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'Chefs vs. City' comes to L.A., turns the tables on chef Aaron Sanchez

September 10, 2009 |  6:03 am

Aaron Does chef Aarón Sánchez have an enemy at Food Network?

Sánchez stars in the new series "Chefs vs. City" -- think "Amazing Race" for the food and travel set. Each week, Sánchez and longtime friend Chris Cosentino drop into cities all across the country to compete against a pair of local chefs in a series of food challenges that serve to show off a region's culinary and travel highlights.

Sounds all well and good. But so far this season, Sánchez has been sent charging across the blazing hot desert, has been force fed like a foie gras duck, has cracked his elbow in a serious fall, has been subjected to sub-zero temperatures -- and has been berated by sidekick Cosentino at every turn. Friday night's show finds the pair in L.A., and though we can't give anything away, we can say that Sánchez does battle with some chili peppers -- and doesn't necessarily get the better of them.

"I'm telling you, I have been put through the ringer.  Sometimes I'm like, 'Is someone out to get me?' " Sánchez joked during a recent telephone interview. "Chris and I didn't necessarily know what we were signing up for. Those challenges are real, and they are grueling. But I am really enjoying this."

It's a starkly different side of Sánchez than the one that Food Network audiences normally see.

If you watch "Chopped!" -- and if you don't, you should -- you'll recall Sánchez as

an exacting judge, almost regal in his bearing, and patriarchal at that. Though he does not spare competitors his wrath, he almost always has something encouraging to say to them, as if he sees something of himself in their eyes.

"I have this serious judgmental side to me," Sánchez acknowledged, "but I think it's also important to see me making fun and making a fool of myself." After all, said Sánchez, a New York restaurateur with Paladar and Centrico to his name, it's only fair. "How can I judge people if I'm not willing to subject myself to competition?"

All fun and games aside, Sánchez said he and Cosentino signed on to "Chefs vs. City" as a way to travel the country meeting fellow chefs, artisan food makers and craftspeople, and eating at some of the most legendary restaurants along the way. "Who wouldn't want to do that?" said Sánchez, who is known for putting a contemporary spin on classic Latin cuisine.

That's not to say that there haven't been a few bumps. Take the season opener: Sánchez was racing out a door onto a New York sidewalk when -- splat! -- he took a hard fall, landing on his elbow. "I took a nasty, nasty spill," he recalled. "I thought I was seriously hurt." But he was professional enough to ask whether he should redo the shot again, without the fall. "But [the crew] looked at me like, 'Are you crazy?' They said, 'We loved it! Can you fall like that again for us so we can get it from another angle?' I'm like, 'No! I have no elbow now. I hope you are happy.' "

Luckily, there was no lasting damage.

Sánchez said he thinks "Chef's vs. City" has given him greater insight into the pressures of competition. "I think I'm a little more patient. A little more understanding. And, I have to say, also a little more demanding of myself and others."

That could be good news -- or very, very bad news -- for future competitors on "Chopped."

-- Rene Lynch

Photo credit: Food Network