Hot and Heavy: Ursula's 2023 Chile Roast
It’s pushing a hundred degrees in Brooklyn as Chef Eric See and his staff begin lighting up the hand-cranked roasters that will soon churn through roughly 1,400 pounds of green chiles. By all accounts, it’s unseasonably warm for the northeast on the day after Labor Day, but the crowd that begins to form a line outside by the early evening is undeterred: Ursula’s annual chile roast is an event worth sweating for. This year is particularly special: See and his team are joined by Chef Bleu Adams, who will prepare fry bread to serve alongside Ursula’s beloved green chile cheeseburgers. When doors open at five, the line stretches around the block, accompanied by the smoky, sweet smell that has become synonymous with the Land of Enchantment.
This is the fourth year that See has driven freshly harvested chiles up from Viramontes Farm in Deming New Mexico to Brooklyn—a 2,200 mile journey that he completes with his father in a small van, racing against time with the air conditioning blasting so as to ward off spoilage. For many in the crowd at the Meat Hook this year, the chiles offer the taste (and smell) of home: In New Mexico, chile roasts are ubiquitous during the autumn harvest season, speckling parking lots across the region.
The chile, which See calls the “breadwinner” of his household, is a big part of that culture. He credits the fruit with giving him a “new start, a new business, and another chance” when his first brick-and-mortar restaurant, The Awkward Scone, closed down in the midst of pandemic lockdowns. It was in the aftermath of that upheaval that See made another road trip down to his home state. The long drive clarified what kind of business he wanted to start: one rooted in community and authenticity. When he returned, he opened Ursula—named after his grandmother—in a storefront in Crown Heights, to roaring success.
Now located in a more expansive location (with seating!) in Bed-Stuy, Ursula is beloved not just for its chile-smothered breakfast burritos, cheeseburgers, and aguas frescas, but also for its joyful embrace of queer culture and spirit of camaraderie. In June, in celebration of Pride, Ursula hosted a series of queer chef pop-ups. Each was such an exuberant celebration of culture that See decided to extend the invite to chefs outside the queer community to collaborate on special weekend-only breakfast burritos as part of what he called “ally July.” This same collaborative spirit undergirds the chile roasts.
See describes his first roast in Brooklyn as a “bit of a one off,” but he was quick to see the potential in the event. The second year, he invited Latinx drag performer Flower Tortilla to come join the celebration. The following year, he partnered with the Los Angeles-based non-profit Farm2People and brought in a mariachi band. His goal wasn’t just to bring the tastes and sounds of New Mexico to Brooklyn, but rather to use the roast as a “transportive culinary and cultural experience” that brought together the different parts of his own identity with New Mexican culture.
See believes that “partnership is about reciprocity,” a value that he enacts in myriad daily ways. For example, he chose not to make fry bread at Ursula with his own hands as a way to acknowledge the roots of the dish in the oppression of Native people at the hands of the settler state. It is, he notes, a food of resistance, and one that should be treated with respect. Instead he partnered with indigenous chef Bleu Adams, thanks in part to a sponsorship from BentoBox. Adams is one of the founders of IndigeHub, a non-profit that seeks to empower indigenous communities by fostering economic development, preserving culture, building community, and promoting food security and environmental sustainability through “hubs' ' across Arizona. Bringing Adams on board, See noted, allowed for a truly delicious collaboration while also honoring the ways that indigenous culture is the foundation for nearly every part of New Mexican culture. His point is underscored by the ubiquity of the Zia—a Pueblo symbol that is used in the New Mexico state flag—among the New Mexico-to-Brooklyn transplants who have shown up in spades to this year’s event. See is eager to continue to spread the love (and resources) in “support and celebration of others.” He hopes to find a sponsor willing to fly over the LGBTQ+ performers Mariachi Arcoiris from Los Angeles in time for next year’s roast.
