When fellow cookbook author Robb Walsh asked if I’d be interested in judging the 2012 Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival, I think I had about a millisecond of hesitation before exclaiming “Hell yes!” and booking my airfare. It was kind of a no-brainer; I’d never been to Texas before, and, as you may have guessed by my first cookbook, I’m a sucker for Scovilles. And being the largest hot sauce festival in the world—with an estimated 350 competition entrants and 15,000+ attendees—it definitely seemed like my kinda scene.
Shortly after getting a screaming deal on a plane ticket, this innocent looking email came in from Robb and crew saying something to the effect of, “By the way, it was like 110°F here last year. NBD. Wear light clothes and a hat. Oh, and it’s 143% humidity. See you soon!”
110°F? Humid? What have I gotten myself into?! I’m a Los Angeles native… I don’t do humid. My mind spiraled out of control and I began to question my decision. What if there’s some crazy lunatic who wants nothing more than to punish people with her Ghost Chili hot sauce? Is my tongue ready for that? And am I prepared—physically and mentally—for the inevitable revenge the following morning? Could I handle this? What if… and so on. But eventually, I shut the hell up inside my own head and resolved to stick with it. I decided, once and for all, that no matter what happened, good or bad or otherwise, it would at the very least make a somewhat-entertaining blog post. (Hi!)
A week before the festival, I was hanging out at one of my favorite breweries—The Lost Abbey in North County San Diego—and this food truck called Thai 1 On rolls up. I had another moment of anxiety about my spice tolerance for the upcoming competition, so I thought I better warm myself up a bit and go a bit beyond my usual piquant comfort zone.
“How hot? 1 to 10?” the seemingly kind gentleman asked me.
I pondered a moment, since I’ve for too long been on the receiving end of what I call “white person spicy,” where my Asian friend will order an 8 and get it chock full of angry little peppers begging to hurt him… while I order an 8 only to find that it’s sadly milder than Kenny G’s latest Christmas album.
“Gimme the 10,” I foolishly commanded.
And so, he went to work on my pad see ew, finally handing it to me with a slightly curled grin that rightfully made me worried. I took my first bite. And it was absolutely delicious. Honestly, one of the best dishes I’ve ever tasted. Then, another bite, and another, and then… holy-hell-sweet-Jesus-on-a-skateboard!!
…I died. I couldn’t take it. The heat became unbearable, and after chugging what was left of my beer, I ordered a super-size pink lemonade from the sadistic gentleman that fashioned this fiery feast. About five excruciating minutes later, the capsaicin-induced hallucinations began fading, my mouth eventually cooled down, my friends stopped laughing hysterically at me, and I found myself more afraid than ever about the fate of my taste buds the following weekend. There was no way in hell I could do this, I told myself. But the ticket was bought, and I was just gonna have to anyway.
Enter Austin. Cool friggin city, by the way! Incredible music, food, and beer! Honestly, I fell in love and can’t wait to go back. After getting shown some of the best sights around town, I finally made it down to Fiesta Gardens for the ultimate hot sauce showdown.
At the festival, the aforementioned 15,000+ attendees were having a heck of a time, sampling sauces, grabbing chile-infused lunches from any number of awesome vendors present, drinking beers, and enjoying the live tunes. I took a good hour to walk the grounds and soak in some of the fun myself before facing my fate and heading to meet my fellow judges:
- Paula Disbrowe: Senior Travel Editor at Southern Living magazine, and author of four cookbooks.
- David Garrido: Chef-owner at the eponymous Garrido’s restaurant in Austin, and co-author of Nuevo Tex-Mex: Festive New Recipes From Just North of the Border.
- Alan Lazarus: Chef and co-owner of Austin restaurants Vespaio and Enoteca Vespaio, and former executive chef at Whole Foods Market.
- Kevin “Food Dude” Roberts: Host of BBQ Pitmasters and The Next Food Network Star finalist. Owner of several San Diego restaurants and author of two cookbooks.
- Chris Shepherd: Chef-owner of the celebrated “Texas Creole” restaurant Underbelly in Houston.
- Robb Walsh: Author of multiple cookbooks including the Spring 2013 release The Hot Sauce Cookbook (which I contributed a recipe to!), former editor of Chile Pepper magazine, three-time James Beard award winner, co-founder of the festival returning for his 22nd year as a judge. NBD…
Robb introduced us all and explained the basics. A huge panel of folks had already plowed through hundreds of hot sauce entries to narrow it down to the final contenders (around 75 or 80 if memory serves me correctly), which we were to judge based on appearance, aroma, flavor, originality, heat, and overall impression.
Now, I’m not normally an anxious person, but I had a moment. The people I’m sitting with are kind of a big deal, and these sauces might just own me in front of them. A veritable who’s who in the food world, and here comes this n00b by the name of Randy Clemens. (Hi!) What the heck am I going to bring to the table, I wondered to myself. Luckily, within minutes, the conversation degenerated into the usual bout of dick and fart jokes I’ve come to know, love, and almost expect whenever gathering with other members of the food community. Right then, and right there… I knew I was right at home.
And though the jokes never stopped flowing, we were all very serious when it came to the sauces. (Though it is tradition for the first round judges to intentionally pass several exceptionally crappy sauces on to our round to see that we all suffer a little make sure our palates are calibrated.) They were broken down into categories: red, green, and special variety. And within those, it was subdivided into individual, restaurant, or commercial.
We zipped through them, experiencing a whirlwind of flavors. Some good, some bad. Some too salty, some practically begging for salt. Some wonderfully overflowing with garlic, others depressingly lifeless. Several making you wonder if they actually even contained peppers, and surprisingly just two that set my mouth ablaze. (Luckily, tortilla chips, guacamole, beer, and margaritas were well within reach. Ahhhhh the perks…) When all was said and done, I’d had a great time making new friends, exploring a new city, and trying out a few incredible hot sauces.
Was it all worth it? ABSOLUTELY. I really did have a blast. But I do have to say, the bad and mediocre sauces outnumbered the good. The winners were almost alarming easy to pick. No heated battles for first prize… no contentious debates between judges over entry #383 and #267.
So what does that mean? What am I trying to say with this blog post? Well, if you’ve got a killer hot sauce, keep making it. Test it. Refine it. Season it properly. Make it again. And again. And again. Try variations. Find your winner and BRING IT. Enter it and knock our socks off next year. I wanna yell at Robb and tell him the one he liked just wasn’t as good as yours. I want Paula to order another (double) margarita for both of us while politely asking how on earth you nailed the right amount of heat and acidity. I want it to come down to a 1 point difference between 1st and 2nd place, or better yet, with an arm wrestling match serving as a tie-breaker!
Whaddya say? Got a recipe your friends keep clamoring for? I assure you that I speak for the entire group when I say we really wanna try it.