Above: Matt Romero's big personality and the scent of roasting chiles draws fans to the Santa Fe Farmers' Market.

IN NEW MEXICO, chile is handed down in recipes and with seeds the same way some families pass along an heirloom watch. Such is the case with Matt Romero, reigning chile roaster at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market. After a career as a chef in restaurants like Coyote Café in the late 1990s, Romero moved into agriculture. He had help from a seed-saving uncle, Arthur “Toddy” Martínez, who has bred chiles in Alcalde since the 1970s. The special chile and Romero’s theatrical roasting skills draw all comers to his market stand to witness a deeply rooted part of New Mexican culture: roasting green chile.  

MY UNCLE GAVE ME his knowledge and his variety of chile. He handed me seeds in a tin can and said, “I’ve been working on this for 20 years—don’t lose it.” He had developed this variety that was an extremely beautiful plant with nice big chiles that were very tasty and hot. We called it Alcalde Improved, and I became the caretaker of his legacy.    

When that first barrel of chile gets fired up in the morning, it draws people to it like a campfire. You can smell it, you can hear it, you can almost taste it. It’s such a unique experience. It’s the crackling skin starting to pop, and the smell wafting over you. The more you can toast the skin and get it dark, the more flavor there will be underneath.     

There is so much emotion in chile. It is like a religion in New Mexico. I think it’s because of the short season. I have a saying at the market: “Green chile is why you move here, red chile is why you stay.”    

Pulling it out of the freezer, it’s good. But it is not the same as opening a bag while it’s still warm, peeling the chile, putting it on a tortilla with a little salt and garlic. It’s another world, and that’s the world where you’re home with Grandma and she’s grilling chiles on her flat griddle and she just made tortillas. You go right back to that moment again. —As told to Maria Manuela  

Story Sidebar

Read more from our "Ultimate Guide to New Mexico Chile"

The Mystery of Big Jim
A 10-year effort to restore one of New Mexico’s most distinctive chiles underscores how memory thrives in our taste buds. 

José Gonzalez: The Allure of Chile Farming
Although he's tried other jobs, José Gonzalez keeps coming back to the farm where his family grows chiles, corn, beans and more.

The Ultimate New Mexico Chile Tasting Guide
We asked two experts to describe the flavors of New Mexico’s best chile varieties.

The Making of Chile U
One of the only scientific institutions devoted to a so-called condiment flourishes in Las Cruces.

More Than Just Salsa
Capsaicin does more than make chile hot, it is used in medicinal creams, bear repellent and in foods to give captive birds and fish a reddish hue.