GARDENING

Hot Pepper Advocate

Javier van Oordt cultivates ají chiles in his backyard garden.
JOHN GILHOOLEY
Javier van Oordt cultivates ají chiles in his backyard garden.
An Orange County lawyer grows Peru’s beloved ají amarillo for big-name chefs and home cooks alike.

From the front, Javier van Oordt’s one-story house looks like the other residences on his street in the tony Orange County city of Laguna Niguel. There’s a nice lawn, a late-model Mercedes-Benz in the driveway, and a genteel quality to the roof and windows of the ranch-style abode.

Go into the backyard, though, and van Oordt transports you to the Andes—almost.

The small plot looms over the street behind it like a clifftop. One side has been transformed into mini andenes, the terraces that Peruvians like van Oordt have used to farm on hilly terrain for centuries. There, and in pots scattered around the patio, grow huacatay (an earthy type of mint), cherimoya (more commonly known in English as the custard apple, for its velvety texture), and even limón sutil—a juicy Peruvian lime that makes key limes seem as fragrant as cardboard.

But the vast majority of the garden consists of tall, spindly shrubs of ají amarillo, Peru’s prized chile pepper and foundational to the country’s acclaimed cuisine. It’s hard to find freshly grown a amarillo in the United States, so restaurants here often must use peppers that have been frozen, powdered, or pounded into a paste.

Unless they know van Oordt. Over the past few years, he has become California’s ají amarillo whisperer, gifting his harvest and plants to acclaimed chefs and home cooks alike. In 2018, he gave away roughly 150 pounds of his prized crop and over 100 seedlings.

“I live in an ají jungle,” the civil litigation attorney says, only half joking. “And I love it!”

In early March, van Oordt plants seeds saved from the previous harvest, moving the ajís into bigger pots over the summer as they mature. They’re ready for picking in the fall, when their branches groan with thin, traffic cone–orange chiles about six inches in length that possess a slow, gentle heat with hints of citrus. The ajís pop up in some of the most prestigious Peruvian restaurants in California: Destino in San Francisco, Los Balcones in Studio City, James Beard Award nominee Ricardo Zarate’s West Hollywood spot, Rosaliné. But really, van Oordt will overnight his peppers to just about anyone “if they appreciate it and enjoy it,” he says.

It’s part of his mission to elevate Peruvian cuisine in the United States, but also a fulfillment of his family’s culinary cravings. Van Oordt grew up in Orange County in the 1970s, when Peruvian migration to this country was minimal, and the few times his mother cooked many of their native dishes was when she brought back canned ají from Peru.

Then, about 20 years ago, he says with a twinkle in his eye, “some ají seeds mysteriously appeared in my mom’s pockets.” His backyard peppers trace their lineage to those seeds.

Close-up of Peru’s beloved ají chiles—grown in California.GETTY IMAGES
Close-up of Peru’s beloved ají chiles—grown in California.

Van Oordt grew ají just for himself and friends until about five years ago, when he approached some of his favorite Peruvian restaurants. He loved their food, but the flavors were just not as sharp as he felt they could be. “So I’d go up to chefs and tell them, ‘Hey, I grow ají. You want to see?’ ” he recalls. “And they’d go crazy.”

Van Oordt refuses any payment for his peppers. “As a Peruvian, you get proud to see [our] chefs do well. They can now do what they should be able to do if they have them fresh. Jars of ají are bland—bad texture, and the heat and flavor are not as bright.”

Ají amarillo is even making it into cocktails thanks to van Oordt’s apostolic efforts. Cesar Cerrudo, head bartender at high-end Mexican hot spot El Mercado Modern Cuisine in Santa Ana, turns his ají batch into a liqueur that he uses to add a peppery touch to everything from negronis to margaritas. The two met at an event for pisco, a brandy-like Peruvian drink. “Javier finds out that I’m a bartender and tells me that he can give me fresh ají if I want it,” says Cerrudo with a laugh. “And I tell him, ‘I’ll take all of it!’ ”

Now the Peruvian native always gets van Oordt’s first batch. “You can use frozen ones, I guess, but they have a plastic stink to them,” he says. “When they’re fresh, it makes it more special, because it doesn’t come all the time.”

Van Oordt has never seen fresh ají amarillo at a market in los Estados Unidos. “There hasn’t been a big enough demand for it,” he says. “But I think that it’s getting there. Give it two years.”

In the meantime, in addition to growing his ají, he’ll try to cultivate rocoto, another beloved Peruvian pepper. “I’m just not high enough [in altitude] here, and it doesn’t get cold enough,” van Oordt says with a smile. “But I’m working on it.”

Alta contributing editor Gustavo Arellano is a longtime chronicler of California everything and is currently a features reporter for the Los Angeles Times.