N.J. is hot sauce heaven. Meet the university president and ex-cop who love to bring the heat.
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Hot sauce makers try to outdo each other in naughty, noxious names, but make no mistake: There’s science, craftsmanship and hard work behind those hellfire condiments.
Hot sauces are burning up right now. The industry has grown 150% since 2000 — more than BBQ sauce, mustard, ketchup and mayonnaise combined. The global hot sauce market, now approaching $4.5 billion, is expected to reach $6 billion by 2025.
There are 289 hot sauce makers in the country, according to one industry estimate. But that number seems to be on the low side given there at least two dozen in New Jersey alone. Is it possible that the Garden State is the Hot Sauce State?
We have hot sauce makers such as Haht Sahs. Hank Sauce. Born to Hula. Family Band Hot Sauce. Outer Limits. Ocean Reaper. Defcon. Connor’s Saucery.
The five most popular hot sauces in the U.S. are Cholula (based in Jersey City), Frank’s RedHot, Huy Fong Food Sriracha, Tabasco and Tapatio.
New Mexico has the nation’s only chile pepper institute. But New Jersey has something no other state has — a university president who makes his own hot sauce. Ali Houshmand, president of Rowan University, is responsible for Ali’s Nasty hot sauce. You’ll meet him and five other hot sauce makers, including a pastry chef, third grade teacher and an ex-cop, in the following profiles.
And if you plan to sample hot sauce after reading this, make sure to have a bottle of milk (the best remedy for spicy foods) on hand.
John Sauchelli and Austin D’Almeida had known each other since high school, but had drifted apart. It took Melissa Masters, who met her future husband — D’Almeida — at a party at Sauchelli’s house to bring them back together and start making hot sauce.
D’Almeida was already growing peppers in his backyard. They made their first Jersey Barnfire sauces, Original and Black Garlic, in 2014.
“Just some buds drinking beer, making hot sauce,” Sauchelli said.
The black garlic sauce was the first hot sauce to use black garlic, according to Sauchelli. Regular garlic turns black when the bulbs are aged for weeks in a humid environment.
Initially, they sold the two sauces, then made at the Rutgers Food Innovation Center in Bridgeton, at local farmers markets. Then came a breakthrough — their Indian Summer hot sauce won the 2019 grand world champion award in the prestigious Screamin’ Mi Mi competition at the NYC Hot Sauce Expo.
Other awards followed, and Jersey Barnfire was selected to be included in Fuego Box, which bills itself as the world’s No. 1 hot sauce-of-the-month club. “They buy 1,000 to 3,000 bottles” at a time, says Sauchelli, in a kitchen at Fiddlers Elbow Country Club in Bedminster, where he is the pastry chef.
You can’t just make hot sauces in your kitchen and unleash them on the world. They must gain FDA approval and be made in a certified commercial kitchen. Jersey Barnfire sauces are now made at Organic Food Incubator in Bloomfield, where peppers are sliced and diced, tossed in a kettle, and checked for acidity and temperature before other ingredients (tomatoes, onions, vinegar, olive oil, spices) are added.
Sauchelli and D’Almeida sell about 4,000 to 5,000 bottles of Jersey Barnfire each month. Most of the peppers are grown in a field owned by Sauchelli’s dentist in Augusta, Sussex County. Other peppers and fruit come from Windy Brow Farms in Fredon and Alstede Farms in Chester.
Several other sauces are in development, according to Sauchelli. Such as?
“That’s top secret,” the pastry chef says conspiratorially.
“Ali’s Nasty” doesn’t seem like something a university president should put his name on, but Ali Houshmand is no ordinary university president.
Houshmand, the 66-year-old president of Rowan University (formerly Glassboro State College), started making hot sauce mostly because peppers were taking over his garden.
“I had so much of them, I put them in a pot, made hot sauce,” he says.
He says his wife eventually kicked him out of the kitchen because the fumes from cut-up peppers were overwhelming (most hot sauce makers wear masks and gloves to protect them against eye and skin irritation). Undeterred, Houshmand started bottling the sauce. A colleague suggested Ali’s Nasty as a name. A batch made for a charity event spread the word, and a legend was born.
“People were thinking what the heck does a university president have to do with hot sauce?” says Houshmand, standing inside the greenhouse on campus property where he plants his pepper seeds — habaneros, reapers, beaver dams and others. The plants are then taken outside and planted in a nearby field about 1.5 miles from the main campus, where they’ll grow up to six feet before being picked.
“What a gorgeous plant, really beautiful,” says Houshmand, showing photos of pumpkin peppers on his smartphone.
