Kyle Pacheco found his calling in cooking and was a beloved star and graduate of Santa Fe Community College’s culinary arts program.
Pacheco died unexpectedly last week at age 27. The cause of his death is unclear, although some acquaintances said he died in his sleep at his home in Santo Domingo Pueblo, also known as Kewa Pueblo.
Pacheco learned how to cook traditional Kewa food from his grandmother and eventually blended that knowledge with the understanding of how to prepare more conventional plates.
Jerry Dakan, director of Santa Fe Community College’s culinary program, recalled Pacheco once describing how to make a meal from robins.
Representatives of the college said he started as a shy student and grew into an assertive leader.
“He was our shining star,” Dakan said. “Pretty much the champion of our program.”
He won two first-place awards in the state SkillsUSA cooking competition while he was in college and two gold medals in regional cooking tournaments for young chefs after college.
His death shocked friends and acquaintances.
“I knew him enough to start crying every time I think about him not being with us,” said Deborah Boldt, executive director of the Santa Fe Community College Foundation.
The college has started a scholarship program in Pacheco’s name for Native American students who want to study the culinary arts, Boldt said.
Regis Pecos, co-director of the leadership institute at Santa Fe Indian School, from which Pacheco graduated, said sharing the gift of food was a spiritual act for Pacheco.
Pecos, a member of Cochiti Pueblo and a board member for the Santa Fe Community College Foundation, said Pacheco achieved at a young age what many people don’t — he found his passion and joy.
“And that’s what we hope [for] in everyone’s life,” he said.
“Life is strange,” Pecos said. “And some people live a very long life with very little to show for that life.
“He had a very bright future, but that was his fate,” Pecos added. “… It’s unfortunate that we lost someone so young who had great promise, but in that short time, he shared his passion.”
Patrick Mares, a culinary teacher at Pojoaque Valley High School, was the community college’s faculty member in the student-run cafe at the college when Pacheco was there.
Mares gave Pacheco more and more responsibilities when Pacheco was sous-chef, or No. 2 chef, in the cafe, called the East Wing Eatery.
“He just ran with it,” Mares said. Pacheco learned how to order food and showed leadership skills with the student staff, he said.
“His spirit was very calm,” Mares said. “Had a lot of potential.”
Michelle Harding was in her late 40s when she went to the college several years ago to hone her baking skills. She worked with Pacheco in the East Wing Eatery, a place where many members of the college community took breaks and hung out.
Pacheco’s modesty and hunger to learn and achieve impressed her.
“Everybody knew who this kid was,” said Harding, who is now is the labor relations and benefits manager at the college. “He taught me a lot. He was the one that everybody knew and looked up to.”
Emily Drabanski, a spokeswoman for the college, said in a text message: “I think so many of us who had met him during his work at the East Wing Eatery looked forward to his cheerful presence as much as their cup of coffee in the morning. I can sincerely say that he was beloved by faculty, staff and students.”
Pacheco graduated from the college with an associate degree in 2015. He had such an impact at the college that he gave a commencement speech the next year.
Nicole Ammerman, director of the Santa Fe School of Cooking, said Pacheco worked at the school for four years. Over the past year, she said, Pacheco generally couldn’t leave Santo Domingo Pueblo because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Pacheco ordered food, shopped, assisted chefs and participated in presentations at the cooking school, she said.
“That was part of the thing, he was just a great team player,” Ammerman said.
The school hopes to plant an apricot tree and place a plaque in honor of Pacheco late this month, she added.
Mares said he spoke with Pacheco by phone just a day or two before he died. He sounded great, Mares said. The young man couldn’t wait to get out and plant sweet peas with his father.