Chef Aarón Sánchez is among the players that will take to the court Friday night for the 2017 NBA All-Star Celebrity Game, as he trades in his knives and apron for a jersey and ball. Sánchez is best known as one of the judges on Food Network’s Chopped, as well as making appearances on other Food Network shows.
Sánchez also is the co-owner of Johnny Sánchez, an authentic Mexican restaurant with locations in Baltimore and New Orleans. Sánchez, born and raised in New York, moved to New Orleans recently and is looking forward to showing off his hoops skills in front of his new home crowd.
Sánchez spoke with UPROXX Sports about his excitement for the Celebrity Game, New Orleans as a great food city and some tales from the Chopped kitchen.
How often do you get out to the courts and get to play ball?
Oh man, I’m out there at least once a week for sure. You know I played high school ball and was recruited and all that for like D-III. I used to be in a game every Sunday and play with a couple of guys that played D-I and stuff, so at least once a week, usually on Sundays, I try to get out there and mess it up a little bit.
If you had to compare your basketball game (not skill, but style) to an NBA player who would it be?
Uh, I’ll give you one past and one I like who’s current. I really liked Chauncey Billups. I think I play like Chauncey. He’s kind of a bigger guard, real physical, and you know I like to mix it up with everybody. So Chauncey was somebody whose game I really enjoyed. And current, I really like Jrue Holiday’s game from the Pelicans. I think he’s a physical guard. I think he’s a great defender and sees the court real well. He’s just a good person too. He literally stopped playing basketball to take care of his wife who had cancer, so he’s just a good dude as well.
What’s your favorite NBA team?
I’m a Pelican fan for sure, but when I grew up I was a Knicks fan for sure. I grew up in New York City playing ball there in Harlem and the inner city and that’s how I got really good. So I really liked the Knicks cause that was the hey day, you know, when the Miami Heat and Reggie Miller rivalries and all that. So that was really my team.
Has it been disappointing this last week with the whole Oakley situation as a fan of those Knicks teams?
Yeah it’s been real tough to see because the Knicks need to do a better job of taking care of their legends. Oakley is somebody that I really respected him and [Anthony] Mason. They didn’t take crap from anybody. You know, I think Oakley knows better than that and I think the Knicks need to take care of their people better, so it’s both sides. I think if anything good came out of that embarrassing incident is that it’s going to remind the other teams to really respect and take care of their ex-players. I think it’s waking everybody up a little bit.
You said you model your style after some of those bigger, physical guards. The Celebrity Game isn’t exactly known for defense, are you going to be out there mixing it up, pressing and giving them a little defense?
You know what, I know how it’s going to go. Everyone’s going to be all gung-ho for the first couple minutes and as it starts going on people are going to start getting tired. I’m going to play D. I think our squad’s really good. Master P, he almost made the NBA for Christ’s sake, and his son’s supposed to be really good, and Anthony Mackie looks like he’s got some game. And shit, we’ve got Candace Parker. I don’t care what anybody says. We’ve got Candace, that’s all I’m saying. She’s no joke.
So we’re in a good place. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to seeing all of the other people playing. I don’t think people realize chefs like to play ball and we’re really into it. The NBA’s been really good to me. Bruce Bowen is a friend of mine, I have an announcer for the Celtics, Mike Gorman, who’s a friend. So, yeah, I’m real familiar to the NBA, so I’m looking forward to it.
What’s awesome is last, what, two weeks ago, I got the chance to play at Madison Square Garden and play a pickup game on the court on behalf of Chase Bank. It was a good warmup running up and down that court at the Garden.
Did that help you get used to the NBA three-point line?
Hell yeah. It’s interesting cause you feel how open, when you’re dribbling down the court, you realize how many people are looking at you. I think the most people I ever played ball for was a state championship and it must’ve been, maybe 5,000 people. So, you really get a lot of respect for what kind of shape these guys are in to play 40 minutes in a damn NBA game is an eternity. It’s an eternity. The court just seems bigger, I don’t know what to say. Yeah, man. It was good. I got some good warmup action and I feel good about Friday. I’m going to do whatever’s asked for me. I have a good setup. I want to play some D. I want to take a few jumpers and maybe try to get to the hole one time, and then I’ll be good.
