Exploring Exotic Hot Sauces with the Heatonist, Noah Chaimberg
In the past 10 years, the hot sauce industry has expanded to include much more than Sriracha and Tabasco. You can now purchase craft hot sauces infused with honey, carrots, and even alcohol. Most hot sauce makers sell their product at grocery stores and online. Montreal-born Noah Chaimberg spent most of his twenties ordering these craft hot sauces online, only to realize the taste didn’t match the description on the bottle. Four years ago, Chaimberg, 36, opened New York’s first and only hot sauce tasting room, Heatonist, in Williamsburg. O.N.S spoke with the flame-haired powerhouse about his business journey and his passion for spicy, well-made hot sauce.
Can you tell us about your early experiences with food—personal or professional?
When I was growing up, my mom was vegetarian, so if I wanted to eat meat, I had to cook it myself. I got familiar with food and familiar to being in the kitchen. I’ve enjoyed cooking since I became a teenager and got a grill. The joy of cooking on a fire hooked me right away. When I was 17, an Outback Steakhouse opened in our town (South Burlington, VT) and a bunch of guys from my high school went to get jobs. They were all made dishwashers or busboys, and somehow I was the only one that got put on the line cooking. I loved the intensity of it.
How did your love of hot sauce develop?
I’ve loved hot sauce for as long as I can remember. They say I get it from my mom’s mom. They lived down in Austin in the ‘50s and family legend tells about a time she was at the grocery with her three daughters and went to buy a garland of dried chilis for cooking. The grocer tried to talk her out of it saying they were too hot for her, but she told him she knew what she was doing. He challenged that, saying if she ate just one of them he’d pay for her whole basket of groceries. Well, groceries were on him that week. We’re the only two in the family that love the hot hot, and also the only two with red hair.
When and why did you move to New York City?
I moved to NYC in 2007 after graduating from Concordia University in Montreal. I had a business degree and was ready to get to work, but there weren’t a lot of jobs in Montreal at the time. I upped stakes for NYC and got a job my first day here. It was a media agency that was the biggest customer of Google.
What made you decide to leave this job and start your own company?
I kinda got tired of having creative ideas that got changed by the committee. I thought that what I really love is hot sauce, and I could really do something with this.
Tell us how you came up with the idea to create a hot sauce tasting room.
I grew up with Tabasco and as my heat tolerance increased, I found myself using more and more of it until I reached the point where all my food tasted like Tabasco. I tried to branch out and get something new here or there, but when I got them home, I didn’t like most of them, and they ended up going to waste. I thought, wouldn’t it be great if there was a place you could try hot sauce before buying it? I decided to start with a pushcart to see if anyone would be into the concept, and boy, were they ever! I would sample eight sauces at a time then. Always all natural, from small-batch makers all around the world. When the opportunity came along to open the tasting room, it felt like the right move. Now we can sample 100-plus at a time!
How did you come up with the Heatonist name?
I typed it into GoDaddy, and that’s the moment I bought it. That’s when I really decided to start this company.
What makes Heatonist products different?
If you go to the grocery store and look at the label on the hot sauces, they all have preservatives and stuff like that. A lot of hot sauces before had been all about heat, and it was this macho thing. And we really wanted to focus on flavors.
How do you determine your offering?
We have people send us samples every day from all around the world. We rate them and then we decide what to move forward with.
What is your favorite hot sauce
A newer one called the Classic by Invention. When I first tasted the fresh chile de arbol grown by my friend (and world-record-holding chili breeder) Ed Currie, I knew I wanted to make a sauce that would highlight the clean, unique flavors of this excellent pepper. For inspiration, I looked back on the traditions of American sauce making and found what I was looking for: a bit of vinegar and garlic, and just enough turmeric and salt to make the flavor pop. When you start with the absolute best ingredients, you don’t need to do much else. This sauce has become my go-to for everyday use and is always a fixture on the table here. It tends to accentuate things rather than overpower them.
Describe a unique experience you had with hot sauce.
One of the hottest sauces I can ever remember trying was from some guy who had ordered sauce from us online and reached out to ask if we’d sample his homemade sauce to give feedback. He was a real estate agent in Beverly Hills and grew some infinity peppers in his backyard and had made this sauce from those. When it arrived I gave it a sniff and it smelled nice so I took a taste. About 15 seconds later I was sprawled on the floor, gasping for breath! I think my tolerance was a lot lower than it is now, but I remember that just totally flooring me.
Any upcoming exciting things happening at Heatonist?
Each year we partner with one of our favorite sauce makers to develop a new recipe in celebration of the first tasting room’s anniversary on April 20th. It’s a lot of fun and yields unique results. When we’re doing these sauces we look at what’s happening in the greater food world and try to bring something new over to hot sauce that hasn’t been done before. Our new one is coming out in April and we’re really excited about it. It mixes one of the most classic hot sauce styles with one of the newest ingredients that everyone’s buzzing about.
How do you see the future of the hot sauce sector?
Hot sauce is growing by leaps and bounds. More people are getting into it every day. It’s a fun avenue of discovery because you never know what’s gonna be around the corner with hot sauce.
Words by: Hayley Lind
Photography: Emanuel Hahn