How Zocalito, Chef Michael Beary and Oaxacan Farmers Are Saving Rare Chile Peppers From Extinction
… and transporting your dining experience to southern Mexico.
The chilhuacle. Its name means “old chile” in the language of the Aztecs, who brought the chile to the Oaxaca region of southern Mexico more than 3,000 years ago. This chile is the foundation of Zocalito and the culinary growth of Chef Michael Beary.
Classically trained in the French and European styles of cooking, Chef Beary yearned to trade the heavy ingredients of his traditional culinary education for the cleaner, more complex and exotic flavors of Central and South America. After a decade at Cache Cache in Aspen, Colorado, Beary began traveling the world and fell in love with the food of Oaxaca. Inspired, he opened Zocalito in Aspen in the early 2000s and quickly grew frustrated with the lack of authentic, Oaxacan ingredients available for import.
It was then that he discovered the chilhaucle chile, an irreplaceable ingredient in authentic Oaxacan moles, and one that was virtually extinct in the U.S., and rare and expensive for the people of its native Oaxaca—even local chefs were using generic substitutes. “Though their cultivation has dwindled over time, their position in Mexico’s culinary cannon is inexorable,” he says. Saving the red, black and yellow variations of chilhuacles from extinction became his focus.
Chef Beary began meeting with Oaxacan farmers, providing incentive for them to grow the rare chiles, helping them meet export standards and devising methods to keep them fresh and FDA-approved. His goal was to not only stop the genetic erosion of the native chile, but to also also pay the farmers what the middleman would take. With his purchasing and importing power, he hoped to convince growers to keep producing the traditional peppers.
Chef Beary soon became one of the sole importers of the rare chiles. Every year, he heads down to the southern Mexico region to purchase hundreds of pounds of fresh peppers, a staple ingredient in his cooking at Zocolito. Passionate about sourcing quality, his efforts, along with those of the Oaxacan farmers, kept the chiles alive—and began a true farm-to-table concept. Over the past 20 years, Chef Beary has developed very special relationships with most of the chile vendors and farmers and travels Oaxaca frequently.
Zocalito moved from Aspen to Denver in 2019, and continues to spotlight the robust flavors of the Mexican peppers in its moles, salsas, rellenos, picos and more. You’ll find the smoky, spicy and fruity flavors of the chilhuacle, chilcostle, taviche and pasilla de Oaxaca sprinkled in Chef Beary’s cooking. And to further transport you, Oaxacan street fare is brought to life with photo murals and “alebrijes” Mexican folk-art sculptures inside Zocalito’s Mile High location.
Zocalito is located in downtown Denver at the corner of 18th and Champa. It’s a short walk from the Theater District, Denver Performing Arts Center, the Colorado Convention Center, Union Station, and the16th Street Mall, and less than two miles from Coors Field.