A light drizzle falls in the alley behind Pura Vida Tapas & Bar, a small Poncey Highland restaurant run by husband and wife Hector and Leslie Santiago. A ladder rests against the restaurant’s back wall.
Chef Hector — whose black ponytail and thick Puerto Rican accent have recently become more familiar to Atlantans thanks to his turn as a “cheftestant” on the current season of “Top Chef” — easily bounds up the ladder like Jack scaling the beanstalk. At the top, he hoists himself over a ledge onto the building’s flat rooftop. A more timorous guest follows behind.
From this roof, a wooden plank leads to the next, higher one. Here is where we find Hector’s pepper garden. A hundred or more capsicum pods in every shade of red, green, orange, yellow, purple, black and brown grow from potted plants.
Hector, a skilled carpenter, has devised a system that runs the condensation from the restaurant’s air conditioner (on a third, higher rooftop) through a plastic tube and into a basin holding the long row of potted peppers, which absorb the water. A pump at the other end sends the excess water out onto the roof surface and into the gutter. A length of netted material over the plants shields them from the brunt of the harsh Georgia sun.
Among the peppers are many rare South American varieties such as aji amarillo and aji benito. The latter are no bigger than jalapenos but have much thicker, juicier flesh. Hector also grows India’s ghost pepper, which is the hottest variety on the planet.
But in general Hector isn’t after the searing heat of these chiles. In fact, the special variety of habanero that he grows is bred to mute its famous searing heat yet let its tropical, fruity flavor come through.
The point of this whole operation for Hector is to explore the flavors of chiles, not the burn.
“There are different ways to tame the heat, ” he says, running his hand through a healthy bush covered in mature, multicolored peppers no bigger than Tic Tacs. “When the plant is stressed, the peppers are spicier, so I give them lots of water and food. Then, when you cut the peppers, you have to remove all the seeds and veins very carefully.”
Hector doesn’t have enough of a bounty to rely on this crop for his restaurant — local farmers take care of that — but through the project he is tasting and exploring the flavors of the world’s chiles. Teaching himself. Following his palate. Spice is good, but it’s the flavor behind the spice that he finds more compelling.
Back at ground level, Hector stands by the side of the building and pulls out a chart showing all the varieties of peppers he grows and their names when…
A late-model Infiniti sedan pulls over. The driver rolls down her window and shouts, ” ‘Top Chef!’ You make Atlanta proud!”
She reaches her arms out the window and mock genuflects. Hector smiles awkwardly and mutters, “Thanks.”
“Seriously, ” his fan continues. “I am so impressed! We’re your neighbors! Just down the street!” She drives off.
“Maybe she could come to my restaurant sometime, ” Hector says with a shrug.
“Top Chef.” It’s all anyone wants to talk about these days. On the night of the season premiere, guests old and new packed the joint. Hector had to ask people to share tables to accommodate everyone.
And, then, he was almost sent packing! The judges hated his fried steak.
“I was so nervous that day, ” he recalls. He had a good idea but had to rush, and then did a poor job communicating his intention. The dish was supposed to represent a vice, and his vices are smoking, fat, salt and fried food.
But no matter. He wasn’t eliminated. He worked on the dish and now serves it, to the delight of his customers.
For the second episode, he got good marks for one of the two dishes he made — a tofu ceviche. But he was upset that his other dish didn’t get any airtime at all. It was a serving of his own house-cured serrano ham, made from a Georgia Berkshire pig and served with a sherry-kumquat emulsion. He was proud of it, but there’s no telling what will show up on the screen after the raw footage is edited.
“Top Chef” is the conversation topic 24/7 for Hector Santiago these days. He smiles, nods, answers all the questions tactfully — telling fans what they want to know without giving away any of the details of upcoming shows.
But for now, just for this moment, he’d rather get back to his chile project.
And so this truly top chef pulls out his pepper chart and resumes talking about a subject he loves.
Pura Vida Tapas & Bar: 656 N. Highland Ave. 404-870-9797.