I didn't grow up dumping hot sauce on everything I ate. In fact, it was rare to even have a bottle of Tabasco in my refrigerator growing up. While peppers and hot sauce were not part of my childhood, that didn't slow down my discovery of cooking.
I started cooking because I loved to eat, but also because TV chefs made it look fun. At the time, there was was no Food Network. I had to be home from school sick to get to see Martin Yan's "Wok with Yan" on PBS. It was his show that introduced me to the first cuisine I really studied, which was Chinese, which was fitting as it is a cuisine that prides itself on balance of flavors and harmony, which is important in crafting hot sauce.
While I didn't likely recognize it at the time, the typical combinations of vinegar, soy sauce and warm spices like ginger and bitterness from green onions and garlic hit several of your main flavor profiles, which is the foundation of any tasty dish, and why hot sauce in general is such a flavor booster.
My hot sauce love affair started in Buffalo, NY (I know, hot sauce in Buffalo?! Shocking!), where I attended SUNY Buffalo to study engineering. It was my first exposure to hot sauce on everything. While everyone equates wings with Buffalo, I saw hot sauce find its way onto pizza, mac 'n cheese, fries and more. This was typically something basic like Frank's Red Hot cayenne sauce or something similar. Some of the wing houses would come up with fiery creations, which is where my tolerance and exploration started.
Around the same time, when I knew that I would be living off campus after my freshman year (and thus off the meal plan), I decided that if I had to cook for myself, I wanted to eat well. That summer, I started studying a wider range of culinary styles. I went to my local library and started getting several cook books to read through.
At the core, I noticed that if you could cook a piece of protein, the variety of most dishes came down the sauce that you served with it to create variety. Once you understand the "mother sauces" of French (or other) cuisine, you typically add herbs, spices, wine or beer to vary the sauce. This led me to taking a deeper dive into pairing herbs and spices with various foods and testing what worked together for effective combinations. This time and study was the foundation of my work today.
While I had been working in the restaurant industry in the front of the house since high school, it wasn't until I had a year of cooking for myself that I sought out a role in the kitchen. I was lucky to land a job at a wine bar and bistro called the Gingerman in Albany, NY over the summer, where the head chef Brian took a liking to me. He was looking to take a break and work prep and I was all too happy to jump behind the line, which he let me do after just a couple shifts on prep.
He taught me a range of culinary school basics / concepts that went beyond my cook book study from general food prep to thickening sauces. I got to play with kitchen tools and had a box of standard recipes for salad dressings and pasta sauces we served daily that I'd make between meal time.
Best of all, I had a full spice rack, a walk-in cooler with a wide range of meats, cheeses and vegetables, several types of vinegar and the chance to come up with my own specials on a regular basis and I didn't have to pay for the ingredients. Cooking, like any other art, benefits from more hands-on experience and while it was work, I drew energy from the creative process. I was constantly exposed to new ingredients and exotic ingredients like fiddle head ferns (still a favorite of mine to this day) and sherry vinegar.
After I had some back of the house experience, I took that back to college with me and started cooking for all of my house mates. This resulted in 100s more meals where I could experiment and play, and my house mates loved it since I could whip up restaurant quality food for what they might pay for a sandwich or fast food. There was a lot of pasta served at this time and most meals had some kind of sauce.
The funny thing about college was that while people could tell I was passionate about cooking, my plan A was engineering and I was doing well with it. I would often say that if it didn't work out, I'd always have cooking to fall back on, but it never got to that point.
What I took away from engineering is an appreciation for breaking things down into elements and building them back up again. You develop an understanding of how changes to one part of a system will impact other parts in the system (like when you add too much of one ingredient that blows out all of the other flavors in a dish). I like to refer to what I do in the kitchen as culinary engineering, as you often are testing different combinations of flavor variables to come up with the right "properties".
After college, I ended up doing a little catering from time to time to maintain the skills I learned. I also spent some time selling Pampered Chef cooking tools. I was probably the easiest person my sponsor ever enrolled as a seller, as the idea of getting paid to teach cooking was a no-brainer for me.
As my professional career started to take more shape where I used my degree, I actually got to do some travel for work and got decent expense accounts that went with that. Now I was able to further refine my pallet in a wide range of restaurants and actually spent weeks in Europe where I experienced several regional cuisines.
Around this same time, the Food Network was on the rise. What drew me to cooking so many years ago was now available to watch all the time. I had several friends suggest I should go out for their "Next Food Network Star" program, which I thought was crazy, but I often contemplated, "what would my pilot look like if I did go on?"
That's where I came up with "Adventures on the Hot Sauce Highway" and this blog and eventual cookbook are part of what I would showcase if I had my own program.
I look forward to sharing in your hot sauce adventures, as my goal is to help everyone discover their personal signature hot sauce and to let you spread warm happiness to your family, friends, neighbors and co-workers in the process.
Sharing food is an act of love and kindness, which we could all use a little more of in this world.
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