Ricardo Prado always thought his father, chef Toribio Prado, wove stories akin to the magical realism of the author Gabriel García Márquez. “Everything in Toribio’s memory seemed to edge up on but never quite touch reality,” one friend recalled. Toribio seemed mercurial, brilliant, childlike and troubled. Another friend compared Toribio, whose family called him T, to the artist Salvador Dali — the difference being that while one painted his dreams, the other turned them into fantastical fusion cuisine at legendary eateries including The Ivy, Cha Cha Cha and CAVA.
Prado died in August at the young age of 54. “To say his life as a youngster was tough is an understatement,” his son Ricardo wrote in an email. Prado was one of 14 children on a small country ranch in central Michoacán, Mexico, 100 miles away from the nearest big city. “As with many ranching families in Mexico at the time, the boys tended to the cornfields, working 12-hour days, beginning at 4 in the morning.”
“T was always a rebel from a young boy, wanting to escape the strenuous days of work on the fields; he often stayed home and helped the women make the food for the men,” said the younger Prado. “This earned him the ridicule of his brothers."
Prado, functionally illiterate at the time, longed to experience the wider world. He left home at 15 — according to family lore, after a violent fight with his father — and joined one of his brothers who was already in the United States. Toribio began the hard life of a restaurant worker in numerous restaurants in America. Throughout the 1970s, he worked punishing hours for little pay, learning the ins and outs of cooking and service. "Even if it meant ... being verbally abused by French master chefs,” said Ricardo.
Soon, the entire Prado clan came to Los Angeles, and worked in the kitchens of L.A. Toribio eventually ended up at the legendary Hugo’s in West Hollywood, where, he claimed, he had a role in creating the menu. Hugo’s owner Terri Kaplan disputes this account. “Toribio was a polite, very quiet, hard-working young busboy,” he told the blog Local Food Eater. “But I didn’t know he cooked! Believe me, I would have loved him cooking in the kitchen for Hugo’s.”
Eventually, Prado found his place at Irving’s fabled, star-studded Ivy on Robertson Boulevard, which opened in 1980. According to Local Food Eater:
"When George Christy convinced Lynn von Kersting and Richard Irving to expand their bakery concept into a restaurant, they needed a chef. Toribio arrived on the scene at a private dinner party [that was] missing a chef, and convinced them to let him try his hand."
He was a smash success, impressing Kersting and Irving so much after just one night that they hired him to lead the Ivy's kitchen. The restaurant became the premier power-lunch location in L.A. and retained that status for many years.
Prado’s blend of Cajun and Creole spices, his use of fruit and his delicious Anadama bread (a New England specialty made with molasses and cornmeal) brought the hungry elite through the Ivy’s posh, paparazzi-lined doors. Prado was given to telling what were almost certainly tall tales, adding a bit of theater to his cooking. According to Local Food Eater, “He claimed he learned how to make the Anadama bread from a family who took him in (in a driving rainstorm) on a research trip … in New Orleans.”
It was one of Prado’s most oft-told tales that would inspire his jump from chef to restaurateur. He decided in 1986 to open Cha Cha Cha (at the corner of Virgil and Melrose) because of the Caribbean recipes he had learned, he claimed, on a magical journey as a young teen: After running away from home, "He made his way to the Caribbean coast, where he would eventually stow away on every ship and plane he could to see all the islands, working for free in strange faraway kitchens until he learned the true flavor of Caribbean cuisine," said his son. Coming to L.A. (from wherever he was), Prado realized the absence of pan-Caribbean/Latin cuisine, and the idea for Cha Cha Cha was born. The ramshackle, colorful restaurant was everything the proper, haute Ivy was not. According to a 1996 L.A. Times review, a meal there was a “jubilant dinner party in progress, filling the air with a host of enticements — citrus, garlic, and nose-itching chilies.”
New Cha Cha Chas soon opened in Long Beach, Encino and San Francisco. Next came the more upscale CAVA at the Beverly Plaza Hotel (since closed), which blended Spanish cooking with Caribbean flavors. “T was on fire that year in 1992,” Ricardo recalled. “He was nominated as rising star chef by the James Beard Foundation, not bad for a guy who never went through any culinary training.”
Next came Cha Cha Chicken in 1996, a more casual, Caribbean roadside-style eatery on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica. “This was the first restaurant he opened on his own without partners, without strings attached, without investors. Small scale,” his son explained. “By this point, misdealings with bad partners and investors drove him to open something that was truly his own. Cha Cha Chicken was opened as a kind of middle finger to all his foes and mainstream restaurants.”
Toribio’s passion for food was matched only by his love for his family, which included three children. According to Ricardo, his father’s “artistic tendencies made our house like a museum of modern art, and he really instilled his rebel nature and skepticism in us.”
For his employees (many of whom were also his family), he could be inspiring but, more often, terrifying. “T was definitely a force to be reckoned with, especially in the kitchen,” his son recalled. “Whatever training he did have was by loud, cursing, abusive Frenchmen. This behavior often embodied his style in the kitchen. ... As a kid, I would often witness men coming to tears when faced with my father's wrath.”
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Despite his histrionics, Prado inspired intense devotion in his employees. “As rough as he was in the kitchen, his heart was just as big as his head,” his son said. Toribio inspired many in his family to get into the restaurant business. In 2003, his nephews, Miguel and Jorge Anaya, bought the original Cha Cha Cha (sadly, it closed in 2016) and continue to operate Pinches Tacos. The family also still owns Cha Cha Chicken in Santa Monica and Northridge.
“T's courage inspired all in his family to eventually have their own businesses,” Ricardo writes. “In that way, he continues to live on. It was his raw audaciousness and his determination that inspired all he met that they could do it too, if you worked hard enough. … Anyone is capable of good cooking once you understand the fundamentals of cooking and the alchemy of flavors. You never truly know it all, always innovate, deconstruct, make it new, exciting, and always, always make sure it’s tasty.”