Oscar Padilla was offered the opportunity to go on Food Network’s “Chopped” cooking competition series three times while he was working for Richard Sandoval Hospitality over the past 10 years.
But Padilla, who previously served as executive chef of Toro and Tamayo, both in Denver, was too busy traveling the world, helping the restaurant group open 17 concepts as a corporate trainer.
“I remember when I first started my career almost 20 years ago, and I would watch the first seasons of ‘Chopped,’ and it seemed impossible to imagine being one of the amazing chefs competing and winning,” Padilla said. “I would sit down at home with my baby and my son, feeling like a judge, and when I finally got the chance to be on the show, I was panicking the day before. My wife, meanwhile, was joking about what an expert I always thought I was.”
When he got the call in August last year for a fourth opportunity to compete on the show, which is hosted by Ted Allen, “I was like, ‘Let’s do this,’” Padilla said. He was getting ready to leave Richard Sandoval anyway and start his own business, so the timing was finally right.
Food Network flew Padilla to New York in October last year to film the pork-themed episode, which aired Feb. 7, called “Pig Candy. Padilla felt confident thanks to his experience butchering and roasting whole pigs and working over open flames. Each chef was tasked with making an appetizer, entree and dessert with a mystery basket of ingredients.
“My principal purpose was to share with everybody my Latin American roots, which is something I explain on the show and demonstrate with my skills, flavors and things I learned from my family, grandma and friends,” Padilla said. “I’ve been working with several chefs from Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela and Costa Rica.”
For the appetizer, using pork belly bao buns, coppa steaks, barbecue-flavored vodka and peaches, Padilla made chimichurri salad with pork belly and flambe peaches. For the second round, using a mystery basket of tongue and blood pudding, mustard greens, porchetta roast and paneer cheese, he created enchiladas.
To win it all on the dessert round, Padilla turned a basket of pork neck bones, pickled ginger, cranberries, apple cider doughnuts into Mexican buñuelos, a fried dough fritter.
“It was a dream come true,” he said after winning the episode. “After all those years watching, I never thought I’d be on this side of the TV. I felt so sentimental and almost cried. I was proud to share this win with my family and friends.”
Padilla, a Los Angeles native, started his career at the Bankers Club in Mexico, which is where Richard Sandoval discovered him in 2013. He moved to Denver the next year, helping the group open Toro in Cherry Creek and Zengo in Platt Park, which closed in 2017. He spent the last nine years traveling to Dubai, Mexico, and around the U.S. as a corporate trainer.
But after all those years of traveling, Padilla said he “preferred to be at home with my wife and kids, watching cartoons.” He left the restaurant group in December 2022 to open a woodfired catering business, Fuego, with his wife Norma. Then, in January, he opened Gaucho Parrilla, which means cowboy barbecue in, Arvada’s Freedom Street Social food hall. The menu is Argentinian-inspired, made with locally sourced ingredients and cooked on a wood-fired grill.
Padilla said he’s opening a second Gaucho Parrilla location in Houston in March, plus a cevicheria food stall in Freedom Street Social in April.
“I want to bring respect and attention to my Latin American culture and all those who have helped me through my career – my grandma, my wife, my mentors and chefs I’ve worked with– which is what Gaucho represents,” Padilla said.
Padilla watched the “Chopped” episode live at Gaucho Parrilla, surrounded by more than 100 family, friends and supporters, none of which he was able to tell beforehand that he won.
“It was one of the hardest secrets to keep, and everyone went crazy when they found out,” he said.
Chef Oscar Padilla, behind the counter at left, takes an order at his new restaurant Gaucho Parrilla in Arvada on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
Chef Oscar Padilla prepares Wood Fire Cauliflower (honey-chili garlic sauce, Fresno chilies salad, spicy pumpkin seeds) and Churrasco a la Brasa (skirt steak 8oz, patatas bravas, house chimichurri, smoked salt) at his new restaurant Gaucho Parrilla in Arvada on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
Wood Fire Cauliflower (honey-chili garlic sauce, Fresno chilies salad, spicy pumpkin seeds) of Gaucho Parrilla in Arvada, Colorado on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
Churrasco a la Brasa (skirt steak 8oz, patatas bravas, house chimichurri, smoked salt) of Gaucho Parrilla in Arvada on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
Padilla accepted the title of “Chopped” champion while holding his daughter’s stuffed pig named Pancho, which now has its own pig pen in Gaucho Parrilla. He also won $10,000 as prize money, and rather than putting it towards his business, he decided to gift it to his other half.
“The money is for my wife,” Padilla said. “She’s put a lot of support in me during my career, putting her hold on her career and sacrificing her dreams. Now, it’s time to pay it back.”
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