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Queen Majesty: How One New Yorker Rose From Reggae DJ to Hot Sauce Royalty

The first time Erica Diehl heard 1960s Jamaican music, her whole world rearranged to make room for it. The current hot sauce maker and former DJ had moved from Buffalo to New York City in 1994, looking to become a painter, when she was hit by the reggae blindside.

“I started collecting everything I could find,” she says of her crate-digging early days, before crafting locally-made hot sauces consumed her every waking moment. “This led to discoveries about other eras and artists and started turning into a real specialized collection.” It wasn’t until the early 2000s, when she took a job at a graphic design agency, that someone suggested she make something of this obsession by DJing her expanding collection.

Queen Majesty with reggae legend Johnny Osbourne
Queen Majesty with reggae legend Johnny Osbourne

She began performing under the name Queen Majesty, an homage to the beloved Jamaican song “Minstrel & Queen,” and was soon DJ-ing several nights a week and hosting her own radio shows on East Village Radio and Lot Radio, both called Jamaica Rock. “Thinking back, I must have DJ-ed thousands of times. I never said no to a gig,” she says. “The venues varied from a Jamaican house party in London to a posh rooftop in Manhattan and everything in between.”

In the midst of designing by day and DJing by night, the same coworkers who’d nudged Diehl into spinning her records encouraged her to compete in the office’s yearly hot sauce contest.

“I’d always liked Frank’s hot sauce, which is a Buffalo staple, but after moving to NYC I was exposed to spices from around the globe. I still really like Tapatio, because it reminds me of my old neighborhood.” Diehl lived near Sunset Park for many years, where she was surrounded by Mexican food and her local deli only sold Tapatio. “They had it in a couple sizes, and I would buy the biggest one they had,” she added.

When Diehl realized how much she liked making sauce, she began to daydream about doing it for a living. When she was laid off from her design job, it provided the perfect opportunity to try selling her concoctions.

“I did this with much naivete, which was a blessing in disguise because if I had any idea of the amount of work and dedication this would take, I may have reconsidered my decision,” says Diehl. She read books on running a small company, reached out to the FDA and USDA for guidance, and secured herself a kitchen space. Her first big break came in the form of acceptance at Smorgasburg in Brooklyn, a triumph that put her in touch with the market’s built-in support group of like-minded small food companies.

When Diehl officially launched the company in 2013, she called it Queen Majesty Hot Sauce. “It’s really an ode to the many influences that Jamaican culture has had on my life,” she says. “I like that the name Queen Majesty is unmistakably female.” Working in the male-dominated fields of DJing and cooking, Diehl is acutely aware of the extra work it often takes for women to prove themselves, but refuses to let that hold her back.

Queen Majesty Hot Sauce began with a Scotch Bonnet & Ginger sauce, quickly added a Jalapeño, Tequila & Lime, and just last year incorporated a Red Habañero & Black Coffee offer into the mix. (You can find Diehl’s sauces all over town, at specialty grocers and as table sauce at Lovers Rock, Building on Bond, Spoon, and Dirty Precious.) Diehl does all of the graphic design for the line, and though she originally took on freelance design work to supplement the business, the hot sauce now takes up all of her time.

“I have had to cut back, and even give up a monthly radio show because GMHS demands so much of my attention,” says Diehl. “It’s been ok though, because that’s not really the lifestyle that I want right now. I prefer waking up at 7 a.m. instead of getting home at that time.”

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Brooklyn, Step Aside — Food Makers in the Bronx Are Incubating an Artisanal Boom

Move over Brooklyn — New York’s other “B” borough has an artisanal food boom all its own going on – everything from an eponymously-named hot sauce and a Puerto Rican moonshine to fermented foods and healthy snacks.

The Bronx is emerging as a natural incubator for small food companies. With Hunts Point (the world’s largest produce market), reasonable rents and a supportive community, it’s no surprise that the borough is attracting talent. “The Bronx doesn’t want to be Manhattan,” says John Crotty, co-creator of Bronx Hot Sauce.

And it doesn’t need to — as anyone who ventures to New York City’s northernmost district has discovered, the Bronx has a flavor all its own. We set out to sample some of the new culinary delights blossoming in the borough, an area already steeped in the food traditions of Arthur Avenue, City Island, and an abundance of authentic Caribbean and Spanish foods.

