AUBURN — John Wyman wanted explicit permission before he stuffed 20 pounds of peppers into a suitcase and boarded a plane in Albuquerque.

When he arrived at the airport, the chef pulled aside a Transportation Security Administration agent.

“Is there anything in your regulations that says I cannot check fresh chili peppers as checked baggage?” Wyman asked her. “She checked the flight and said, ‘Nothing.'”

The bag’s contents — fresh Hatch chile peppers, picked among the prize peppers presented at the Hatch Valley Chile Festival — became Wyman’s special ingredient for a year of his original recipes. They included chili mashed potatoes, green chili cheeseburgers and chili mac and cheese.

So, he’s headed back to the Labor Day weekend festival in New Mexico. And this time, Wyman plans to buy at least twice as many peppers.

“It’s that special ingredient that you don’t want to use until you can replace it,” he said. “You can buy the canned peppers, but they’re not as good as the fresh.”

And he knows.

Wyman, 62, has spent decades as a chef, sometimes as a personal chef under the name, “The Tailgate Gourmet.” Last year, he opened his own commercial kitchen at 272 South Main St. in Auburn.

And though he makes and sells lots of traditional foods — including baked bean suppers — his specialty is food with a touch of Southwestern spice.

“To me, it’s where I really want to take this place,” he said. “There’s so much more to Mexican and Southwestern food than just your enchiladas, tacos and burritos.”

For instance, he imagines making the chicken-fried steak that’s a staple in the region. And a lot of creativity can be added, he said.

“You can change up the steak by what you put on it for a gravy,” he said. “You can do the standard sausage gravy or black pepper gravy. You can do a pasilla pepper gravy. You can do a green chili gravy. You shake it up a bit by changing the meat. You could do it with a rib-eye.”

All it takes is the right ingredients, such as those Hatch chile peppers.

The first batch was precious.

“I brought them back, washed them, fired up my grill and started roasting them,” he said. “Then I laid them out onto cookie sheets on wax paper and tossed them in the freezer until they froze. Then I peeled them off the paper and vacuum-sealed them.”

This year, he plans to bring back between 40 and 80 pounds of the Hatch chile peppers, which include both red and green varieties. He plans to work out the deal for shipping the peppers directly with a farmer. 

Wyman will then get back to kitchen and find more recipes.

“The only limit is pretty much imagination, what you want to do with it,” he said. “Last year, there was a 4-H club selling hand-churned ice cream with Hatch green chile in it.”

He plans to enter his chili in contests. He hopes to eventually get his work into the annual world championships run by the International Chili Society.

Its prizes can be even hotter than the peppers.

“In that group, a bowl of red chili is worth $25,000,” Wyman said. “A bowl of green chili is worth $5,000. A bowl of salsa is worth $3,000.

“My goal is to someday get that $25,000 check,” he said.

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