How do you become the world’s first “hot sauce sommelier”? It’s simple, really. You start calling yourself a hot sauce sommelier before anyone else does.
OK, it’s not that simple. You have to be able to back up a claim like that with some major chops. Brooklyn hot sauce maven Noah Chaimberg can. The hot sauce sommelier spent years hosting pop-up events in New York that paired foods with hot sauces. “People always come up and say what’s your favorite hot sauce?” Chaimberg said. “I always say it depends on what I’m eating.”
In a few weeks Chaimberg will open Heatonist, New York’s first hot sauce tasting room, which will be located in a yet-to-be-disclosed location in Williamsburg. (A business venture that was funded, like all things Brooklyn, on Kickstarter.) Heatonist a hot sauce store with an innovative twist – patrons will be able to try hot sauces before they buy them.
And if they still need some advice? There’s the hot sauce sommelier himself.
How did you get into hot sauce?
I was always a Tabasco guy. At one point a few years ago I realized I was eating all these different meals, but I kept putting Tabasco on them. Tabasco was making it all too similar. I started buying some hot sauces, but I didn’t really love anything. I would bring one home, try it. I wouldn’t love it, and it would sit on the counter for four months until I threw it away.
Which leads to the idea behind your store.
This is New York. We need a place where you can try hot sauce before you buy it. It’s so key. It’s not like with a craft beer where somebody puts out something new and you can take a bottle home and that’s OK. You’re putting this on your food, and you’re not going to use it if you don’t love it. And it sticks around. It’s not like you can finish a bottle in one sitting.
So how did you become the hot sauce sommelier?
It really came about after we started the concept around providing a place to taste all-natural craft hot sauces. We realized the conversations tend to be focused around food. It became about the role of understanding the ingredients better in the sauce and how to pair it with different cuisines and different dishes. The best way to get people to understand that was to take something they already knew, the title of sommelier, and to appropriate that for hot sauce. The comparison really works well. People understand it that way.
Calling yourself ‘hot sauce sommelier’ is the easiest way to sell your expertise.
It really made the most sense. When we first came up with that nomenclature it was about creating a service for people to post a picture of what they’re eating, and then we’d recommend a hot sauce to pair with it. We said we’ll call that the hot sauce sommelier.
But what makes you the guy who is THE hot sauce sommelier?
A lot of people ask about that. It’s not a title we think of too formally. Nobody has an apron or a jacket that says hot sauce sommelier embroidered on it.
You really should, though.
Noah: [LAUGHS] Maybe. People seem to really love it. For us it’s really about experience. It’s just about having experienced enough of the hot sauce world enough to know the range of ingredients and flavors that are out there and what the different makers are doing and then the food knowledge to think about it from a culinary sense – what this would really go well with, where the trends are going and what could be really interesting on the plate. It’s all about flavor for us. We like to say we sell food that goes on food. It’s really about creating a combination of flavors that are going to be more than the sum of their parts. Going through that process over the last couple of years we’ve gotten samples in from everywhere and tasted about 600 different sauces.
It’s crazy – in a good way – how many people make hot sauce now.
Oh, yeah. It’s like craft beer in the 90s.
That’s a good comparison.
People are just realizing how accessible it is. How much fun it is to source and grow different ingredients and try different flavors and put their own personality on it. It’s a lot of fun. The combination of the Internet and social media where people can see how it’s done. They watch videos about it. They can post pictures of their creations on Instagram. The economic downturn has people thinking a lot more about crafts and taking the opportunity to make their own, so all these conditions just lined up to create a really perfect environment.
Where does your expertise in the food realm come from?
I first started in the food world when I was 17. I grew up in a small town in Vermont, and an Outback Steakhouse came and opened up in our town.
Big day in Vermont.
Yes. So me and a bunch of buddies went to get jobs. All my buddies got jobs as busboys, dishwasher, things like that. Somehow I was put on the line with guys who had been cooking for years. That just started me on this path. Then through college on breaks I said, ‘Jeez I need a job. What do I know how to do?’ Well, my last job was in a kitchen, so I went and applied and just worked my way up through there working for different restaurants and catering companies. I worked for a French restaurant and even launched my own in my last year of college.
What’s a hot sauce and food pairing that’s a go-to for you?
Normally when I sit down to dinner I’ll go to the hot sauce armoire and I’ll pull out 8 to 10 bottles.
You have a hot sauce armoire.
Oh, yeah. The fridge couldn’t handle it anymore. I definitely like Marshall’s Haute Sauce from Portland, Oregon. She makes one that’s ghost chili apple. It has a nice mild apple flavor but paired with goat pepper. She gets all fresh local ingredients in Portland and just does a terrific job. I enjoy that if I’m having chicken.
We just got something really interesting, it’s a sample from a great sauce maker in Ontario, Canada (Dawson’s), and it’s a chocolate chili sauce. It looks like a delicious chocolate sauce. It tastes like a delicious chocolate sauce, and there’s this lingering heat to it.
Will you have a subscription service?
That’s something people have asked about from the start, but I didn’t want to do it because there are these other hot sauce of the month programs out there that send you three sauces every month and everybody gets the same three. I really just did not want to be sending people something they could not like. To avoid that we’ve developed a hot sauce flavor algorithm.
Like Netflix or Amazon uses to recommend something.
You can select everything from heat level and types of peppers you like to different factors. We’ve identified eight flavor factors like sweetness, smokiness and fruit. You can indicate all the things you like and don’t like. The bottles in your shipment are customized to your taste.
I just sat down with our team to take a look. The prototype that we just ran through is 99 percent final so we just have a few last tweaks to make. Right now the service is just for the Kickstarter backers. In another few weeks it’ll be publicly available.
One last thing. You used to work in search engine optimization.
Yeah. All things search and analytics and digital for years and years.
Give me some good SEO keywords for this article.
New York City hot sauce store.