Michaela Hayes founded Crock & Jar in a Bronx community kitchen
Michaela Hayes founded Crock & Jar in a Bronx community kitchen

Crock & Jar
If you think you know what sauerkraut tastes like, think again. Crock & Jar uses your grandmother’s techniques to achieve a modern take on fermented classics. Founder and “Chief Food Preservationist” Michaela Hayes use sustainably grown, locally harvested produce and makes small batches out of a community center kitchen at the Mary Mitchell Family Center in the Crotona Park neighborhood. Hayes, a French Culinary Institute graduate, started off making chutneys for the acclaimed Tabla restaurant. She moved on to establish a pickle program for Gramercy Tavern. In 2011, she founded Crock & Jar. The products — all live, probiotic foods — are as healthy as they are addictive, and include a jalapeño relish that makes an instant guacamole when mixed with avocado; a spicy kraut with dried chilies, and a beet kraut flavored with apples, fennel and cabbage.

Salted Carmel Bars - a Sans Bakery gluten-free coffeehouse treat
Salted Carmel Bars – a Sans Bakery gluten-free coffeehouse treat

Sans Bakery
When Erica Fair realized she couldn’t eat gluten, she didn’t want to give up taste. She started her own bakery in 2010 and was baking about twice a week for five different accounts. These days she’s baking six days a week, adding customers steadily and building out her own kitchen space in the South Bronx. “Brooklyn gets all the hype, but it’s oversaturated and expensive,” says Fair. Her supplier is close by at Hunts Point and the rents are reasonable. You can find her delectable cakes at high-end coffee places around the city including Birch, Café Grumpy and Think cafes. For Aussie coffee spot Bluestone, she makes a salted caramel slice with an almond meal, coconut and sorghum flour cookie-crust, filled with caramel and topped with chocolate and sea salt.

Pulse Roasted Chickpeas
About a decade ago, Linda Kim shared a snack with a friend – Armenian roasted chickpeas. It was a bite that (eventually) launched this healthy Bronx-made treat. At the end of 2012, Kim started her snack company with 200 pounds of chickpeas. Now she orders 2,000-pound pallets. Thanks to an early flash sale on FAB.com she got great exposure, and her background in sales helped her get into Whole Foods. A buyer for Fresh Direct sampled her chickpeas at a benefit event and later got Kim to sell them on the company’s website. The snack is high in fiber, gluten-free and full of plant protein. Flavors include sea salt and garlic, spicy lemon zest, coconut sugar and truffle. Kim also created a cross between a sport and a chocolate bar with her latest Pulse product – a crunchy chocolate vegan bark using coconut oil, sugar and dark chocolate.

Essie Bartels's West African spice blend with an infusion of Asian flavors.
Essie Bartels’s West African spice blend with an infusion of Asian flavors.

Essie Spice
Essie Bartels likes to see herself as a mad scientist of flavor. Founded just two years ago, Essie Spice combines the seasonings of her native Ghana with the flavors of her travels around the world. “I blend the best of the cuisines,” she says. In her “Coco-for-Garlic,” Bartels mixes coconut oil and garlic, as well as roasted peppers and some West African spices such as nutmeg and Grains of Selim (also known as African pepper). Her most traditional spice mix, Meko Dry Rub, marries African and Asian seasoning including a roasted ground peanut powder and five-spice.

Gina Kim and her mother, Mrs. Kim, sell their handmade spicy kimchi at local markets
Gina Kim and her mother, Mrs. Kim, sell their handmade spicy kimchi at local markets

Mrs. Kim’s Kimchi
Gina Kim, who started a Korean food company with her mom after she retired, says she’s thankful for her Bronx artisanal community. “It’s like a family.” She often gets retail tips from the other owner/makers in the incubator kitchen they share. The mother-daughter team entered the retail market in 2014 after successful stints at local weekend food markets like Smorgasburg. What makes her kimchi so much better than mass produced versions? Besides using copious amounts of garlic and scallions, Mrs. Kim insists on hand selecting all the cabbage and other vegetables that go into the dish. “Mom is really particular and meticulous,” says Gina. She also adds whatever looks fresh, like Fiji apples and Asian pears. The Kims only use pepper flakes from Korea for the most authentic taste. They sell three versions – original, vegan and mild (great for kids).