Gotta get the full experience.
Yeah, man. So, it’s going to be cool. I’m looking forward to it.
I know you have the Johnny Sánchez location, but how often are you in New Orleans?
Oh, it’s my home now. I live there. I left New York City about a year ago. I travel quite a bit to L.A. and to New York to shoot and work, but yeah New Orleans is home. I’m always at the restaurant. If I’m in town I’m there. I’m excited about this week cause it’s going to be good for business and we’re going to host a lot of people from the NBA this week.
Is there a point of pride in having a restaurant in New Orleans and being part of such a great food city?
Oh absolutely, and I tell everybody the reason I have a restaurant in New Orleans is that, people talk about L.A. and New York as the best food cities, but the thing with New Orleans is everybody’s momma is a good cook. Everyone knows good food, so fundamentally people that grow up there know good food. That’s why it’s a challenge and why I’m happy to have it there, because it’s a true food mecca and it needed good Mexican food. So I came in at the right time, I think.
It’s one of my favorite places because of the food there. Is there anything particular about New Orleans cuisine that you really like? Is it that everyone grew up around good food that stands out?
Yeah, I think that. I think the idea of well-seasoned food and all the traditions. You know, the mixture and the Creole and everything. It’s just a really flavorful food that’s so iconic, so I love it.
You have restaurants, you’ve cooked on Iron Chef America, you judge Chopped and have been on a number of cooking shows, but now you get to play basketball on TV at NBA All-Star Weekend. Where is this experience going to rank for you, personally on the list of coolest things you’ve gotten to do?
Oh, this is going to be up there with cooking at the White House twice. I got to do that and cook for the Obamas and it was unbelievable. So that, this is definitely up there with that.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask some Chopped questions. First, which other Chopped judge would you want to take on in a game of 1-on-1 and why?
I would love to play against Marcus [Samuelsson] because I think Marcus is the best athlete out of all of us, myself included. He plays soccer avidly and loves sports.
They often introduce some strange or exotic ingredients on Chopped. Is there one that the moment you saw it in the contestant’s basket you dreaded having to eat the plates?
Yeah, I think one time we had, no joke, something called durian, which is this horrible fruit from Southeast Asia that is banned from restaurants and airplanes because it’s so pungent. So when I saw the durian come out I was like, ‘oh shit.’
Along those same lines, has there ever been a basket or ingredient that you thought “man i’m glad i don’t have to deal with that” and try to prepare?
I just think like, one time they had duck testicles. Which, like, I didn’t even know ducks had testicles so that’s kind of something I wouldn’t even know how to go about. Yeah, so definitely that. Anything ball related is always a tough one.
What’s the piece of equipment people you want people to stop trying to use in the Chopped kitchen?
Well, I’ll tell you an ingredient. I want them to stop using truffle oil. I think it’s a horrible ingredient. I think it overshadows just about anything you put on it. It’s like going on a date with too much cologne. You know what I mean?
As far as equipment, there’s something we have called the anti-griddle, which is just this machine that freezes things instantly on a very cold surface, and anytime anybody uses it it just doesn’t work well. So that would probably be the one.
What is the most sure-fire way for a contestant to get eliminated?
I guess just trying to be too ambitious. And not taste your food. Stay within your means and you have a good chance of winning.
Finally, if you just have one dish to cook to show yourself as a chef, your signature dish, what are you making and why?
I would make a pozole, which is kind of a stew. It’s pork based that has hominy and red chili and it’s just one of these comforting dishes that represents my upbringing and where I’m from. It’s really complex in flavor and the pork and chili really gives a beautiful flavor to the broth. So it’d definitely be pozole. Red pozole.