Growing peppers is not difficult. The key is knowing when to water them, which is not often.
“You deprive them of water,’’ Houshmand explains. “You wait until they’re desperate for water before you give them water.”
The hot sauces are made at the Rutgers Food Innovation Center in Bridgeton. Peppers are cleaned and grinded, then tossed into 200-gallon kettles. Then vinegar, salt, garlic, Italian seasonings, “high quality” olive oil and other ingredients are added.
The field next to the greenhouse also produces tomatoes, watermelons, honeydew melons and zucchini. About 2,000 pounds of peppers and 1,000 pounds of vegetables, which end up at a university food pantry, a campus distribution center and local food banks, were produced last year.
There are three sauces in Houshmand’s Hazardous Hot Sauce line: Ali’s Nasty (with long hot, beaver dam, jalapeno, Thai and Serrano peppers); Nastylicious (habaneros, long hots, beaver dams); and the most intense sauce, Nastyvicious (habanero, Scotch bonnet, Carolina reaper, Devil’s Tongue, 7 Pot Primo, Scorpion Moruga and Scorpion Butch peppers).
“I cannot handle that one,” the university president says of Nastyvicious. “It really makes you cry.”
All proceeds go to a university scholarship fund. About $40,000 in hot sauce sales have benefited the fund to date, but university spokesman Joe Cardona said the hot sauce program has resulted in “millions of dollars” in donations to the university because of conversations Houshmand has had with outsiders over the years.
He is his own best marketer and publicist, participating in hot sauce competitions. At one point, he even sent three-bottle packs to 350 college and university presidents around the country.
The hot sauce president has been known to visit the greenhouse at 5 or 6 in the morning to check on his charges.
“I talk to the plants, water them,” Houshmand says. A smile crosses his face.
“This is such a joyous experience to me.”
For Neil Narcisse, it all started when he picked up a bottle of Tabasco and looked at the label.
“I saw there were just three ingredients,” he recalled. ”What? I can make my own.”
And that he did, initially using peppers from his mom’s garden. His first hot sauce, Mango, in 2018, was patterned after his favorite sauce, mango habanero, at Buffalo Wild Wings.
“The first batch? I thought it was great,” said Narcisse, enjoying a coconut and mango shave ice at Betty’s Ice Box inside Convention Hall in Asbury Park.
So did his friends and neighbors. He realized he was onto something when his sauces sold well at local farmers markets. His second hot sauce, Pineapple, won second place last year in the fruit hot sauce division at the Hot Summer Night hot sauce competition in Thousand Oaks, California. His third, Sunset, has become his bestseller.
His next hot sauce “will have more of a citrus punch.”
Narcisse was born in Long Branch and grew up in Asbury Park, so Shore Sauce was a natural name for his line. The sauces are available online and at Saltwater Market and Cookman Creamery, both in Asbury Park, and John’s Cracker Barrel in Neptune City.
He originally planned to be an orthodontist, but switched his major to business administration at Brookdale Community College.
Narcisse started a music career about five years ago. He makes beats or compositions, mostly for artists to record their vocals over.
“I haven’t had a major placement or helped make a big hit yet though,” he explains. “I’ve only had the opportunity to work with a few artists so far.”
Right now, hot sauce keeps him busy. Narcisse hopes to develop a full line of condiments — BBQ sauces, spicy mayo, spicy mustard and more.
Where does he see himself five years from now?
“I’d like to release all the flavors in my head,” Narcisse replies. “And have more people familiar with the brand. I want to be a household name.”
You could call mild-mannered Dave Bell, owner of Cap-Sai-Cin, the mad scientist of New Jersey hot sauce makers. The third grade teacher at Lord Stirling School in New Brunswick loves pomegranate reduction, tamarind paste “and other aromatics” as hot sauce ingredients.
His Magma Powder is a “super spicy blend of the hottest capsicum chinense chiles” (capsicum chinense is a habanero-type pepper native to the Americas). His Igneous (”plenty of spice, but still accessible”), Semi-Molten (“hotter than most, for the chile fiends”) and Molten (”so spicy it’s electric, this is too hot for you”) hot sauces bring the heat.
“I wanted to focus on the super hots (peppers),” the bearded hot sauce maker says at his booth at the West Windsor Community Farmers Market at Princeton MarketFair. “Anything up around one million Scovilles.”
The Scoville Scale, named after pharmaceutical company researcher Wilbur Scoville, is a measurement of a chile pepper’s heat and intensity. Jalapenos are rated at 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville Heat Units, and habaneros at 100,000 to 350,000. Scotch bonnets come in at 100,000 to 350,000 SHU, while Carolina reapers weigh in at a scorching 2.2 million SHU.
