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Colorado chef celebrates Día de los Muertos with recipe that honor his family traditions

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Chef Oscar Padilla at his restaurant

DENVER During Día de los Muertos, Oscar Padilla honors his grandmother Gloria.

“She showed me the basics to celebrate and incorporate all these components and food to receive and welcome our family after they pass away,” said Padilla.

Padilla is originally from Los Angeles, California but said at one point in his life he went to live with his grandmother in Mexico City. “This changed my life,” he said. “It gave me the opportunity to discover my blood, my family in Mexico and all the traditions they have at that amazing country.”

Padilla is now the executive chef at Toro, a Cherry Creek restaurant that features a ceviche bar, small plates and family-style entrees. Toro shares authentic Latin ingredients, international flavors and artful dishes. 

While in Mexico, Padilla was first introduced to a career in the kitchen. His first teacher? Gloria.

“She showed me the traditional techniques to make molcajete salsa, moles — traditional dishes to celebrate the specific parties or traditions that Mexico has,” he explained.

Those recipes, Padilla said, have been passed down in his family from generation to generation. “These traditions are to celebrate them but it’s also to celebrate us too,” added Padilla. 

Colorado Voices

Chef Padilla talks about Dia de los Muertos

Prior to his role as executive chef at Toro, Padilla was a culinary trainer for Richard Sandoval Hospitability. He helped open more than 15 new restaurants in the United States, Dubai, Qatar, Mexico, and Costa Rica. Padilla also has a passion for training aspiring chefs, never forgetting his Mexican roots and traditions. 

“A lot of people are so scared of death,” he said, “but in Mexico, we celebrate with the dead. It’s to celebrate and share and be happy because at some point you are in communion again. You remember your family and you’re there on that day.”

Día de los Muertos is celebrated November 1-2 every year primarily in Mexico, but also by others around the world including some in the United States. The holiday is rooted in Aztec culture, where the dead are the guests of honor. The ceremony is like a family reunion that helps people remember the deceased and celebrate their memory.

Through the years, people have developed different combinations of the fundamental traditions, which most often include setting up a candlelit altar so spirits can find their way back to their relatives. The altar includes food and items that were important to the one who passed. Families then often gather in the graveyard for a big party that includes a huge feast, cleaning the tombstones, singing songs and talking to their ancestors. 

“It’s something we need to respect, and we want to share it not only with the people in Mexico, but we want to share it with everybody around the world,” said Padilla.


Julio Sandoval is a multimedia journalist with Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him at juliosandoval@rmpbs.org.

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