Food from the Heart
An Interview with Chef Aaron Melendrez
By: Jennifer Coco
There is a reason why some sayings become permanently fixed in the vernacular and it’s because they emanate from a place of truth. In kitchens around the country, you’ll hear things like, “she cooks from the heart” or, “the secret ingredient is love.” While a little cheesy, these clichés speak to the fact that food simply tastes better when it comes from an authentic, loving place. When a person is passionate about cooking, you can taste the joy in their food. Aaron Melendrez, owner and head chef of the successful sandwich shop Uptown Provisions in Whittier, California is the perfect example of this phenomenon. Aaron’s commitment to following his heart and intuition throughout his cooking career led him to create food that comes from a place of genuine emotion and inspiration. Based on Aaron’s success, it’s clear that diners crave his brand of authenticity.
Coming from a big family of modest means, Aaron’s early interest in food was born of necessity more than anything else. When dinner time came, Aaron either had to be the quickest or the cleverest to get enough to eat. Being young and small, Aaron relied on the latter technique and would hide under the kitchen table near mealtimes in order to gain favorable position amongst his sibling and cousins. This worked until about age nine when, according to Aaron, his cuteness wore off and his aunts and grandmother insisted that if he wanted to stay in the kitchen and get first dibs, he would have to help out with the cooking. Through helping prepare meals, Aaron began to master family recipes and learned how to cook from the heart relying on instinct and a taste-as-you-go method over measurements. This is where Aaron’s authentic style of cooking first developed or, as he puts it, “the beginnings of me being a junior chef.”
Despite his early interest in preparing and sharing food, Aaron’s path towards becoming a successful chef was not linear. After high school, he joined the Air Force where he worked as a computer networks/data security engineer for four years. He then returned to California and landed a lucrative job, but it didn’t take long for him to realize that it wasn’t for him. He recalled how much he loved working with food saying, “Food connects people. They have anniversaries over dinner, celebrations over dinner…food is central to communication and I wanted to be involved in that.” Ultimately, Aaron decided to trust his instincts and return to his first love. He quit his job and he wasn’t afraid to start at the bottom to turn his dreams into reality.
In a radical departure from his former career, Aaron reentered the restaurant industry as a busboy but quickly moved up through the ranks. Thanks to his passion and talent, Aaron had the opportunity to expand his knowledge of food and ingredients in notable restaurants including SoHo House, Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel-Air, and Michelin-starred Gordan Ramsey’s at the London Hotel. Through these experiences, Aaron acquired a deeper love and understanding of ingredients and chef work. Eventually, Aaron took his newly honed technical skills and combined them with his unique background as a home cook to create world class bar programs.
Flash forward to 2021 when a post-pandemic lull in his schedule gave Aaron the opportunity to pursue a new venture and open his own restaurant, a sandwich shop called Uptown Provisions. Despite a ton of pressure, including early media attention and a newborn baby at home, Uptown Provisions reaped early success in a notoriously difficult industry where failure is often the norm. After less than two years in business when most restaurants are still struggling to turn a profit, Melendrez is already talking expansion. He has developed a strong base of loyal customers who connect with his food because, as the saying goes, Aaron’s food is made with a lot of love. From creating a concept and menu to selecting ingredients, Aaron’s authentic love for cooking and sharing food is his recipe for success.
The decision to focus on sandwiches came from Aaron’s emotional connection to the food and that’s something you can taste when biting into some of his creations. Aaron explains, “sandwiches have always been a love letter between me and my wife.” With Aaron working long, unpredictable hours and his wife Sarah having a more traditional schedule, the two would make each other sandwiches as an expression of love and a way to stay connected. They would talk about what the other one made and would always joke about one day opening a sandwich shop. What started in jest slowly became more serious when the pair moved to Whittier and couldn’t find a sandwich spot that offered anything like what they made for each other. So, they built a place for themselves.
In addition to being what drove Uptown Provisions’ opening, love factored greatly into the menu creation and is something you can taste in every item. The Chicken Curry Salad Sandwich, for example, is inspired by one of the first things that Sarah made for Aaron. The care and attention to detail put into this sandwich comprised of KEWPIE mayonnaise, curry, smoked peach and ginger spread, celery, golden raisins, slivered almonds, pickled onion, herb salad mix, and avocado reflects the meaningfulness of the memory, “I can still remember the taste of it…it was unique, fresh, and gave me a glimpse of her kitchen creativity.” Furthermore, Aaron describes being inspired by “the beautiful yet humble sandwiches my mom made me as a kid.” Uptown Provisions’ turkey sandwich, with ingredients like harissa-preserved lemon mayo and onion jam, is definitely an elevated version of what his mom sent him to school with, but one can still feel the emotion and nostalgia behind the dish. No matter where the inspiration comes from, Aaron’s sandwiches are extraordinary because you can taste the love that goes into making them. The level of authenticity that Aaron has captured is something that can’t be faked and that chefs strive for.
The love that goes into each item on Aaron’s menu is further evidenced by the way he carefully selects each and every ingredient. For example, when asked to describe Uptown Provisions’ signature egg salad sandwich, he passionately talks about each ingredient in detail. The bread isn’t simply sourdough, but a locally fresh-baked brioche made every morning by Jesse, the extra-talented baker from Hey Brother’s Bakery. The Grade AA eggs, which I learned means eggs that are less than six days old, are also local and come from chickens raised on an all kelp diet that gives the yolks a bright orange color and jammy texture. Even his choice in mayo was meticulous:
“The sandwich was inspired by Japanese-style egg salad sandwich, which automatically led me to thinking that I needed to use KEWPIE… I wanted an extra heavy egg yolk mayo that has this umami sensation to it. That’s exactly what KEWPIE is.”
Aaron’s commitment to using superior ingredients results in a product that customers can’t get enough of. While some restauranteurs focus on selecting the most cost-effective ingredients, Aaron’s passion means he will never sacrifice flavor for profit. The decision to put financial considerations on the back burner has ironically only added Uptown Provision’s success.
The food served at Uptown Provisions comes from a place of authenticity and genuine inspiration. Aaron does what he wants and doesn’t try to manufacture a menu or concept based on trends in the industry. In fact, that’s his advice to others thinking about entering the restaurant business. He says, “If you’re on a journey trying to achieve something that you’ve never done, there are going to be a lot of naysayers but if you believe in it you don’t have to explain it to anyone just go for it. Whether you want to be a sandwich maker or a pizza maker or a cheese monger just go for it. Try your best and figure it out along the way.” It’s good advice, because, as Aaron knows, if you follow your heart, you can’t go wrong.