A holiday pack of The Bronx Hot Sauce includes a special red sauce.
A holiday pack of The Bronx Hot Sauce includes a special red sauce.

The Bronx Hot Sauce
Here’s a product that’s all about community — literally. Last year, Small Axe Peppers, the partnership behind the Hot Sauce, donated serrano pepper seedlings to 23 community gardens in the Bronx with the agreement that they would buy them back from the growers at market price at harvest time. They made 5,000 bottles of the spicy condiment with the local peppers. Chef King Phojanakong, who is a Bronx Science grad and a nursery school friend of one of the pepper company’s co-founders John Crotty, created the sauce. This year enough seedlings for 30,000 bottles were distributed. Each bottle has deep roots in the area – Crotty is a developer of affordable housing in the Bronx and GrowNYC, the Greenmarket’s parent organization, supports the gardens. A majority of the profits from sales of the sauce will be returned to low income communities in the city. The next step: the team hopes to start selling half-gallon containers of the sauce to restaurants.

Some of the local Bronx peppers that make a sizzling hot sauce
Some of the local Bronx peppers that make a sizzling hot sauce

Port Morris Distillery
It took about two years for Port Morris Distillery to produce its first bottle of Puerto Rican moonshine, Pitorro Shine, in 2013. The three-ingredient family recipe uses New York state apples, local honey and brown sugar. “My uncle was a long time moonshiner on the island,” says Ralph Barbosa, who co-founded the company with his childhood friend William Valentin. They convinced Ralph’s uncle to move to the Bronx and legally make his hooch. The 92-proof liquor is often macerated with tamarind, honey or habanero. For the holiday season, there’s an infusion with coconut and cinnamon called Coquito. Pitorro Shine and Pitorro Anejo, an 80-proof version aged in oak barrels, are sold in stores and served in NYC bars and restaurants. The distillery offers free tours and tastings as well as a cocktail bar, and next year they’re planning to open a restaurant next door.

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Meet Your 2015 New York City Hot-Sauce-Eating Champions

Among the events at the 2015 NYC Hot Sauce Expo held at the Brooklyn Expo on Franklin Street in Greenpoint over the weekend were pizza- and taco-eating competitions, which attracted Pepto-swigging competitors, from novice first-timers to veterans. Now, the pizza contest challenged contestants to eat as much of a specially made Grimaldi’s pie, made with a variety of hot peppers on it, in ten minutes. Wayne “Wayney Wonder” Algenio, the eventual pizza-eating winner, executed a strategy of leaving the crusts for last. And Lorenzo Zackery’s attempt ended just as he reached for a cold glass of milk, which disqualified him. In the taco-eating contest, contestants had to eat just one very spicy chicken taco as fast as possible, swallowing it all before raising their arms and opening wide so the judges could see their empty mouths. The taco competition went on longer than expected, but eater Ken Walter appeared calm and collected, his poise carrying him to victory.

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PIZZA-EATING COMPETITORS

Would you do it again?
Greg Reid, who didn’t place: Yeah.

Do you train for this?
No. I eat a lot of hot sauce.

Is it punishment?
It depends on the level of spice of the sauce or the dust you are dealing with, if it’s punishment or not. But it does release endorphins in you. So you do get a euphoric feeling afterwards.

How do you feel now?
My mouth is tired, really. There was a lot of chewing in that pizza. I got the euphoric feeling. It’s kind of a rush, being onstage with all the people screaming at you. [Laughs]

Would you do it again?
Tom Herrmann, 26, of Astoria: Absolutely I would do that again. It was a lot of fun. I don’t have to buy lunch now. It wasn’t actually too spicy, it was the amount of pizza. It was very spicy, don’t get me wrong, but I could have done it. It was just getting it all down. My stomach is very full right now. I’m not eating lunch, maybe not dinner.

How do you feel?
Definitely a little nasally.

We noticed that.
Yeah, I noticed a lot of people noticed that. When I was onstage, I was trying to wipe it off and just, more kept coming.

