So, it is not surprising it was food that helped her get the word out about her life's mission – finding her sister, Judy, who has been missing since Nov. 30, 1980. Judith Erin O'Donnell was last seen at the bus terminal, headed to New York City after a family gathering for Thanksgiving in Baltimore, Md.
Now living – coincidentally – in Oswego, Ill., Sanchez competed on the popular Food Network show, "Chopped," in February, where she created the opportunity to speak openly about her quest to find her sister and bring to the forefront the plight of missing people all over the country.
Chopped, which consists of four chefs going head-to-head, has a cash prize of $10,000 for the winner.
"If I won, I was going to hire a private investigator to find out what happened to Judy," she said. "But my competing on Chopped was about the missing in this country as much as it was about Judy."
Being selected to compete on Chopped is no small feat, but Sanchez downplays that recognition next to the importance of getting recognition for her sister. Normally, it is seasoned chefs who compete, but in February the show held a special edition entitled, "Untrained, Undaunted," which gave home cooks like Sanchez a chance to compete in the celebrated kitchen.
In each episode of Chopped, there are three rounds of competition – appetizer, entree and dessert – and each chef is given a mystery basket which can hold some bizarre or unfamiliar ingredients. The cooks are asked to create a delicious dish using these ingredients in a short amount of time and at the end of each round, one chef is "chopped" until there is one left standing.
Sanchez was chopped in the second round, but not before she was able to make her plea for help to find her sister and describe the plight of the missing in the United States.
"The other contestants were highly competitive and I am competitive," she said. "I got Judy's story out and that was my mission. I won before the first mystery basket was opened!"
Sanchez described the experience as amazing and said she enjoyed working with the people on the set and behind the cameras and loved the editing. Going into a competition like Chopped, she said you definitely have to have a plan or you will be "dead in the water."
"I showed up with a plan of basically three things I would try to do," she revealed. "You try to plan for what three items you are going to make – like salad or soup in the first course. Each basket has pretty predictable elements even though the ingredients are not – a protein, salt and starch and oddball ingredients. You have to figure out how the ingredients will fit."
Sanchez said the pressure of the show is not necessarily the cooking, but the fast thinking needed to come up with a dish that showcases the ingredients but is also cohesive. In her second round, she said she was given Ostrich fan meat, purple asparagus, blueberry wine and fish row in a tube.
Sanchez said her downfall was not so much what the ingredients were, but rather what host Ted Allen called them that tricked her up.
"The ostrich meat as referred to as ostrich fan meat, so I was thinking it would be tough," she said. "But it was actually ostrich fillet and I should have treated it differently."
Sanchez said she practiced a lot prior to the show, primarily on the appetizer to see how much she could get done in 20 minutes.
"And I practiced desserts, but not the entree as much as I should have," she admitted.
The most challenging thing she said was not having time to get acquainted with the pantry of ingredients and using an unfamiliar stove.
"Because I didn't realize how hot professional stoves cook, my sauce evaporated on me no matter how much liquid I kept adding."
She said her dish consisted of crisping up some shallots and making pan sautéed purple asparagus and combining the fish roe in a tube, Merlot and the blueberry wine for a pan reduction sauce.
"I grilled the ostrich and served it with rice and a simple mixed green salad that included purple lettuce to complement the asparagus along with a simple Dijon mustard vinaigrette."
Sanchez said the judges – Marc Murphy, Alex Guarnaschelli and Scott Conant – chopped her for overcooking the ostrich and her execution of the sauce, but raved about her vinaigrette, especially Murphy.
Sanchez laughed when she described the process of creating her bio for the show.
"They tried so hard to get me to have an attitude and make a bold, arrogant, statement for the show to build upon the competition level," she said. "But I was tired and hungry and hadn't had coffee in a few hours. I blurted out that I was going to win 'because I am a mom and I said so!'"
She said her first thought was "Oh, no, should I have said that?" Instead, it became her signature line, giving many home-cook moms watching the show an affinity for the Oswego mother of three.
Even though she did not win the competition, Sanchez said she did what she set out to do – get the word out about Judy and perhaps strike a chord in someone who may have some information about her or someone who may have known her. Someone, she said, who may hold a tiny piece of seemingly insignificant information (to them) that may lead to her sister.
"I am still trying to find that one person who knows what happened to my sister," she said. "People don't just die without being seen by someone."
Ironically, when Sanchez was 19, she inadvertently became embroiled in a local murder in Oswego and found herself in the position of being that last person to see a murder victim alive.
"I had a routine and always went to get cigarettes at the gas station down the road," she said. "That night, the young girl, Susan Muckey, was there as usual, but she kept asking me if I needed to get gas; did I want some gas?"
Sanchez said she did not pick up on it at the time, but did notice a guy standing in the store. and said she realized now that Muckey was trying to get her to stay.
"I knew something wasn't right but I didn't act on it in the store," she said. "I bought the cigarettes and left."
When Sanchez got home, she said she could not shake the idea that something was wrong and mentioned it to her parents when she got home.
