Che Chimichurri’s owner/founder Bret Burden was born into 70’s Southern California rock n’ roll royalty (his father, Gary Burden has designed album covers for Neil Young, the Eagles, and Jackson Browne, among many others) and Burden the younger used that creative environment to fuel a wanderlust that’s propelled a life of river guiding and world-class kayaking, crossing the vast expanse of North and South America from Argentina to New Mexico, Chile to California, and back.
Living the guide’s life has him trim and sharp as a tack at just over fifty, and this past Sunday morning over coffee he was animated and engaging as he broke down the phases of his life that have led to his current role as producer of an Argentine sauce that’s as endemic in that country as ketchup is in America.
Generally, chimichurri is a mélange of olive oil, vinegar and finely chopped parsley, oregano, onion, and garlic, seasoned with salt, cayenne and black pepper – although recipes vary from family to family, with myriad variations creating a broad spectrum of acid and spice.
In Argentina, the term Che is used in much the same way bro is used in the US, and is an apt descriptor for Burden. Despite his ultra-cool upbringing, he’s a down-to-earth guy that looks you in the eye when speaking, is quick to smile, and in conversation one can see his agile mind working like clockwork behind his steel-blue eyes; traits that undoubtedly have served him well in the backwaters of the world when he’s gone to propel himself into its raging rivers in a kayak.
As dynamic and enterprising as Bret is his wife Carla (the other half of Che Chimichurri) is equally deep and placid as a mountain lake. The recipe for Che comes from her grandmother, making it more than sauce to her, and more like a family heirloom that allows her to stay connected to a proud tradition evident in her regal composure.
She met Bret in the breathtaking Patagonian landscape of her homeland, a mountainous region much like northern New Mexico, and the two began a long courtship that’s spanned two continents.
The austere, rural life Carla led in Argentina appealed to Burden, its rhythms and cadences providing counterpoint to his previous globetrotting, breakneck pace.
As the Argentine economy went south, they went north, eventually landing in New Mexico, and for Bret, back into a community and landscape very familiar.
This recent return to Taos would bring a new, married version of him, albeit a wiser and fuller version with a new sense of purpose and responsibility tailored to a family.
Then the economy in the north went south and the Burden’s found themselves caught in the middle of the conundrum. “It’s incredibly difficult to get a work permit in the states if you’re from Argentina,” Bret exasperatingly explained between sips of coffee.
“It really put us in a tight position financially. Fortunately, I know a lot of people in town and after putting the word out, we got a great response from the community.”
Soon, Carla was working in local kitchens and it was only a matter of time before she started making chimichurri for friends. The response was overwhelmingly positive and soon they were wondering if it might be worth it to put their weight behind the idea of producing it as a business.
As with so many food-producing start-up’s in Taos before them, they went to the Taos County Economic Development Center for guidance. In no time they had their legs under them and set about the arduous task of seeking distribution.
“We didn’t really know anything,” Brett candidly says. “On a lark we went to Cid to see if he’d be interested…and it turns out he was very instrumental in not only getting us into his market, but with showing us the art of the demo,” he adds, now seemingly reflecting on the importance of that development.
“It was a huge lift that propelled us into Whole Foods,” he surmises, “And now, we’re in Whole Foods statewide.”
There’s a possibility they could make it into all Whole Foods in the Southwestern region, a move that could have them struggling to catch up, I point out to Burden.
“We’ve already started construction of a production facility close to our home, and hopefully we’ll be able to operate from there soon… it’ll allow us some room for growth,” he quickly replies before coolly taking a sip from his cup.
“And we’ve made some minor adjustments that helped our cause along the way.”
“Like what?” I unequivocally ask.
“The biggest thing was increasing the shelf life of the product from six months to two years.”
“How’d you manage that?” I inquire, my interest now truly piqued.
“Changed the cooking temperature and added some citric acid,” he composedly replies. “It’s allowed buyers some comfort that the product’s a sound investment, and given us the opportunity to broaden our reach.”
The fact that chimichurri is so versatile helps the cause, as well. It pairs well with any red meat, white meat, and most fish. Recently, I made Buffalo Burgers with the original Che Patagonian flavor worked into the meat, sautéed some onions in the pan drippings and de-glazed that with water, melted some pepper jack on top and added a dab of guacamole. The results had my dinner guests moaning in delight (p.s., buffalo burgers seem best to me cooked rare/medium-rare.)
The success of the original Patagonian version inspired Carla and Brett to pay homage to New Mexico, giving birth to the Habañero hot (that’s not really so hot) version. “We wanted to do something with traditional New Mexico Chile, but the flavor of the Habañero really blew us away. In the context of the Chimichurri, it just made the most sense,” Brett tells me in an almost apologetic tone.
The Burden’s seem genuinely excited and proud of his product, and the feeling is arguably well-deserved. Che affords them the opportunity to sink roots into a community their proud of and want to see grow. The idea of building a family business in Taos has them in a constant whirlwind state, going from Colorado to southern New Mexico to deliver product and make business calls.
During the fortnight, or so it took to write this, I spoke to Bret several times on his cell as he was trekking the lonely miles back from Colorado or elsewhere, but he’d turn up the next day looking no worse for the wear.
On the Sunday morning we all sat down the first time, Bret took the bull by the horns and launched right into the story of Che, his upbringing, how he and Carla met, their challenges and victories… all the while, Carla calmly sat at his side, smiling like the Mona Lisa, occasionally sipping from her tea and looking rather elegant.
I heartily engaged Bret on a variety of topics ranging from the Pinochet dictatorship, to the outdoor retailer, Patagonia, the Mapuche Indians of Chile, and the purported just green-lighted deal that will allow his father the opportunity to finally produce the film version of Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang (a project he’s apparently been working for over a decade.)
The Burden’s particular brand of yin/yang is a compelling mix of well-seasoned world travel, deeply instilled tradition, a love of the natural world, and a creative bent that seems to flow from the interplay of all these forces.
Those who feel chimichurri is an odd fit for the region would be surprised to see the similarities in the natural and cultural landscape between Patagonia and New Mexico. Where Argentina has the gaucho, New Mexico has the cowboy. Both areas have snow peaked mountains that run out as raging rivers into fertile floodplains full of freshwater fish and grazing land for beef and sheep.
Life is hands-on in both areas, altitude is high, and the culture of the mountain reigns at the end of the day. In this sparse existence the importance of Che becomes paramount. You need a good friend in the rarefied air of the mountains to help get through the icy winter, and in the height of the summer when it’s time to gather the Earth’s bounty; you’ll also need Che nearby to celebrate the fruits of common labor.
Fortunately for New Mexico, the Burden’s have got us covered. You can find their brand of Che practically everywhere, but in particular at the aforementioned Whole Foods, Cid’s Market in Taos, La Montanita Co-Op, Eldorado Market in Santa Fe, and in Albuquerque at Keller Farms. With Barbeque season creeping up on us, now’s the perfect time to introduce yourself to Che…he won’t let you down.