Do you train for this?
No. Yesterday I had some pretty hot wings in preparation. But I’m not a competitive eater. It’s not something I normally do. I’ve done one or two eating things before, but it was always for spiciness and not for quantity. It was a lot of fun. This was the first time I’ve ever done, like, “eat the most” food the fastest, and I had a good time.

Was it like punishment?
It was a little bit of punishment, but just enough to make it fun and [to] endure it. It took a lot for me to do that. There were a few times where I thought about quitting but I didn’t. I’m happy I stayed till the end even though I didn’t finish. I tied for second with a really cool guy. We were talking about it afterwards. He does competitive eating stuff. So I think I did really well for a first time.

How do you feel?
Lorenzo Zackery, disqualified after stopping and drinking milk: I feel like I’m not going to be doing anything tomorrow except for hovering over a toilet stool.

Would you do it again?
I’m definitely going to leave this place right now. I had my share of hot sauce today. One was 1.5 million [Scoville] units. I tried another one that came in a coffin at 6.5 million units. Apparently this pizza had California peppers, ghost peppers, and scorpion peppers, so I think I’m done with hot sauce today. Maybe for a couple of weeks, too.

Did you train?
I did not. I just brought my normal self here.

How do you feel?
Wayne “Wayney Wonder” Algenio, the winner of the pizza-eating contest: I feel good and bad. My face is on fire. That’s the bad. And my boogers are burning my nose. But it feels great to win. I love competing.

Do you train?
Actually, I do compete in food contests, but spicy is not my speciality. I went into this just seeing how well I can do. And I did pretty good.

You prepared with Pepto.
I’ve learned that, after doing a few spicy contests, it will help with the aftermath, if you know what I mean.

Would you do this again?
Yes. I’m gonna try to do the taco contest, if they let me in. The main reason I’m here, though, is ’cause I’m doing the Buffalo Wild Wings competition at 5 p.m. I won the qualifier and I heard I had the most wings overall of all the qualifiers, with 79 wings.

TACO-EATING COMPETITORS

So you’re a competitive eater?
John Krasnow, the taco runner-up: I do my best.

How do you feel after both the pizza and the taco contests?
Pizza wasn’t too bad but the taco, man, really shook me up.

Would you do it again?
Maybe the [Carolina] Reaper challenge tomorrow.

How do you train?
Just start eating peppers and hot sauces. Work your way up so you can handle super-hot stuff.

Is it punishment?
Oh yeah. Yeah, it’s just like how well you can take the punishment.

How do you feel?
Ken Walter, taco-eating contest winner: Not too bad. Lips and mouth are completely on fire.

Would you do it again?
Without a doubt. Definitely.

Do you enjoy the taco?
Oh, yeah, it was good. It really didn’t get hot till about three or four minutes after I ate it.

Is it punishment?
It was exciting at first, and now it’s a little bit on the punishing side.

See also:
Here’s a Taste of the Third Annual NYC Hot Sauce Expo
Slideshow: Inside the 2015 NYC Hot Sauce Expo

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Here’s a Taste of the Third Annual NYC Hot Sauce Expo

A little before one in the afternoon the ponytailed emcee grabbed the mic to address the crowd. “I SAID, WHO’S READY FOR A SPICY PIZZA EATING CONTEST?!” A few hundred people, with cameras in hand, were ready to witness contestants as they tried to eat the most slices of Grimaldi’s pizza topped with scorching peppers. Welcome to the Third Annual NYC Hot Sauce Expo. It was quite the scene.

More than 40 vendors filled the Brooklyn Expo Center in Greenpoint over the weekend, showcasing sauces, rubs, spicy horseradish, and a wide array of spices. The eclectic crowd of attendees included gentlemen wearing Guy Fieri–esque shirts, local three-day-beard types, and many who looked like they might also attend Star Wars conventions. One thing everyone had in common: Attendees seemed to be very well informed when it came to peppers, sauces, and the history of the expo. “Didn’t this bottle win for best artwork two years ago?” one attendee asked a gentleman manning one of the booths. “Yes, it did,” came the reply.

Contests dominated the stage — in addition to the pizza-eating contest, there was a chicken-wing-eating contest, a burrito-eating contest, and the world’s hottest pepper (the Carolina Reaper) eating contest — and cool products dominated the tables.

