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Editor's Note: This story is unlocked for everyone to read courtesy of the CRVA, our partner in nourishing culinary exploration for residents and visitors of the Queen City.

May 7, 2024

Aarón Sánchez talks about Charlotte’s culinary scene

Celebrity chef and philantropist discusses his impressions of the Queen City in the aftermath of his StrEATs visit

Aarón Sánchez on stage at the 2024 StrEATs Festival. Ryan Allen/UP

Celebrity chef, author, and philanthropist Aarón Sánchez shined as the featured presenter at the 2024 Charlotte StrEATs Festival. He spent time getting to know many of the StrEATs vendors and had a chance to tour Charlotte’s restaurant scene quickly. After his visit, we asked him to share his thoughts about the city and the restaurant business overall.

Unpretentious Palate: After visiting, how would you describe Charlotte’s culinary style?
Aarón Sánchez: It’s more of an eclectic style than I anticipated.

UP: Did you see any dishes or ingredients that surprised you or were memorable at the festival?
AS: One of the culinary competition winners was a woman from Africa [chef Awo Amenumey] who made a plantain flatbread with spiced goat meat and pickled onions that was out of this world good.

UP: Did you eat any dishes or have any cocktails that were memorable while out around the city?
AS: I know BBQ is a heavily debated topic in Charlotte…but I went to Sweet Lew’s BBQ and had a great time.

UP: Charlotte is always comparing itself to bigger cities, like New York. Should we be?
AS: No – each city should cultivate and have its own personality and flavor.

UP: As a city with no James Beard Awards, we’ve had a chip on our shoulder for a while now. How much do you think awards matter?
AS: It does – in smaller markets these notable awards bring recognition and credibility to the growing food scene. I’ll say this, if I was a young chef at the start of my career, I’d start in a city like Charlotte – it has a great customer base that’s well traveled and has a good palate.

Aarón Sánchez took time to meet many of this year’s StrEATs vendors, including Manolo’s Bakery’s Manolo Betancur. Ryan Allen/UP

UP: What really matters to creating a successful restaurant scene?
AS: It’s all about the customer base. Having an audience that’s adventurous allows for a diverse culinary landscape where different cultures and foods are well represented. On top of that you need to have local spots that highlight and utilize local ingredients.

UP: You’ve likely come across a few Charlotte chefs during one of your many appearances on cooking competition shows. Have you noticed any trends in the styles and traits of local chefs? Any particular standouts?
AS: I like what Sam Hart is doing at Counter-. He does a tasting menu that is constantly evolving based on the season and local ingredients.

UP: We had a lot of culinary students on hand at the festival. What advice would you offer them?
AS: Learn from everyone around you and discover your own point of view. Travel, eat everywhere you can and then come back and invest in your community. When you do that, they’ll do the same for you.

UP: You have a nonprofit that helps support Latino culinary students. How can aspiring Latino chefs be part of its programs?
AS: We open up applications once a year for the Aarón Sánchez scholarship and encourage every young Latino that is aspiring to follow a career in the culinary industry to learn more and apply. Be sure to check out our website, aaronsanchezimpactfund.com for more info and help us spread the word!

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