Aarón Sánchez On MasterChef: Back To Win, Selena + Chef, And More - Exclusive Interview

As summer comes to an end, so does "MasterChef: Back to Win." With only a few more episodes until the winner is crowned, Aarón Sánchez shared his thoughts on the all-star season. In an exclusive interview with Tasting Table, the chef revealed what his relationships are really like with judges Gordon Ramsay and Joe Bastianich. Sánchez has been a part of the "MasterChef" franchise for four years now, but he is no stranger to television. The food mogul has appeared on fan-favorite shows "Chopped," "MasterChef Junior," "Iron Chef America," and more.

With all of his success, Sánchez opened a New Orleans restaurant named Johnny Sánchez back in 2014 that features Mexican cuisine (via Go Nola). In addition to his business ventures, the chef has many accolades, including a James Beard Award and cooking for former President Obama. During his talk with Tasting Table, Sánchez shared his best vegan hacks, the real story behind that viral Gordon Ramsay avocado toast TikTok, and what's in store for the next season of "MasterChef."

Sánchez talks MasterChef: Back to Win contestants and judges

We are over halfway through "MasterChef" Season 12. What are your thoughts on the season thus far?

I'm so impressed with the absolute fire and passion everyone has. Not everybody has an opportunity to redeem themselves from potentially not chasing their dreams and not getting to that goal. I can see a big fire in all the contestants' bellies and also how much better prepared they are coming into this season because now they understand the format. They understand the challenges at the surface level, but they also came back with a lot more skill.

In a previous interview with Tasting Table, Joe Bastianich describes you as a brother. What has the dynamic been like between you, Gordon Ramsay, and Joe Bastianich now that you have been a part of "MasterChef" for four years?

Joe and I personally have known each other from growing up in the restaurant industry in New York. We share the same narrative in the sense that our moms were both chefs in New York City, so we kind of commiserate [over] that. He's the devious older brother that wants to make snarky comments, and he's the front-of-the-house guy, and Gordon [and I] are the chefs, so we always poke fun at him when it comes to that. "Oh, we work harder because we're in the back of the house. You're in the front of the house." That kind of stuff. That's a lot of the real magic that happens with us.

Are there any fun behind-the-scenes stories from this season that you would be willing to share?

There's a lot. It's about us and reconnecting ourselves with some of the older contestants that are coming from many different seasons, and ones that I haven't been privy to. For me, it was great to understand Christine Hà. She was from Seasons 6 and 5. It was great to get to know some of these contestants that I hadn't had an opportunity to meet or judge.

How Sánchez really feels about Gordon Ramsay's beet Wellington

On Episode 7 of this season, Gordon Ramsay prepared his self-proclaimed infamous beet Wellington. What was your initial reaction when you first became aware of the dish?

That's a great question. It took me two years to feel comfortable to bust his chops. I was always like, "I have the best job in the world." I'm a judge, and I love food obviously, and I'm able to critique it, but I'm working with somebody that I admire who is my mentor in some ways, so I want to be able to bust his chops whenever I can. He's always talking about the beef Wellington and how magical it is, and when you go to England, it's something that's ephemeral and the defining English dish. Then I'm like, "Cool. You're going to do all that and then put a beet in the middle of it? Bro. Really?" And he's like, "No, this is important. We have to cater to our vegetarians as well." I thought that was a big part of his evolution, and it's softening up a little bit.

Going off of that and vegetarian dishes, do you have any out-of-the-box vegan hacks that you would want to share?

Absolutely. I think people should juice corn. You have to have a great juicer. Think about juicing corn: taking the actual cobs of the corn, shallots or garlic or onions, making a corn stock, and then puréeing the actual kernels, and then making this unbelievable juicy corn broth.

That can go great with fresh, chopped tomatoes from the market and basil, and you have a super reinforced flavor of the summer. That's what I would suggest. Get a great juicer, reduce it down. Use the actual stalks of whatever you're using. If you're focusing on fennel, don't throw those fennel fronds away. Don't throw any of that way. Make a stock with it, and then reinforce the flavor. Then you have these beautiful vegetable stocks. That's what I would suggest.

Sánchez on cooking for Selena Gomez and Barack Obama

Last week, the competitors had to make an elevated dish with ingredients they would find in a gas station, which was really fun. What are the three ingredients that you would use?