One of the biggest lines was for Benny T’s Vesta Dry Hot Sauce. Essentially a non-concentrated version of a hot sauce, the simple dry seasoning is made up of ground chiles. Imagine your favorite hot sauce in powdered form, but with over a third of a pound of chile going into each jar. This was the only booth at the festival where products were geared toward application in real cooking — most were meant to serve as a topping on a pizza or burger. I sampled Benny T’s “hot” varietal — which is made with jalapeño, serrano, and Devil’s Tongue chiles — on a steak just last night, and I can attest to its tastiness.

The best local hot sauce came from The Bronx Hot Sauce, which offered up its green jalapeño sauce, sourced from chiles grown in the South Bronx.

One thing that was almost entirely missing? Food on which to drizzle your newly acquired goodies. I was hoping for a veritable onslaught of wings and pizza and a variety of sandwiches and medium-rare burgers, but the pulled pork and cornbread plate from an outside stand was less than memorable. “They had way more wings last year, bro,” one attendee said to another. And the festival needed a lot more than just more wings — the pretzels from Bronx Baking Company were passable, but it’s hard to sample hot sauce for two hours when the only substantial food available is chips. Perhaps next year someone will make a killing, serving just the kinds of foods hot sauces are meant for. That would make this a great expo.

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What to Drink at An Choi: The Cocky Rooster

Each week in The Daily Shot, we have ourselves a drink that we think you should try, too.

The drink: Cocky Rooster

The bar: An Choi (85 Orchard Street, 212-226-3700)

The price: $7

The ingredients: Beer with sriracha, maggi, lime, jalapeño, served in a salt-rimmed plastic tumbler

The buzz: Like pho that you would want to sip as a refreshing beverage rather than slurp as a hearty meal, this Vietnamese take on the michelada comes across as exuberantly intense and subtly detailed. The freshly sliced pepper and bitter citrus, along with the maggi — a sort of vegetable bouillon popular in Asia — play up the beer’s hoppy graininess while preventing it from tasting too yeasty. Carbonation, meanwhile, keeps the savory and sour components from being too powerful: The cocktail doesn’t have the heavy, steak-in-a-glass vibe of many a Bloody Mary.

See (and sip) more Daily Shots here.

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Talking to Strangers: Mexican Coke on the Upper East Side

Recently, EfV was forced on a long trek to the Upper East Side to run an annoying errand. When our work there was done, we were relieved to spot a cozy looking lunchcounter spot called The Burger One on Lexington. Enticed by a hand-written sign out front, we went for a carnitas taco, rather than a burger—it was only snack time. This was a simple, top-notch taco. The pork was flavorful and nicely browned, and the house-made jalapeno-tomato hot sauce was wicked spicy and very tasty. Isn’t it amazing how food can cheer you up? Does that sound sad?

Anyway, then we met our new best friend, Izzy, a handyman who works nearby, who was freaking out about Mexican Pepsi. In fact, he had stopped by to purchase four bottles of the stuff. He said he doesn’t drink soda too often, but when he does, this is the only way to go. He said it reminded him of home and tastes completely different than American cola. His enthusiasm inspired us to purchase a bottle of the Coke, also Mexican, and do a little taste-test at home. In fact, we’ve been curious about all this since we heard about Mexican coke at Costco.

We poured both cokes into glasses and noted immediately that the American stuff had bigger bubbles. It is also sweeter and has a deeper, more molasses-like taste. It has an almost bark-y flavor, faintly similar to root beer. Next to it, our regular coke was practically refreshing. It tasted watery and much less complex, and it leaves a certain film on the tongue. Our taste buds and the nutritional information are in agreement: The Mexican coke lists sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup as the main ingredient, in addition to carbonated water, coloring, phosphoric acid, natural flavors, and caffeine. The Mexican also has more sugar, and therefore more calories and more carbs than its American cousin.

All that, plus the fact that the Mexican bottle, at 355 ml, cost $2, while the American coke, at 591 ml, was $1.25 at our corner deli, makes us think Izzy has the right approach to this whole soda habit: Do it rarely, and go for the good stuff.

The Burger One
1150 Lexington Avenue
between 79th and 80th
(212) 737-0095