Foodies from all backgrounds, including Stanton Social chef and Food Network star Chris Santos, gathered on d.b.a’s back patio Wednesday evening, under (probably redundant) heat lamps, to taste some 200 hot sauces from over the world. Twenty judges weighed in, and the concoctions with the best kick in the bunch will receive a personalized trophy at the Third Annual Hot Sauce Expo, to be held at the Brooklyn Expo April 25 and 26.
The competition, organized by local bar owner Jimmy Carbone and hot sauce maker Steve Seabury, was scheduled to take place at Carbone’s bar Jimmy’s No. 43. It had to be relocated because Jimmy’s building is still under an evacuation order due to the explosion March 26, which left an enormous pile of rubble just feet from the bar’s front door. Luckily the East Village’s tight knit community of local business owners pulled through, and d.b.a., which recently changed hands and is now owned by David McWater (also the owner of East Village haunts The Library and Doc Holliday’s), quickly stepped up to the plate.
Judges settled in at communal picnic tables, dotted with cans of whipped cream and bags of tortilla chips, ready for a long night of tasting. Though dairy is proven to alleviate the sting of hot peppers, David Navarro, an employee of Jimmy’s No. 43 and a judge for the evening, said he prefers to dull the burn with the salty crunch of the chips. “The sugar mixed with the hot sauce and the beer I don’t think is good together,” he said, wincing. “It bothers my stomach.” He makes his own hot sauce at home but wasn’t able to submit it for judging because the contest only accepts marketed brands.
Santos, who regularly appears as a judge on the Food Network competition show Chopped and just signed a deal to take over The General on the Bowery, tasted sauces with gusto and had no qualms about mitigating the spiciness with a dessert topping. “I will admit that yes, I am eating the whipped cream,” he said. He had thrown his own new Rattler BBQ Sauce into the ring for judging. Developed in partnership with expo co-organizer Seabury, the sauce is Santos’ first product in his venture to sell a line of spicy condiments, and it’s already received positive reviews from some pretty high places. “Obama said he liked it,” said Santos, who used the sauce when he cooked for a recent White House dinner. Santos also uses the sauce for several dishes at his two Lower East Side restaurants, The Stanton Social and Beauty & Essex.
Back on the table with all the other bottles, the The Rattler’s rattlesnake emblazoned vessel was lost among a sea of alligators, cowboys, scorpions, buffalo, and oh so many skulls. Among the regional New York and New Jersey sauces up for critique were Gemeni Crow, Heartbreaking Dawn’s and Born to Hula. “There’s a lot of good local sauces — a lot of good peppers are grown around here,” said Carolyn Zezima of NYC Foodscape. “There’s a whole bunch in the New York State, Connecticut and New Jersey area, and I don’t think he’s here but there’s even a guy that grows peppers on a rooftop in Brooklyn.”
Many of the sauces are available through “Wing King” Chip Hearn, the founder of Peppers.com, whose roster boasts 3,862 brands. “The thing about the expo is there are 45 of the top chefs in the industry there, so you get to talk to people like me, who do it for a living,” Hearn said. “You can taste their sauce and ask them, ‘Why did you do that? What were you trying to accomplish?” For $55 attendees of the expo can purchase a ticket for a BBQ box lunch and five beers, but there will also be a variety of food available from local chefs and plenty of people eager to let you know what food goes best with which sauce.
One thing Hearn hopes people will take away from the expo is that “it’s not about kicking your butt with heat. It’s about matching food.” It’s hard to imagine that anyone has come up with a more unexpected use for hot sauce than Hearn, who owns an ice cream store called, simply, The Ice Cream Store, in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. He specializes in flavors that incorporate unusual ingredients including — you guessed it — hot sauce.
The NYC Hot Sauce Expo takes place April 25 and 26 at the Brooklyn Expo, 79 Franklin Street, Greenpoint.