Bell originally made sauces in his kitchen, but the fierceness of the “airborne particulates” created by grinding peppers forced him to take that show outside.
The Magma Powder outsells any of his sauces. One of his students’ mothers bought several bottles and loved it, although her husband complained it wasn’t hot enough.
Bell is more than just sauces. His Magma Nuts are “silly delicious,” and his Haphaestus Sriracha, named after the Greek god of fire, is available in Habanero and Superhot versions.
“Superhot is far more confrontational and not recommended for most humans,” according to the website.
Bell makes his sauces at Elijah’s Promise soup kitchen in New Brunswick. They can be found at What the Cluck?! and Merey Venezuelan Cuisine, both in Highland Park.
Steven Davenport quickly discovered one thing when launching his hot sauce business.
“It was easier chasing a criminal than opening a small business,” he says.
Davenport, a retired detective sergeant with the South Orange Police Department, started growing reaper peppers in his backyard “so the squirrels wouldn’t eat my tomatoes.”
“I started (making sauces) in my kitchen, but I was killing my wife (with the pepper fumes),” he says.
“I’ve heard this story before,” I say.
Davenport gave sauces to friends, was encouraged by their response, and began his Exit Wound line of hot sauces. There were headachy hills to climb — FDA approval, insurance, availability of bottles (he uses 5.2 ounce bottles instead of the usual 5-ounce bottles). It took him “weeks and weeks” to find wine sealers for the lids. He even bought a $700 machine so he wouldn’t have to slap on the labels one by one.
All his sauce names are related to firearms. Fully Loaded is his Reaper & Whiskey sauce, Muzzle Flash is his Reaper & Wine and Double Tap is his Reaper & Bourbon. His hottest sauce is Stopping Power Reaper & Rum sauce. “Severe heat,” the website warns.
“I could make them so hot they’d be unbearable,” Davenport explains. “But what’s the point?”
His company slogan: “It hurts even worse on the way out!”
To know what’s in any hot sauce, just look at the label. Reaper & Rum, for example, includes Carolina reapers, scorpion peppers, carrots, vinegar, garlic, spices, rum, ginger, pineapple, agave, tomato and onions. Reaper & Wine combines Carolina reapers, jalapenos, chile peppers, vinegar, garlic, spices, onions, basil, figs, Primitivo wine, honey, espresso and tomatoes.
Of course, the ingredients don’t always reveal how intense a hot sauce is. Check the bottle, or the maker’s website for further description and the Scoville units. Mamba 6 Hot Sauce, from CaJohn’s Fiery Foods, is “intended to bring pain, with a never ending wave of venomous fire! Go ahead, get bitten by this sauce! CAUTION: Avoid contact with eyes and sensitive areas. Keep away from children and pets! USE RESPONSIBLY!!!”
Davenport says he is ”not making thousands and thousands a month” with hot sauce. More like $500.
“I’m not looking to make a million dollars. I’m looking to stay busy,” he says.
One side benefit of John Kasper’s foray into hot sauce: Hot peppers cured his acid reflux.
“Yes!” he says.
It all started when he met his cousin for breakfast at the Readington Diner in 2013. His cousin pulled a bottle of his homemade hot sauce out of his pocket.
“I figured if my cousin could, why not me?” Kasper added.
He and his son, Jon, cooked up a batch of habanero hot sauce — John Kasper found a recipe on the Internet — and formed Whitehouse Station Sauce Co.
Jon Kasper, a chef at Fiddlers Elbow Country Club in Bedminster, is the “creative influence” behind the hot sauces.
His dad calls himself “the sales guy and bottle filler.”
He’s perched on a stool at Twin Elephant Brewing Co. in Chatham. Kasper works across the street at Dreyer’s Lumber & Hardware, where he is a window and door salesman.
Father and son add a sauce every year. The current lineup includes Habanero, White Peach Habanero, Carolina Reaper, Zavory Habanero (with zavory and habanero peppers) and Applewood smoked poblano-jalapeno, their bestseller.
“Tastes like bacon,” Kasper says. “Even vegans love it. It’s their guilty pleasure.”
Seasonal hot sauces include pumpkin habanero and cranberry reaper.
“We’re not about glitzy artwork. We’re about flavor,” John explains. “We basically use peppers, onions and garlic. We don’t add any lime or cilantro. Our sauce is all about the pepper.”
Speaking of peppers, the most important lesson for any hot sauce novice is, don’t necessarily fear the reaper, but make sure to have that glass of milk nearby just in case.
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Peter Genovese may be reached at [email protected].