Ursula Rings In Chile Szn in Brooklyn
September 8, 2023
Chef Eric See brings New Mexico cuisine to NYC with the help of Chef Bleu Adams.
On a steamy summer Tuesday in Williamsburg, a crowd of hundreds snaked around the block to get near the only thing hotter than the ambient air temperature: the big propane-fired barrel roaster in which half a ton of green New Mexico chiles would meet their fate.
The 4th Annual New Mexican Chile Roast, produced by Bed-Stuy restaurant Ursula, was underway. Chef Eric See, the man responsible for driving 1,200 pounds of chiles from New Mexico, looked out over the table piled with bags of freshly roasted peppers. “I always say: If it doesn’t come in a Ziploc bag, I’m not interested.” (Packaging the chile this way helps sweat the pepper and makes it easier to peel, according to See.)
Since its inception, Ursula’s annual roast has become more than NYC’s favorite celebration of New Mexico chile season. Chef See, who hails from Albuquerque, wants it to help communicate an authentic and often overlooked culinary tradition. “It’s been a goal of mine to educate people about what New Mexican food looks like,” See told BentoBox. “New Mexico has a completely specific, unique cuisine that you can’t really find anywhere else. Chile season is a big part of that. From late August through early October, the smell of chile just permeates the air. It’s intoxicating. Everybody gets really hyped.”
Over the years, See has used each iteration of the chile roast to incorporate a new element he considers crucial to the experience. This year, he decided to invite a representative of the region’s indigenous cuisine to feature at the event. “You can’t have a conversation about New Mexican food without talking about its indigenous roots,” See said. “Indigeneity is the root of every American cuisine.”
Ursula partnered with BentoBox to host Chef Bleu Adams, the director of Indigehub.org and former resident of the Navajo Nation, whose own identity includes Mandan, Hidatsa, and Dine'. The two chefs met at a James Beard Foundation chef bootcamp earlier this year and quickly found common cause.
“New Mexico has 23 indigenous nations currently,” Adams told us. “All of those nations have contributed to the cuisine of the Southwest, but we have only 13 grocery stores. People have a heavy reliance on processed and prepackaged foods. That contributes to health disparities. Food scarcity also breeds violence — we have high rates of suicide, homicide, domestic abuse.
“My work is about bringing a voice to those issues, and to the policy correctives we need to address them. Coming out here is part of that mission.”
At the event, Adams was on hand to prepare fry bread: a controversial dish that, to many Navajo, evokes a painful history of displacement at the hands of the US government. “In the early 1860s, we were forced to walk to New Mexico, after which the military engaged in a deliberate campaign of destroying our food systems,” Adams explained. “During that journey, the government gave us commodities: flour, salt, lard, sugar. From that, we created this dish.”
Adams has been on a campaign to reclaim and redefine fry bread for years. “For me, it’s the food of perseverance. I would much rather people eat fry bread I’m making from scratch — using wheat that is grown locally, without additives or preservatives, piled high with nutritious beans and vegetables — than have them eat processed fast foods. It’s a conversation about not demonizing food, especially for a community with scarce access to quality nutrition.”
Using food to provoke conversations like this is exactly what Chef See intended for Ursula’s chile roast: a celebration, showcase, and platform all in one.
“Ursula is the intersection of my identity: my New Mexican heritage and being a queer person in New York,” he said. “This is probably the only place in New York State you're able to get a Navajo taco. And the only place in New York State you're able to see and smell 1,200 pounds of New Mexican chile being roasted in front of your face. It is a unique cultural experience.”
Chef Adams agreed, adding an interesting perspective. “One of the oldest and longest trade routes in the Americas came through New Mexico,” she said. “All the way up through Cahokia [Illinois] and by extension the northeast. So the trip Eric made with these chiles carries on a tradition that would have happened hundreds of years ago.
“Food — traveling with food and preparing meals — is all very culturally and historically significant.”
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