He may have just headed into the Wild West to judge “Chopped: Grill Masters” — a five-episode offshoot of the Food Network favorite devoted to the temperamental art of cooking outdoors — but the only person Aaron Sanchez is trying to wrangle when reached by phone is his driver.
Still, he juggles shouting directions to his befuddled chauffeur and talking about the show with an expert cool that would make any “Chopped” contestant proud.
“Everyone thinks that cooking outside is grilling,” Sanchez tells Zap2it, as car horns blare in the background, “but grilling is high heat and fast, and barbecuing is low and slow. What I think is so cool is about this series of ‘Chopped’ is that we’re really making that clear.”
Sanchez is also delighted that the series cut a wide swath in searching for its 16 smoke-happy competitors, tapping the traditional barbecue regions of Tennessee, Texas and the Carolinas but also bringing in grillers from Florida, Connecticut, New Jersey and Hawaii. Still he says, the real thing that sets this “Chopped” throwdown, which airs Sundays, apart from others he has judged is the unshakable confidence of the cooks.
“When you got these grill masters and barbecue experts together,” he says, “they would come up to us and say, ‘I tell ya! I know how to cook a piece of chicken!’ And, ‘I tell ya! I know how to cook a piece of steak!’ ‘You give me some pork, I’ll cook up some pork!’ Everybody was super-secure about the things that they do well. So that made a difference.”
As to what’s on the menu when he does the barbecuing, Sanchez jokingly clarifies we’re not talking about the outdoor pressure cooker that is the Old Tucson Studios set of “Chopped: Grill Masters.”
“Then I like to do a whole hog,” he says. “I marinate it in the Yucatan style — so it’s ancho chile, chile habanero, oregano, tons of sour orange and garlic. I marinate my pig overnight, and then I slow cook it wrapped in banana leaves. Then in the last hour, I take off the banana leaves and let it get crispy. And then I put more citrus on at the end — that’s how you get your skin crispy.”
It’s those big, bold flavors and meaty crunch that he expected to find on the plates put before him on “Grill Masters.” “When you’re outside cooking in the elements,” he says, “the last thing I would be thinking about is subtleties.”
What are you currently reading?
“I’m reading ‘Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food’ by Felipe Fernandez-Arnesto.”
What did you have for dinner last night?
“Roast chicken and a corn hash with a little bit of tomato and fava beans.”
What is your next project?
“I have a restaurant in Kansas City (Kan.) called Mestizo, and I’m probably opening another one in Houston as well.”
Where did you go on your last vacation?
“Cape May, N.J., with my family — my wife and my kids.”