See’s family has called New Mexico home for many generations, a personal history that he connects to beyond any “linear idea of place”; after all, those generations spanned times through which New Mexico was alternatively recognized as sovereign indigenous land, part of Mexico, or New Spain. The region is peppered with different dialects of English and Spanish, each spoken in accents that reflect the heterogeneity of experience there. To See, it is a singular place: He notes that when you’re in a strip mall in “Los Angeles or Alabama, you could be anywhere, but in New Mexico, you can tell that you’re here,” in part because of the chile. He readily admits that “living in New York for fifteen years changed the way I cook,” but that change is part of what he sees as a universal truth: Food, like language, is always evolving, even if it’s rooted somewhere.
In this way, See and Ursula share a lot with the chile in that they are both hybrids that have come to powerfully evoke the same place: the chile pepper is not native to New Mexico, but instead was first cultivated in Ecuador some six thousand years ago. It gradually moved up north through Meso-America and was introduced into the pueblo diet sometime in the 19th century. It wasn’t until the end of the century that a horticulturalist named Dr. Fabián Garcia began to cross-breed fourteen different types of chile growing around the region to produce an agriculturally heartier pepper. The experiment eventually produced “New Mexico No. 9,” a chile that was considerably blight resistant and relatively mild. García and his team would release the seeds for New Mexico No. 9 in 1913, cementing the chile’s status as a commercial product through Americanization and industrialization.
Today, chiles grown in New Mexico’s Hatch valley are some of the most sought-after agricultural commodities in the United States. The “Hatch chile” many seek, See explained, is not a particular varietal, but rather an umbrella term and geographic designation that refers to twelve or so different chiles, akin to the “Champagne grape.” Demand, he notes, has stressed the land and the people who cultivate them, and he has chosen to partner with Viramontes Farm, a biodynamic producer, because of both the flavor of their chiles and their respect for the land. See typically flies down to New Mexico shortly before the harvest, and then drives down to the farm with his father. They load up a cooled minivan with chiles wrapped in burlap bags and begin their fragrant journey to the North East, a labor of love that embodies just how precious these peppers are.
In addition to being a superlative chef, See is a history buff. He spends much of the drive back up to New York listening to podcasts about Native and queer history. Despite his vocal support of LGBTQ+ culture and causes, See is reluctant to identify as a spokesperson for liberation. When asked, he is quick to clarify that he is not the first chef to do this work. However, he does note that small businesses in the hospitality industry are often the first to be on “the front lines for radical social change” because they are emboldened to try to take on the thorny logistical and policy issues that others shy away from. Chefs, he notes, are often radicalized by the food systems that they work within—and are often the first to try and organize to feed their communities in times of crisis.
As I linger around this year’s chile roast, it is clear to me that this is not your usual pop-up restaurant, but that instead something sweeter is underway. Gaia DiLoreto, who sports a Zia tattoo on her arm and was born and raised Santa Fe, had come in order to buy two five-pound bags of chiles to process and freeze for the winter: one mild, and one spicy. She described herself as a See superfan, who first heard about the chef when friends began blowing up her phone about the breakfast burritos at the Awkward Scone. She’s since been to a few different Ursula pop-ups, and remains loyal to See, who she described as doing something “truly different” with her beloved chile. She forgot to bring cash for the event, but the stranger in front of her in line took note of her tattoo (he had one that matched) and spotted her for the evening. As she went to pay him back, another Zia shirt-sporting fan came by with her young family to complement DiLoreto’s tattoo. The two exchanged their favorite chile sources, and sighed happily about being surrounded by the smell of smoldering peppers so far from home.
As I watch their interaction, it occurs to me that some of the most trenchant debates in food and urban politics center around change: from gentrification to fusion. Eric See, in his own small way, shows us that while culture inevitably shifts and grows, we can move through those changes with integrity and respect for history. Plus, as See reminds me at the end of our conversation, “joy is the biggest, best form of resistance” we can share.