This Unexpected Ingredient Is My Secret Cooking Weapon

by Kaylan Rexer
A woman posing with her hand running through her hair in a denim jacket
Kaylan Rexer For Passerbuy

As the brand director behind the politically active and socially conscious Mezcal brand, Ilegal Mezcal, Kaylan Rexer is responsible for starting movements. From creating the “Donald Eres Un Pendejo” campaign in protest of U.S. president Donald Trump to throwing benefit concerts for Planned Parenthood, Rexer has proven that she's a force to be reckoned with not only in the alcohol business, but also in her community. So, it makes sense that her favorite food would also have a reputation for supplying a kick. The one food Rexer could never live without? Chilis (and Mezcal, of course).

Chilis & Mezcal Are My Secret Weapons When I Cook

I cook a lot of Mexican food, and while I do often use Ilegal Mezcal because it’s always on hand to marinate a lot, I always use chilis. They actually go really well together — I love the flavors. If I’m cooking something, it’s either Mexican or Indian, and both Mezcal and chilis play very well together. I love the smoke mixed with agave flavors of Mezcal, and the spiciness of chili.

I tried Mezcal for the first time when I was 18 in Guatemala, and traveling. I sipped on it, then tried a bunch of different ones and really enjoyed it. Chilis were also something I loved from a young age — I grew up with hippie parents, and we had an organic farm in the suburbs of Long Island, and we grew chilis on it. We had chickens and horses. It really was just trying those things and picking them directly from the fields, then seeing how my parents used them and cooked with them.

Photo By Omar Alonso

Chilis are so versatile: you can chop them up and sauté them, you can stuff them, you can do a lot with them. They help to bring out the other flavors in food. They both remind me of my childhood, as well as some of my favorite places that I’ve traveled. So they really do bring out good memories for me.

How Food Has Influenced My Life & Work

At Ilegal Mezcal, we do these bartender and music trips about once a year. We bring a group of people either to Guatemala or Oaxaca, along with a chef, a band, and a bunch of people from the alcohol industry. We have one big meal at the beginning, and one big meal at the end. We put the bottle of Mezcal on the table, the same way you’d place wine on the table, and just pass it around.

One of my favorite memories is with a chef from New York named Miguel Trinidad — he did one of his Kamayan dinners. He laid out banana leaves, and rice, and all of these different vegetables, chilis, and fish. You eat with your hands. So it was a group of 30 of us, sitting around a communal table, eating with our hands. It was amazing food, and we were passing around bottles of Mezcal. So honestly when I think about what food and drink mean to me, it’s sitting around a dinner table getting to know a lot of interesting people.

Kaylan Rexer For Passerbuys

Chilis & Mezcal Helped Me Be Fearless In The Kitchen

If you’re just starting out in the kitchen, I would encourage you to smell everything. I think people are often scared to get in there, but that’s what I do. Just smell everything, even if you're scared of using something like spicy chilis or other spices. If it smells good together, it will probably taste good together. And don’t be afraid to make mistakes. I like to read recipes, and then sort of not follow them. Make it up as you go along!

Part of the reason I work with and love Ilegal Mezcal in particular is because it really is part of so many different rituals that involve community — whether it’s funerals, or baptisms, or just dinner. So I’m always cooking with chilis and Mezcal, every chance I get, because it reminds me that I come from a big family, and that food and those memorable flavors are always what really brought everyone together.

As told to Associate Lifestyle Editor Tanya Ghahremani.

Bustle's series My Favorite Meal asks famous chefs, bloggers, and tastemakers to describe the one dish, recipe, or ingredient they can't live without — and why.