I first met Esther Sánchez at The Four Seasons Punta Mita, in Riviera Nayarit, Mexico whilst working on a food photography shoot in 2017. Esther’s blend of Mexican, Middle Eastern and Asian cuisines makes her cooking style unique. She enjoys delighting each and every table at Aramara and getting to know her customers personally. —Diana DeLucia
GK: Esther, tell us about your journey to Punta Mita.
I am from Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city known for its mariachi music, wide-brimmed sombreros, the Mexican hat dance and charreadas (rodeos) and a fusion of the old and the new in architecture and in the culinary scene.
My Grandma took care of me until I was six years old and like almost all grandmas in Mexico, she was a fantastic cook. I loved watching her in the kitchen making lunch and dinner. I was always asking her if I could help her and she used to let me do some of the simple things. My dad was the cook at home as my mom worked full time. I used to go to the market with my dad after school, and we would often decide what we were going to make together.
After high school, I went to Edmonton, Alberta in Canada to learn English, and it was during this time that I worked in a restaurant for a small period. It wasn’t the type of food that I enjoyed, but it gave me the experience of working in a kitchen. I realized that I enjoyed the challenging work environment and I knew that this was the type of career I wanted to pursue. When I finished my English studies, I returned to Mexico and enrolled at The Culinary Institute of Mexico in Puebla and completed my four-year degree in 2006. You know, sometimes in our life, we think to ourselves if we are doing the right thing, or making the right decision, I didn’t have this thought at all. I was always practicing cooking during my degree; I would invite my friends over and cook for them to practice my craft.
Towards the end of my degree, some recruiters from the Four Seasons in Houston, Texas came to interview some students, and I was one of them. I was chosen, and I went to Houston and worked as a cook at the Four Seasons for one and a half years. At first, I was cooking meals for the staff, and doing prep work. Then they put me onto the breakfast brunches which was a massive undertaking and arduous task as it was the most popular brunch in the city. I learned a lot from these experiences. One of the most rewarding experiences while I was there was interacting with the guests, I loved to hear their feedback and get to know people from all walks of life.
I began to work at the Italian Restaurant Quattro, also at the Four Seasons in Houston, and there I learned how to make fresh pasta and other Italian cuisines. It was during this time that I came to visit my parents in Guadalajara, and my dad took me on a trip to Puerto Vallarta. He took me to the Four Seasons Punta Mita and encouraged me to apply for a position. I went through the interview process successfully, and I have been working here ever since. At first, I started as a cook in banquets, and then I became chef de partie, and now I am the restaurant chef at Aramara Restaurant.
GK: Tell us about your trip to Syria.
I had the opportunity to go to Damascus, Syria to assist in the presentation of a Mexican food promotion for ten days in 2010 with chef Jose Salas. I couldn’t believe that I was going to be in the Middle East. It was a great opportunity as I always wondered about the different cultures and even though I was the only woman in the kitchen they respected me a lot, and they showed great appreciation for our cuisine.
In September of 2015, I had the opportunity to go to the Middle East again, this time to El Cairo, Egypt, we had the same mission; to show the world how good Mexican food really is. I had achieved one of my biggest dreams, to live in El Cairo and learn all I could about the great Pyramids of Giza.
In 2014 they gave me a promotion to sous chef at Ketsi. When the restaurant chef left, I was in charge. Ketsi is a significant operation because it’s the Mexican restaurant, we have breakfast, lunch and dinner and all the service at the beach areas. In May of 2017, I returned to Aramara as the restaurant chef. It was the right place for me to be. I love the strong Asian flavors and Japanese cuisine. It’s very contemporary Asian cuisine. I enjoy it here and its never dull; it keeps me very busy. I love creating the chefs table every Friday, the menu is never the same, and as soon as I know each table reservation I ask if there are any food restrictions, allergies, likes and dislikes and I write the menu, every table has a different menu experience as they all have different desires and tastes, this keeps things interesting for everyone.
Last summer I had an excellent opportunity to travel to Thailand and Vietnam, and this gave me some inspiration to add to the Aramara menu. I found this trip a great opportunity to be exposed to many more Asian flavors, ingredients, and new culinary techniques. I ate at one of the best restaurants in Asia “Gaggan,” and many of the small food stands in Vietnam.
GK: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
In five years career-wise I see myself as an executive chef in a luxurious hotel or resort, on the other hand, I would like to have a family and open my restaurant Puerto Vallarta, with a menu where I can show the people my culinary experience, Italian, Asian and of course Mexican cuisine.
I enjoy working at the Four Seasons, it’s an excellent company. There are so many opportunities to travel globally to learn and experience new cuisines and cultures.
Octopus Tlayuda, recipe by Esther Sanchez. Image by Diana Delucia.