I would use potato chips for a crust on a fish. Absolutely. What else would I use? I would use a soda to reduce as a glaze on pork. I would take that down and reduce a good-quality cola. Then I would take some peanuts or store-bought trail mix or whatever you have, and then I would use that as something to thicken a sauce. I would break that down and use the flavor to give some beautiful viscosity and texture to a sauce.

You recently appeared on "Selena + Chef," and you made some crab and some lobster. What was it like working with Selena Gomez?

It was fantastic. I'm so impressed [by] celebrities or people that have a lot of attention and recognition and love food [when] their eyes light up when you teach them something as simple as seasoning the piece of fish and mak[ing] sure you pat it dry and how to brown certain things and peel. I loved all of her enthusiasm, and I really enjoyed the way that she was so open to learn. That's what we do as chefs. We teach and try to make sure that they take some of those lessons and bring [them] to their home kitchens. That was really exciting for me.

You've cooked for a lot of celebrities like her. What is the most memorable experience you've had while cooking for a celebrity?

I cooked at the White House for President Obama. I don't think you can get a bigger celebrity than the president.

I was able to cook him a chipotle marinated chicken with some hominy and beautiful pico de gallo and seasonal vegetables. From my understanding, he loved it. He thought it was unbelievable. That was probably one of my most nervous meals I've ever cooked in my life.

Sánchez names the inspiration behind his restaurant recipes

In your New Orleans restaurant, Johnny Sanchez, you showcase tacos on your menu. I was looking through it, and I wanted to know what the story behind the albondigas taco recipe was with your grandmother's meatballs?

My mom and my grandmother grew up on a cattle ranch in Northern Mexico in Chihuahua, and vegetables were very hard to find. But what was really special was during times when it was cooler weather [and] they had a little fountain or low faucet that used to drip, there was a mint bush right next to that, so that little fountain gave sustenance to the mint bush. When it came time to make albondigas and grind all the meat that was slaughtered, they would make beautiful albondigas, and my grandmother thought it would be a great idea to garnish the dish with mint from that little bush that was right outside. [It was] a very humble observing of ingredients, and that's something I really remember, so we garnish our albondigas tacos with mint as an homage to my grandma.

Besides the mint that you just mentioned, do you have any ideas to elevate your taco game, whether it's toppings, fillings, or the tortilla itself?

What I tell everybody is that you have to have three elements to a great taco. You have to have the tortilla, which is the base, your filling, and then you have your salsa/garnish. What I suggest is, take beautiful, fresh ingredients from the farmer's market, make a salsa, toast them or roast them on a comal or a griddle, and then pickle vegetables. Anything that you might have taken from the market and you have leftovers [of], put [it] in a brine of equal parts water and vinegar, sugar and salt, and then whatever seasoning, and pickle vegetables and put them into a Mason jar, and you're good to go.

What are the biggest mistakes that you find people are making when they make tacos?

I think they don't understand which tortilla goes for which filling. My thing is, if it has fur or is meat, put it on a flour tortilla, the reason being that flour tortillas have a little bit more density, and they're a little bit more firm, and they can deal with a braised meat or a carne asada. Everything else should go on a corn tortilla.

Sánchez reveals his tip for guacamole and hints at MasterChef Season 13

Do you have any tips for homemade guacamole?

The best thing is, when you buy avocados, buy them green, and then ripen them yourself at home. Put them in an open area, like near a windowsill, and once they start getting firm, put them in a paper bag. Then they'll stop ripening, and then you can use them whenever you want.

Do you ever put avocados in the fridge, or is that not something that you should do?

No, no. You put avocados in the fridge when they're ripe and you want to hold onto them, but I wouldn't suggest doing that for more than two days.

Speaking of avocados, you had a TikTok go viral after commenting on Gordon Ramsay's chorizo avocado toast. Could you tell me the story behind that?

It's a little bit about giving him slack about the kind of chorizo he was using and the trending of avocado toast and how popular that's become. I wanted to take a little stab at him, because he deserves it. He does it to other people, so why can't I do that?

Could you give any hints as to what's in store for "MasterChef" Season 13?

I can't really tell you. But one thing I would say is, imagine what we've already created. All the challenges are going to get more difficult. We're going to continue to bring a culinary talent that's never been seen before. We're scouring this whole beautiful country for the best culinary narrative that we can find, and I think through that, we're going to create fireworks. Right now we're in development with the challenges and what we want to accomplish this season, so be on the lookout because we're going to create fireworks.

Check out Aarón Sánchez's Instagram page to keep up with his latest projects. New episodes of "MasterChef: Back to Win" air Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Fox.

This interview has been edited for clarity.