That trip marked a lot of firsts for me. It was also the first time I filmed on location. Chef Alex García and I had cohosted a series called Melting Pot back in Food Network's early days; he was Cuban and I was Mexican, so we had this great thing going with Latin recipes. We had an easy rapport after working together over the years in restaurants, so when we were approached to tag-team a cultural deep dive into Mexico, it seemed like the perfect scenario. The purpose was to highlight the flavors of regional Mexican cooking, so each of us would tackle three separate regions. For the show, designers created fun little animated icons of us traversing our respective territories, and eventually we'd meet up in the middle. My itinerary started with Mexico City. I'd been to Mexico plenty of times, first as a kid with my dad, and then as a punk teenager who liked to sneak across the border with my older cousin to find—and cause—a little trouble.
But this was new territory. Not only in terms of place (most of my time had been spent in Juárez, a twenty-minute skip from my Texas hometown of El Paso), but personally. I was older. I was more thoughtful. And most importantly, I was on the clock. Food Network was still pretty new, and no one could have dreamed what the power of food TV would become back in those days. I had no idea how important television was going to be for my career, but I still didn't want to fuck it up.
I can't imagine a more chaotic setting for my first on-location shoot than the crush of the city's center. I'd been on TV for a few years, but this was a totally different animal than the so-called stand-and-stir kind of shoot I was used to. When I got the call, my first instinct was to say, absolutely—yes. My second was to freak out a little. I was extremely nervous; I had no idea what it was going to be like to be out in the wild. There were so many questions. Will I be reading lines? Is there going to be a script? Am I going to be acting? Who will I be shooting with? And, of course, am I going to be any fucking good at this?
One of the first scenes we wanted to get in the can was to show the street life of one of the most densely populated cities in the world. The idea was to get a long shot of me walking through the city from a distance, so the camera could capture the scope of the crowd. It was an autumn morning, still crisp and temperate, but performance anxiety made me feel like a piece of pollo left under a heat lamp. I was mic'd up and sweating my face off. My job was to explain what was happening around me, and also to give some context to viewers about the city with facts and figures and statistics. I was trying to connect with a camera about five hundred yards away, but even without distraction it would have been a challenge to navigate the abundance of shopping and bartering and bustling around me. And I had to do it all while on the move, out of the controlled safety of the studio I was so accustomed to. I'd stayed up late the night before, memorizing my lines, but in the moment I worried I might have sudden amnesia.
We started rolling, and I launched into it, with as much joviality as I could muster.
"Hi, I'm Aarón Sánchez, and we're coming to you from Mexico City! The capital is home to..."
People around me stopped to stare at this 'loco' dude speaking accented English into the ether, as if to no one. It took everything in me not to address their stares, or to at least give a smile and let them know I wasn't a total whack job. I'd shot hundreds of hours in my career before that moment, but nothing prepared me for how difficult it was.
Holy shit, I thought when we finally cut. This is what it takes.
But somehow, I pulled it off. I was thrilled when we wrapped that morning and high on adrenaline, but relief was fleeting. We were just getting started. The itinerary was grueling: we'd spend three or four days in each region, plus a day of travel on both ends. Call times were early and we shot late into the nights. Every morning, I was made up and the producers would roll me through the agenda. We're going to hit this market. We're going to eat at that restaurant. You're going to talk about this dish. Some shots of you walking on the street. Some shots of you coming out of your hotel. It was meticulously planned and scouted for the most authentic experiences, but frankly they could have taken me to a bull castration and I would have been up for it.
Beyond trying to keep up with the task at hand, I had a lot on my mind. My own restaurant back in New York, Paladar, was still very new, and I'd recently signed my first cookbook contract. Outwardly, I was a celebrated chef, a competent business owner and TV personality, and with Food Network beginning to expand its reach, my star was definitely on the rise whether or not I knew or was ready for it.
But on the inside, I was starting to realize maybe I didn't have it all quite so locked up. If that first day of filming was an indication, I had a long way to go before I could call myself a television expert.