The next day, Valentine's Day, she learned her feelings of uneasiness were warranted when Muckey's body was found. Sanchez said she was already at work when the station was cordoned off and a roadblock set up.
"I was boxing up roses at Greenman Gardens when the state troopers came in to talk with me," Sanchez said.
She said it was her father who told the police at the roadblock about his daughter's apprehension after leaving the gas station the night before.
The state troopers informed Sanchez of Muckey's death and of the fact that she was the last person to see her alive.
"The troopers wanted to talk to me to see what I had seen, to see if I knew anything or had seen anything that might seem insignificant to me," she said.
Sanchez provided testimony during the trial and Muckey's boyfriend – the man Sanchez had seen in the store that night – was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
"I was that one person for Susan and I am still looking for that one person for Judy," she stressed.
To that end, Sanchez said she has probably called every person with a name remotely similar to Judith O'Donnell, Erin O'Day, Tuffy O'Donnell, Judi, Judy, Judie and left messages identifying herself and why she's calling. She said her quest is generally well-received, if not unrequited.
"I cannot tell you how many messages I have left looking for my sister," she said. "Every once in a while one would call me back to tell me they were not the one I was looking for and how sorry they were."
When there are high-profile cases of unidentified remains or there is a mass murder case that has an unidentified victim, Sanchez will call and talk with the investigators directly.
"Part of what makes NAMUS (namus.gov) and findthemissing.org so powerful is that precincts from around the country can now pool resources – add information from NCIC, dental records, photos, modes of transportation – all in one place," Sanchez explained. "The database was an outcropping of the work done in conjunction with identifying the remains of victims of 9/11/2001. It's a database funded by the Department of Justice and has the potential to help solve many missing persons cases and murder cases around the country."
She said from time to time, people question why she is still looking after all these years.
"I live a purpose driven life and for now my purpose is finding my sister," Sanchez explained. "There is definitely a part of me that believes she just walked away, but that is such a small part of me. I just want to find her body and give her a proper resting place. How can I give up, knowing that she's out there somewhere?"
Sanchez said one of her professors at SUNY Oswego, Dr. Ram Chaudhari, described her once as a balloon filled with helium.
"He said, you can push her down and push her down, but she will always pop back up," she said. "Whenever anyone tries to discourage me or put me down, I hear Dr. Chaudhari's voice in my head encouraging me as that indomitable balloon."
Sanchez still has family residing in Oswego. Check out her blog at www.yummyyummyschlurp.blogspot.com.
Join in her search for Judy by joining her Facebook group at facebook.com/groups/lookingforjudy/.
About Maureen O'Donnell Sanchez
Career: A 1984 graduate of Bishop Cunningham High School, Sanchez attended SUNY Oswego as a Spanish major and is the founder of the SUNY-Oswego alumni group on LinkedIn. She is also a reunion volunteer, with plans to give a presentation on personal branding through social media during this year's Reunion Weekend. After college, Sanchez started out in customer service at a Cambridge software developer and she continued in various capacities for different technology companies, moving from Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, and Raleigh, before finding a career much more to her taste. She has always found a way to be at home with her kids no matter what role she's had. Today, she works as a sales representative for Petrossian, selling delicacies like truffles and caviar to high-end restaurants, hotels, and caterers in Chicago and beyond.
Family: Married to Gene, regional director of operations for Chartwells-Thompson in the Chicago Public Schools System. They have three children, Evelyn, 4, Ernie, 6, and Dru, 9.
Culinary experience: Sanchez said she has always loved cooking and actually used to do a lot of the menu creating and cooking for her parents' dinner parties. She started baking bread when she was 8 years old and it was Sanchez who introduced her mother to cooking with garlic, star fruit and eating things like calamari. Her mom taught her to love gardening and preserving fresh fruits and vegetables. She and her husband are devotees of scratch cooking, focusing on using often self-grown, unprocessed ingredients to create healthy gourmet meals for their children.
"Our kids love to eat good food; you will rarely meet a modern family who eats as well as we do. We grow our own vegetables, dry our own herbs, and do our own canning," Sanchez said. "In my family it is all about the food which translates into healthy living. We cook as a family all the time and coconut shrimp is a family favorite." She said her children have inherited her culinary savvy.
"My 6-year-old was sitting next to me while we were watching the Chopped episode," she recalled. "He turned to me and said, 'I think you are going to get chopped because your ostrich is overcooked and you don't have enough sauce.'"
He was absolutely right, she said proudly. Stinker.
Inspiration for her love of cooking: Family friends, the DelRios, from Spain, Pedro, Isabella and her sister, Angelita. Pedro taught Spanish at the college and Angelita was a widow who lived with them. Her family would often have dinner with them on Sundays, which included paella. "It was absolutely delicious and amazing. It was eye-opening for me to use local ingredients and make something so wonderful." She cited Irina Eby as another inspiration. "She was the first person to show me how to eat an artichoke and ironically, it is my kids favorite vegetable." She has learned a lot from many friends along the way, and in her travels around the US, in the Caribbean, and Europe.