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Aaron Martinez Of Vicia: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Chef

Learn all you can before you decide to be a chef. This industry is a marathon and not a race. We never stop learning, and it takes years of trying, failing, and picking yourself back up again.

As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Aaron Martinez.

Vicia’s Executive Chef Aaron Martinez doesn’t just make the most out of every opportunity he’s given — he actively seeks out opportunities and forms relationships with people that impact his life in the best possible way.

Martinez has kept his eyes open for special “aha” moments and encounters from the time he left California to attend the Arizona Culinary Institute. After a memorable meal at William Bradley’s restaurant, VU, he reached out and scored a job working under the acclaimed chef, who would become his mentor and most profound professional influence. Martinez followed Bradley back to San Diego to help open Michelin starred Addison, and then embarked for Spain and Belgium thanks to his mentor’s suggestion to work overseas and explore the world. Bradley installed in him a belief that experiencing different cultures is fundamental to growing as a chef, and he credits this time abroad for helping to shape and propel his career.

After returning to the states, Martinez scored Chef de Cuisine jobs at acclaimed Bay Area restaurants Quince and Commis, with a stint doing R&D for Lettuce Entertain You in Chicago.

Before moving to St Louis, Martinez took the future in his own hands once again, and contacted Chef Michael Gallina to learn about the culinary landscape in this Midwest metropolis. That call inspired his move, and was the precursor to landing at Vicia, where he began as a Sous Chef and then as Chef de Cuisine and now holds the role of Executive Chef.

Martinez brings a creativity and leadership approach to his work at Vicia that he humbly credits back to his travels and all that he’s learned from the great chefs he’s worked with. He lives with his wife and daughter in St. Louis.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?

I had been working as a server in restaurants to pay my way through college. I started working at an upscale restaurant and that forever changed me. I began seeing food like I had never seen before and as a result I started asking a lot of questions experimenting with recipes and products at home. I was very fortunate to work with a chef that really embraced my curiosity and encouraged me to go to culinary school.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

I don’t have a specific food focus, but I do gravitate to vegetable cookery. I definitely started to concentrate on vegetables when I was working at In de Wulf restaurant in Belgium. It was the first time I saw vegetables of that quality and it changed the way I started to think about food and where our food comes from.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

When I was living in Belgium, I took the underground ferry into England with a colleague. We had such a great lunch at the Sportsman in Kent and then we rented a car to drive back across. We forgot that people drive on the left side of the road and we had to pull over multiple times because we were laughing so hard, and it was a huge surprise that we made it back home!

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

Money woes for one, but we don’t need to get into that. I think the biggest thing for me was having started cooking later in life. I had read books about young French cooks starting at age 16 and I felt an internal pressure to catch up. I really put my head down, would stage, read books, and work for the best possible chefs. I worked for Chefs that were very hard on me and taught me it’s not just about talent, but about hard work and drive.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

In my experience, I think dishes have to be thoughtful, explosive, balanced, and visually appealing.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

Chips and my wife’s guacamole! I really think the perfect meal has to do with who you are with and food that is simple in presentation, but you know so much has gone into it.

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

My inspiration comes from the products that are in season and the quality of the products. I find inspiration by going to farmers markets, foraging and cookbooks that I have accumulated along the way.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

As of now, nothing in the coals. This pandemic really hit our industry hard and we had to pivot and change so many times. Right now, it’s focusing on developing our staff and keeping Vicia a place with genuine hospitality and delicious food.

What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

I should take my own advice, but chefs tend to work themselves too hard. You have to build trust. Developing your team and letting them take ownership instead of micromanaging will let you avoid burnout.

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. You will have to work weekends and holidays. I have missed out on a lot of important events and if I had to take it back, I would have asked for the time off.

2. Long Hours. Who knew cooking and cleaning takes so long? My wife used to get angry at me when I lived in Oakland and I worked in San Francisco. I would consistently miss the last train into Oakland and she would have to come and pick me up.

3. It’s infectious. There is something about the buzz of a busy service that is going smoothly that is so gratifying.

4. Camaraderie. You meet so many great people and most of the people you meet along the way are friends for life. The restaurant breeds a different type of person.

5. Learn all you can before you decide to be a chef. This industry is a marathon and not a race. We never stop learning, and it takes years of trying, failing, and picking yourself back up again.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

It’s hard to pinpoint that one since we change our menu so often. I would say our take on tacos. We use a root vegetable taco shell, shiitake mushrooms, kale, and fermented hot sauce. It is a fun take on the traditional taco.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

It would be nice to put an end to food desserts. Not every part of society has access to fresh food and healthy food options. Educating children and families about where their food comes from and how to make healthy choices.

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

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