John Lewis has earned great acclaim for his talents as a pitmaster, at Franklin Barbecue and La Barbecue in Austin, Texas, and most recently with his own Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, South Carolina, but his culinary interests extend beyond just smoked meat. Lewis is an evangelist for the chiles of the Southwest, particularly the red and green varieties grown in the Hatch Valley.
Lewis spent much of his youth in the region, including his high school years in El Paso, Texas, when he would commute through Franklin Mountain State Park from his grandparents’ house to school after the rest of the family moved to Colorado in the middle of his senior year. Also on the other side of those mountains was the New Mexico border and the arid high desert that is perfect for growing delicious chiles.
Lewis discovered he had a fascination with the cuisine of the region, a combination of a little TexMex, a lot of Mexican influences, and a dash of Native American. Integral to many of these foods is the Hatch chile, both the standard green pepper and the more mature red chile. Within the family of Hatch chiles are specific varieties ranging from New Mexico 6-4, Big Jim, and Sandia, to the extra hot Lumbre chile.
In other Latin foods, the red color of salsas comes from tomatoes; the green in verde sauce from tomatillos. Lewis is not a fan. (“I can’t stand tomatillos,” he shares.) Hatch chiles are at their most delicious when roasted, and the best time and place to pick up sacks of roasted chiles is at the end of August or beginning of September when the harvest is celebrated at the annual Hatch Chile Festival.
This year, Lewis made a pilgrimage to his old stomping grounds with representatives of Zia Green Chile Co., a Brooklyn-based roaster and distributor of Hatch chiles who works hard to popularize the niche product and familiarize consumers with the benefits of using authentic chiles from the Hatch Valley. On his trip, Lewis visited the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces where he learned about the wide range of peppers, including more than 150 varieties growing in the institute’s demonstration garden.
Lewis also spent time in the fields speaking with the farmers who cultivate these notoriously difficult-to-grow peppers. They require specific techniques, including a six to nine year crop-rotation to replace nutrients in the soil. Finally, Lewis paid a visit to the Hatch Chile Festival along with tens of thousands of visitors. The festival grounds are literally close to Lewis’s heart—his great grandparents are buried in a cemetery right across the street from the main gates.
The chef enjoyed tastes of chile-laden specialty dishes, sips of green chile-flavored beer and the heady aromas of peppers roasting over jets of propane flames as they tumbled in motorized mesh baskets. In addition to making arrangements for Zia to send a shipment of fresh chiles back to Charleston for his own roasting event on September 23, Lewis spent his time reconnecting with his native Southwestern culture. He intends to bring that knowledge, spirit, and some of those recipes back to Charleston to share with his customers at Lewis Barbecue and his newest venture inside Workshop, Juan Luis.
To read more about Lewis’ favorite comfort food and the chile festival he’s hosting, click here.