Turkey with a Twist: Oscar Diaz Shares his Take on Thanksgiving

The executive chef of Cortez serves a delicious fusion of traditional recipes that are an homage to his heritage, friends and family.
by Catherine Currin | photography by Eamon Queeney

Oscar Diaz is turning Thanksgiving as we know it upside down. The James Beard-nominated executive chef of Cortez  has been cooking up fresh, flavor-packed seafood on Glenwood Avenue for five years. And much like his popular restaurant, his Thanksgiving menu riffs on a collection of traditions and influences from his family, neighbors and travels.

Diaz grew up in Chicago with his brother and his parents, who were both born in Mexico and moved to the United States as teenagers. “Thanksgiving was one of those holidays we always celebrated, but it wasn’t traditional,” says Diaz. “It wasn’t in my mom’s repertoire of cooking.” For the Diaz family, celebratory meals included things like pozole, mole and tamales — dishes that were just as time-consuming as a roast turkey and all the fixings, but with a totally different flavor profile.

So when someone would drop off a turkey to the house as a holiday gift, it was a family task to figure out how to make use of the large bird, he says. “You can break down a turkey and make 10 dishes; they’re fantastic, creative and not repetitive,” says Diaz. Instead of roasting the whole turkey and bringing it out on a platter, they’d break it apart and shred it to fill tacos or tamales, or roast the turkey breast to serve with Mexican sides like salsa and guacamole. “We made our own version of a Thanksgiving feast,” says Diaz. “It was more about gathering — sitting down and having a nice meal together.”

Over the decades, Diaz and his family picked up new traditions from friends and neighbors from all walks of life, but always maintained an infusion of Mexican traditions in the mix, resulting in a delicious melting pot of flavors and cultures. “I didn’t cook back then, but I ate very well,” says Diaz. And as he got older, he started to get more excited about playing around in the kitchen and brought that same spirit of experimentation to both his professional cooking and the way he entertains at home. In 2011, Diaz moved to Raleigh to work with the Ibarra family on Jose and Sons, and over time he became executive chef at Cortez.

These days, every Thanksgiving is always a little different. “The only tradition is to get together with friends — I always make sure to gather a bunch of people who aren’t near family,” Diaz says. Often, his communal celebrations include staff from Cortez and folks in the industry, true appreciators of cuisine who challenge Diaz to flex his creative muscles in the kitchen. “It might not be practical, but I’ve made things like pizza, duck and carne asada for Thanksgiving,” he laughs.

While the menu is different every year, it always fuses Mexican traditions with new inventions. Creamy, rich guacamole becomes decadent and celebratory with crab meat. He’ll turn the turkey into a hearty pozole with salsa verde, paired with cornbread that’s infused with poblano peppers. And, of course, there are his own Thanksgiving traditions garnered over the years, like his guava and goat cheese empanadas. “A family in our neighborhood would come over and bring crackers and cream cheese topped with guava paste,” says Diaz. “We all loved it, and eventually, it was added into the lexicon of what the Diaz household is.”

His Thanksgiving menu may be unexpected for many — but it’s also exactly what Diaz thinks a “traditional American dinner” should look like. “I’m always trying to explain that food and tradition can change,” he says. “They’re always growing and evolving.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of WALTER magazine .