When we think about getting creative with traditional Thanksgiving sides, we yearn for smoke and spice, fresh herbs, and maybe a little bit of citrusy zest—with zero pretention. All of these things can be found in Aarón Sánchez’s Simple Food, Big Flavor, so we talked to the chef and owner of New York City’s Centrico about his favorite holiday flavors… and worked in a little dating advice, too.
Tips on Life & Love: Partly because of the popularity of shows like Top Chef and Chopped, being a chef is a coveted occupation now more than ever. Do you think aspiring chefs need to go to culinary school, or can you learn hands-on? You did both.
Aarón Sánchez: There are plenty of examples of great chefs who have not gone to culinary, so I don’t think they need to go, but I do think it’s beneficial to go to culinary school. I would recommend aspiring chefs to go in that direction. It’s hard work, but it’s a great experience. School is where you hone your skills and techniques; it’s also where you meet your mentors, future peers, and colleagues.
Q: Thanksgiving is almost here. What are your 5 must-have dishes at the Thanksgiving dinner table? And which wine goes best with bird—is it really Beaujolais as advertisers would have you believe, or is there a fun spicy cocktail we can kick the festivities off with?
A: Turkey, of course! I like an herb-roasted turkey with pan gravy that my good friend down in New Orleans makes. My must-have sides—and let’s be honest, the sides are the best part of a Thanksgiving meal—are Bean and Butternut Squash Picadillo, Chipotle-Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Chorizo Corn Bread Stuffing and a Tangerine and Jicama Slaw (all of which can be found in my new book).
As for a wine pairing, I like to go with a Pinot Noir. Its grape provides body, some tannin for texture, red-fruit character, complexity and some acid. Since Thanksgiving is a U.S. holiday I like to drink wine from the States, so I usually go with a Pinot from California.
Q: Every chef seems to remember a particularly rough night where they were off their “A-game” (Sara Moulton has written about destroying her family’s Thanksgiving mashed potatoes, while Anthony Bourdain once blew an expensive New Year’s prix fixe menu). What’s your worst kitchen disaster?
A: The story that comes to mind was from my days working under Douglas Rodriquez at Patria. We spent the entire day preparing all the sauces and rice for dinner service. Early into service I broke a plate on the line and the shattered pieces went into all of the sauces and rice, which obviously had to be thrown away. It screwed up the whole night and needless to say, Chef Rodriquez was not pleased.
Q: Is cooking for someone on a first date romantic—or just a really, really bad idea?
A: I think cooking on a first date is super romantic. It shows the person you care and want to create something special just for them. It’s also more intimate to eat at home than at a restaurant (minus the cleanup). My advice is to keep it simple and make it taste good. Don’t try to impress your date by making something complicated like a cassoulet, especially if you’ve never made it before. Simple and delicious=good and more time to enjoy each other’s company.