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6 Chefs On The Familiar Joys Of Día De Los Muertos

To celebrate the Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead—Tequila Don Julio, The Infatuation, and Zagat present a cross-city collaboration among six different chefs across the nation. These exclusive food and drink pairings feature a Tequila Don Julio specialty cocktail that pairs perfectly with a family meal inspired by the chefs’ mentors. For each meal purchased, Tequila Don Julio will donate $25 to the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, up to $25,000 (no minimum donation). Meals are available from October 31st to November 2nd only, with limited quantities each night.

Zagat asked participating chefs to share their personal memories and experiences of Día de los Muertos, including how the holiday may be celebrated and enjoyed with their favorite Tequila Don Julio cocktail and foods to pair with it.

Drink and meal by chef Alan Delgado. Photo: Kate Previte.

Alan Delgado
Director of R&D, New York

For Día de los Muertos, my family would sometimes build altars for family members or friends that had passed that year. Other times, we would go and see people perform, or simply get together with the family and celebrate those that had passed by sharing stories. We’d eat pan de muertos or other items like calabaza en tacha—and my all-time favorite, tamales. Now you start seeing food from other countries and people from different cultures. As a chef, I am always searching for balance in my food, so working with items that are perfectly balanced—like Tequila Don Julio—makes my life a whole lot easier.

Chef Edgar Santiago. Photo: Krystal Thompson.

Edgar Santiago
Executive Chef, Los Angeles

In my family, Día de los Muertos is a very special celebration. We set up an altar de Muertos, and I either make or buy traditional bread known as pan de yema from Oaxaca. We make traditional black mole with pork, and for dessert we have homemade candied pumpkin. Knowing that Tequila Don Julio has Mexican origins makes it perfect to include in our traditions. The spirit of Mexico in food and spirits like tequila creates special moments and brings back memories. We can’t forget about the traditions our grandparents and great grandparents left behind. Even at a distance we conserve our traditions around food and drink.

Drink and meal by chef Manny Quintero. Photo: Kate Previte.

Manuel “Manny” Quintero
Sous Chef, New York

Back in Mexico, my grandmother was matriarch of the Quintero clan and orchestrated the Día de los Muertos celebrations for her deceased husband (my paternal grandfather). Typically, the ofrenda (altar) was erected on October 30 and kept in place until November 3. It was full of cempasúchil (marigolds, also known as flor de muerto) and gladiolas, cirios (candles blessed in the local church), and burning copal (tree resin which I extracted from the copal trees during trips to the sierra) to chase the bad spirits away.

On the night of November 1, Mexicans honor children who have died (also known as angelitos). The night of November 2nd is dedicated to adults who have passed on. We used to visit the cemetery on November 2, where we celebrate with our dearly departed, staying up all night and sharing their favorite dishes and drinks. My grandmother always prepared large portions of mole rojo de guajalote (turkey in red mole), costilla de
puerco en adobo (pork ribs in chile sauce) and pipián verde for the whole family and for placement on the ofrenda. I loved all these dishes. Typically, we honor our dead by serving their favorite food and libations which they enjoyed while they were alive. One of my favorites is costilla de puerco en adobo because it reminds me of my father, Andrés, who loved this dish.

The crisp flavors of the agave lend tequila to pairing well with Mexican food, which tends to be fatty, spicy, and delicious. A good drink like Tequila Don Julio pairs beautifully with barbacoa, pipián, mole, and fried fish. It’s very versatile and also goes well with many different kinds of Old World cheeses and cured meats.

Drink by chef Justin Delgado. Photo: Jordan Vonderhaar.

Justin Delgado
Chef de Cuisine, Austin

Growing up on this side of the border in South Texas, we didn’t really celebrate Día de los Muertos. But that’s not to say it wasn’t celebrated at all. You could drive around and go by cemeteries, and you would see them decorated, and colorful, and full of life. Sometimes family members would go out to the grave and leave glasses of water and flowers for some of our loved ones.

One of the first things I remember about the holiday as a kid were the calaveras de azucar. But as I got older, I realized it was more about the things you would make as a family, like tamales and moles. My family loves cabrito asado, and my favorite foods to prepare now for Día de los Muertos would have to be something that reminds me of my family. We always had freshly made flour tortillas and a grill going outside. It was always a celebration. And then there was always a bottle of Tequila Don Julio around. Hanging around a fire, sharing a bottle with family and friends, celebrating life, cooking together. I feel tequila goes so well with food because of this. Whether it’s friends, family, or strangers, people come together for good food and good drink, and they stick around for the good times.

Chef Joshua Gil. Photo: Krystal Thompson.

Joshua Gil
Executive Chef, Los Angeles

Growing up, we built a Día de los Muertos altar to commemorate our family and friends who had passed on. We lit candles and made plates of food, along with a very delicious drink for them. It’s a time to reflect on family and loved ones who are no longer with us. The classic, quintessential Día de los Muertos food is pan de muerto, along with mezcal and tequila—lots of mezcal and tequila. For me it’s about molletes de pan de muerto—pan de muerto cut open with melted cheese, refried beans, cotija, rajas, and nopales. It reminds me of my grandmother. And I’ve been getting Tequila Don Julio Blanco margaritas with a half-salted rim since I was old enough to drink. It’s a clean-tasting spirit that’s easy to pair with food and makes a mean margarita.

Drink and meal by chef Ruben Ortega. Photo: Shawn Chippendale.

Ruben Ortega
Executive Chef, Houston

We celebrate Día de los Muertos creating an altar, as it’s the tradition. We serve food that we display on the altar for our family members that have departed. Many times we would go to the cemetery and decorate their resting places with seasonal flowers and food, as well as drinks. It’s tradition to provide our departed loved ones with their favorite food and drink! Barbacoa, carnitas, tamales, sweet pumpkin candy (calabaza en tacha), seasonal fruit, the traditional pan de muerto, and tequila of course. We use Tequila Don Julio at our restaurants for our margaritas, and for a Día de los Muertos menu we created a special drink using Tequila Don Julio Reposado.