take any chance I get. I love to put it down and just be present with people. I have a strict no phone policy at the dinner table, I think this is something that we all need to do. When we are sharing a meal, I think it’s really important to take in what you are tasting, who you are with, the environment, that’s all part of the experience. If you are on your phone, you are not taking everything in.

I understand that everyone needs to be in touch at all times in today’s world, but I feel that we are losing touch with the present moment by always having access to other people, places and things that are not your current reality. I feel that this is really important for creating and keeping strong relationships with people in your life, really be with them. My inspiration, creativity and connections generally come when I am present and in the moment. This is why I feel that we all need to take time to put those electronics down and cultivate spaces where we can allow the true essence of who we are to come out organically.

TG: How do you deal with email?
I am not too big on email, but obviously it is a critical way to communicate in today’s world and I have to use it for business. This goes back to the question above, I need to email to be connected to my team who is not with me at all times, but I think there is something to be said about the old school forms of communication. I like to talk to people on the phone, I get more done that way. I also like to write things down, I can remember them more easily that way.

As a business man I understand the importance of email, but I feel that there will be renaissance at some point, it may be starting now, where people realize the importance of face to face interactions. I grew up in a time without email, texting, cell phones, all of that and I feel there is something being lost. Of course there are a lot of advantages to being so instantly reachable, but I feel a certain nostalgia around the time in my life where you made plans and you just showed up. The time where you needed to call someone’s home phone and talk to their Mom before you spoke to your friend, there’s a connectedness that I think can be integrated into today’s forms of communication.

TG: You unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day, what do you do with it?
AS: I try to chant “nam myoho renge kyo” or sit in a quiet place and clear my mind. I am a Nichiren Buddhist and this has helped me get through many tough moments in life. The whole concept is that we, at any time, have the capacity to overcome any obstacle through transforming suffering into understanding. There is a deep power in the Universe, and I have a trust in that power that I can get through anything. This chant is basically the idea that any challenge can be turned into joy by liberating yourself and creating wisdom around that experience. This is said to be a Universal Law that any person can have this at any moment, which feels really inspiring and applies to any issue and any situation.

One of the main principles of Nichiren Buddhism is that life naturally has ups and downs, happiness and suffering, but ultimately the ups have more polarity. Positivity is intrinsically stronger and will triumph over any adversity. This has helped me through my career and personal hardships, as there feels to always be an opportunity to turn any negative into a time for growth and understanding. So when I have a rough moment and doubt my ability to get through, I chant.

TG: When was the last time you felt burned out and why?
I don’t really get burnt out, I’ve been in this industry for 20 years. I love what I do and I never get tired of it. This goes back to the answer above, I have a system for getting through the hard moments in life, so I generally don’t feel burnt out. I also have an incredible team around me and I get pursue my passions, so I rarely feel fatigued. I feel incredibly fortunate to be where I am, but I have also worked hard for the life I have created for myself. I impart this on all my employees, anything is possible if you keep your eye on the prize and work tirelessly to bring that to fruition.

If you do what you love, stay curious, and have a great work ethic, you won’t get burnt out. No obstacle is too big if you have a goal that is just around the corner of that hurdle. Each new hardship is an opportunity for success and improvement on yourself and your craft. Being grounded, taking care of yourself and creating an environment for you to flourish in is the key to not getting burnt out.

TG: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it?
AS: Sometimes I feel like I am failing my son because I travel and work so much, but I took him to the beach for a month over summer vacation and spent really good quality time with him. Having a family in this fast-paced industry can be challenging at times, but I do what I can to show my love and devotion to the people I really care about. My son is my biggest pride and joy in my life and being a parent has been the biggest inspiration to set an example and carry on my legacy. I take it very seriously and I want to ensure that I raise him to be a respectful, caring, intelligent person who contributes to society.

As a Mexican American, I feel now more than ever, that his generation will lead by example of how Latinos and Latinas enrich our culture here in the States. I always want him to feel connected to his culture and know the importance of our lineage. He by no means needs to go into the culinary world, all I ask is that he is a well-rounded person that knows and acts on his ability to be whatever he wants to be.

TG: Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.
AS: “Out of every obstacle comes an opportunity” and “Your life doesn’t have to be perfect for it to be purposeful.” Those two quotes always make me feel at peace with wherever I am in life and whatever situation I am in. Throughout the years I have found myself in compromising scenarios, both personally and professionally, but I feel that these quotes are my way of reminding myself that everything is happening for a reason and that I will most likely grow from this experience and find a silver lining in retrospect.

My life can be messy and disorderly at times, but that doesn’t mean that my goals are not being met, that feels really reassuring to keep in mind. I know the impact I want to have and my life being perfect has nothing to do with achieving those objectives. As a businessman, I have to own my strengths and faults to allocate duties properly and run the ship truthfully. That feels really important to me and I try to impart this on all the people in my life as well.

Aarón Sánchez is an award-winning chef, TV personality, cookbook author and philanthropist. He is the chef/owner of Mexican restaurant Johnny Sánchez, with locations in New Orleans and Baltimore, and a judge on FOX’s hit culinary competition series MASTERCHEF. MasterChef airs Wednesday nights at 8/7c on FOX.

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