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Michael Beary at Zocalito Bistro 

Pepper Purveyor

by Todd Hartley | Photography by Rebecca Stumpf | Aspen magazine | May 30, 2014

Oaxacan cuisine is traditionally known for its seven types of mole: negro (black), colorado (red), coloradito (reddish-orange), amarillo (yellow), verde (green), chichilo (rich and dark) and manchamantel (“tablecloth stainer”). None of these complex sauces are especially easy to make. If you want to make them authentically, it’s even more difficult. That’s because many of the chile peppers needed to make mole the right way are exceedingly hard to find, even in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

That’s where chef Michael Beary and his Zocalito Bistro come in. A longtime Roaring Fork Valley resident who also spent a decade in the kitchen at Cache Cache, Beary is described on his website as “doing more than anyone to bring the authentic ingredients and true flavors of Oaxaca to America.” In this case, that’s not just marketing hyperbole—it’s an apt summation.

“In about 2002, the peppers were coming into the country,” says Beary, “and then they just stopped.”

Sensing that he might have to take matters into his own hands to ensure a steady supply of chilhuacles, chilcosles and other chiles, Beary decided to do something about it. “I started going down there to get them,” he says, “and bringing them back in suitcases.”

As long as he could claim the peppers were for personal use, the suitcase method worked fine, but as demand grew and importing small amounts created an obstacle to expanding, Beary realized he needed to up the ante.

“The first time I imported about 80 pounds,” he says, “and that came through customs and the FDA no problem. The next year I brought in about 500 pounds.”

The larger shipment raised some eyebrows, and the Food and Drug Administration decided to test the peppers for “filth” (mold or other contaminants). That’s when Beary found out just how onerous importing regulations can be. If any peppers sampled by the FDA are deemed substandard, which doesn’t take much, the whole lot can be judged unworthy, a fact that Beary learned the hard way.

“They made me destroy almost $10,000 worth of product,” he says.

Beary’s answer was to take greater control of the entire process. Rather than buying dried peppers from the farmers in Oaxaca, he now purchases fresh peppers, has them dehydrated and then imports them. He even educates the farmers he works with about the exporting process.

The result is that now, in addition to being an accomplished chef, Beary has become one of America’s foremost importers of rare chile peppers, which he recently started selling through Zocalito’s website and a handful of specialty stores, in quantities from 2 ounces to 5 pounds.

While the importing business is thriving, ultimately, for Beary it’s still all about his own food. “When you have ingredients that no one else has,” he says, “you’re going to be wowing people, and you’ll be able to do things other chefs can’t do.”

That wow factor clearly comes through in Zocalito’s food. Take, for example, the stuffed pasilla de Oaxaca relleno in a yellow mole, earthy and smoky with just enough heat to be tongue-tingling. That spice comes from the large chile itself, and Beary is currently its only U.S. importer. Or consider grilled prawns in mole made from chilcosles, pointy red chiles that had fallen out of favor with Mexican farmers, but that Beary has helped to resurrect. Zocalito is a delicious testament to the difference that adhering to authenticity—along with a tremendous amount of effort—can make. 420 E. Hyman Ave., 970.920.1991