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Bronx Restaurant Owner Braves Mexican Drug Lords for Chiles and Spices

Eighteen trips to Mexico for flavors prove very dangerous.

Carnitas sit in a vat at El Atoradero.
Carnitas sit in a vat at El Atoradero.
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Unwilling to compromise on any of the flavors at her small Bronx bodega and its adjoining Mexican restaurant El Atoradero, Denisse Chavez has made 18 pilgrimages to her native Mexico to collect chiles, minty dried avocado crillo leaves, and countless other herbs. Over on Narratively, Chris Crowley captures her story and says she's created "a direct link to the cottage industries of Puebla." But her expeditions through desolate desert areas controlled by drug cartels come at a severe cost. She explains:

When I go to Mexico, I always leave a letter for my children, because on the highway you never know what's going to happen. I'm not scared, because, as I tell my husband, ‘I already leave what I'm supposed to leave...So I tell my children, ‘When something happens to me in Mexico, please, don't send anything, don't answer the phone, you don't know me. Leave me. Just leave me.'

Crowley recounts one spice hunting trip during which Chavez was taken by the notoriously savage drug cartel Loz Zetas. Somehow, she managed to leave alive and return to New York. She hasn't been back since, but is determined to return:

"Nobody's going to stop me. Not even the Zetas. I'm going to find one way or another to bring my stuff over here," she declared. "I don't know how, but I will. I will."

Chavez is of course not the only chef lately mining Mexico for flavors. Earlier this year, Jeff Gordiner captured a very different story of chefs traveling to Mexico when he accompanied Rene Redzepi and Danny Bowien on a culinary research trip. The trio feasted on Enrique Olvera's 372 day old mole at Pujol and ate their way to Tulum, Oaxac, and Mérida.

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