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Welcome back to another episode of Take 5: quarantine edition. As we’ve been discussing on the site, the restaurant industry is undoubtedly one of the hardest hit by COVID-19 closures and we want to do everything we can to spotlight the impacted chefs, restaurants, and small businesses that deserve a little extra love and attention during these difficult times. 

Joining me this week is “MasterChef” and “Chopped” judge, cookbook author, philanthropist, and owner of Mexican restaurant Johnny Sánchez in New Orleans, chef Aarón Sánchez. The James Beard award-winner shares his favorite pantry staples, nacho tips, and the plant-friendly chef he’s following on social media to get inspired in the kitchen. 

For the full interview, be sure to check out the video above.

Chowhound: You’ve obviously been doing a lot of quarantined cooking, but where is the first place you want to dine when things start to normalize a bit? 

Aarón Sånchez: I want to go eat at my own restaurant to be honest, just to come back there and connect with my food and see what all the chefs have been formulating in the back. This is the time for us to be creative, to really sort of look at the catalogue of recipes and dishes that we’ve done in times past. We really want to use this time productively to be able to do that. I honestly just want to go back and eat some good Mexican food at my place. 

CH: Is there a chef who may not necessarily have the same platform as you who deserves a little extra love and attention right now? 

AS: There are so many chefs out there. I am a big fan of Nyesha Arrington. She’s out of L.A [and] a great chef. I love the stuff she’s doing. She’s kind of moved to a plant-based diet, which I’ve found really interesting in following her food. She’s also been doing some great stuff with Eater, as well. So I kind of just love watching her navigate the food world during this time. Nyesha does wonderful work. She’s such a great student of food…obviously super talented, loves to travel, and just has a beautiful spirit. 

CH: Do you have any pantry staples? Or is there a specific product you can’t live without right now?

AS: It’s interesting because this time really is a great time to examine your kitchen, whether it’s your dry pantry or whether it’s the pantry you have in your fridge. I treat my fridge as coveted ground right now, as you can imagine. For me, I always have my staples: It’s Cacique queso fresco Ranchero […] its versatility, its flavor, the way that it complements a variety of different dishes,  and [its] high-quality ingredients. And then, of course, Cacique’s crema Mexicana, which is that wonderful, beautiful topping that just gives richness and gives that velvety texture to so many different dishes. 

CH: Are there any special small businesses that could also use attention right now? 

AS: I think it’s an overarching community of people that are obviously affected. We’re talking about 11 million people that are directly employed by restaurants. But let’s not forget about the web of people that depend on restaurants. You’re talking about the farmers, you’re talking about IT people who help you with the computer system every day, our wine purveyors, all those people. For me, the people who deserve a lot of love are all the farmers and all the people who are getting their hands dirty to make sure that we have beautiful product in our supermarkets because we are cooking so much at home. They need to have the light and the beautiful recognition that they deserve because since this COVID pandemic, they have not stopped working. A lot of other people have, but they have not. 

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CH: People are now exploring cooking, many for the first time. What sort of tips to do you have for someone who may be intimidated by the oven or stove? 

AS: The oven, for me, is something I love to utilize for many different reasons. First of all, you can cook multiple things in an oven, but also it allows you to create a copious amount of it. I’m going back to simplicity rules. Nachos are just so wonderful because you start with basically two ingredients: tortilla chips and cheese. So for me, I love to rock and roll with my tortilla chips, some beautiful Cacique queso dip drizzled on top, follow that up by some cooked chorizo, and, of course, top it with the Cacique queso Ranchero. And this is where you can have fun. Go with the refried beans, go with the guacamole, go with some radishes and cilantro […] and you have all the ingredients for a delicious snack [and] potentially a big meal served alongside a salad.

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