Interview with Capitol Punishment Foods
I recently had the pleasure of talking food, wine and hot sauce with Chef Gordon Cameron, proprietor of Capitol Punishment Food.
Well versed in the food business, but new to the hot sauce arena, Chef Gordon is already making a splash among chiliheads with his line of gourmet sauces, featuring heat AND flavor. His Gar-Banero just recently won first prize in the hot sauce category in Kato’s Amateur Fiery Food Contest, 2006. And reviews of Capitol Punishment’s sauces will be coming in the next few days!
Capitol Punishment Foods – Innocent Until Proven Spicy
Gordon Cameron, Proprietor
Capitol Punishment Foods, Inc.
1355 S. Carolina Ave. NE, #B
Washington, DC 20003
HSB: Let’s start out with the basics. How’d you get yourself into the hot sauce business? And how did you get the name Capitol Punishment?
Chef Gordon: The first part ties a lot into being a food professional for a long time. I started washing dishes when I was 14. I went to culinary school, attended Johnson and Wales and worked my way up to a culinary chef in DC, where I’ve been in the food industry for 18 years. I noticed there was a niche market for sauces that had culinary value – consumers are getting tired of useless red water (a play on Letterman’s decaf coffee slogan: Useless brown water.)
Through meeting people online at the Hot Sauce Blog and the Hot Pepper Forum, I’ve found there are a lot of people fighting the good fight – doing heat and flavor. It’s not all about peppers, vinegar and salt. I try to make sauces with a lot of culinary value. I try and build my sauces the same way I’d build a classical french sauce. When I make a sauce, I put a lot of love into it.
Moving to the capitol in DC, the seat of the three worlds, Capitol Punishment wasn’t much of a stretch. Working with all the people on the hill, and there being a bit of masochism in hot sauce, the name just came.
HSB: And your thoughts on heat vs. taste? Where does the balance fall? And how do you know when you’ve found the perfect combination?
Chef Gordon: Heat and flavor has redefined the market. The consumer is much more aware of what is out there, and what goes into what they consume. I try to appeal to the largest market that I can. There are people out there that don’t like really spicy food; others think if it doesn’t kill them it’s not spicy enough. So I try to appeal to both ends of the spectrum.
There are entry level sauces, to get you in the door. One of the more interesting I make is the Asian Pear sauce. A lot of fruits carry the essential elements you want to have in a sauce – natural acidity and natural sweetness. A ripe fruit is balanced to start off. I also do a green serrano that uses white grapes. White grape is a perfect balance; it has the consistency of a tomatillo; it carries a natural acidity, and a natural sweetness. Why dump a lot of sugar in when nature does it for you?
I want each ingredient to stand on it’s own, but not blow the others away. Learning about flavor profiles, you want it to be balanced. I’ve heard a lot of good feedback about a my sauce’s nice balance – balance between sweetness, heat and robust flavors. Right now vidalias are in season; I’m using them in my sauces. They are available, fresh, and fantastic. Some makers like to hand their sauces over to co-packers who want to use dried ingredients. I want to have a say in the ingredients that go into them.
One of my sauces, the Gar-Banero, won first place in Kato’s Fiery Food competition. It’s a simple base, but I work in roasted garlic and roasted shallots, to exemplify the natural sweetness. This adds a roastiness as a base, and the Caribbean habaneros give it heavy heat.
HSB: That is definetly a great trend in hot sauce. As a consumer, the option to have fresh sauces sauces that taste like they came straight out of the kitchen didn’t always exists a few years ago.
Chef Gordon: When I was first starting up in the business, I was told the co-packer was the way to go. The logic is that you want to spend you time selling the product, not making it. I looked at that. But, it’s not easy to make sure the sauce will get done exactly like you want. Some co-packers want to substitute dried ingredients for fresh. That’s not how I want my sauces made. It’s not about just trying to make the best business decision. My goal is to put out the best sauce I can. I love it when someone looks at it, tastes it, and smiles. And then soaks their tongue in sour cream.
HSB: What’s your best selling product?
Chef Gordon: Depends on who you talk to. The Jalapeno Asian Pear is locally one of best sellers.
HSB: And what should be the best selling – which is your favorite Capitol Punishment sauce?
Chef Gordon: It’s almost like picking which is your favorite kid. I’d have to say, I like them each on their own merit. I wouldn’t produce them if I didn’t like them. Each one is so different, so unique.
The Gar-Banero is a straight forward hot sauce. It’s red, thin, with lots of potency. But, it’s got flavor behind it to back it up. The roasted garlic, shallots, onions give it a rich flavor.
The Must-Have Mango features orange habaneros, a proprietary jerk seasoning, and the mango on the back. I didn’t want to do a tooty-fruity sauce, I wanted the orange habanero first, followed by island spices, and the mango on the back end bringing out the exotic flavor.
The Smokey Sear-Acha is sriracha style sauce. It uses a dried pepper, the japone (santaka). It’s a thin-walled Asian pepper. It has such a great flavor, a nice middle of the road heat. I couple that with 50% chipotle for a smokey touch. It’s not an overbearing chipotle flavor, but has smoke in the background. I’ve heard people use it straight up for Memphis style barbecue, or Korean style barbecue. I brushed on baby octopus; that was phenomenal, out of this world. I’ll also put it in white chicken chili.
The Jalapeno Asian Pear works great with sandwiches. Put it with mayo, and it adds a well balanced kick. That’s my introductory sauce, the least in pop. I wanted the jalapeno flavor matching with the pear flavor on a background of garlic-ginger.
HSB: Do you have a favorite sauce by another producer?
Chef Gordon: There are people out there doing the heat and flavor thing. (Laughs) This is going to be a kind of shout out to the people who’ve helped me, you know? There’s the Three Hot Tamales, Cajohn, Defcon, Mild to Wild, Peppermaster. Everyone’s been helped out by Dan from BLP labels. Of course, Blair’s. That’s the Metallica of the hot sauce industry. (Laughs) And God. And my parents.
HSB: How have you found your relationship with other producers in the industry? Is it cut throat and competitive? A friendly camaraderie? Or somewhere in between?
Chef Gordon: I’m months old in this business. I really started off testing stuff in my kitchen, testing on friends and family. What do you like, what do you not like? I’ll adapt to the palate. Don’t just tell me you like it because you know me.
These people (see other producers above) have helped me with questions every single time. They are completely and totally willing to let new people in. It’s a giving, sharing community that I’m proud to be a part of.
As far as DC goes, there’s only one other guy that makes hot sauce, and has been doing it for 15 years, named Uncle Brutha’s. He just opened a hot sauce emporium a mile away from my house. You know what? I went in, and he was happy to have another local hot sauce in his store. He’s going to carry my whole line. It’s not like, “you’re a competitor, and I’m going to put you out of business.” It’s like, the more the merrier.
HSB: Lets play a little word association. I’ll give you a word, you tell me what you think of. Ready?
Chipotle – smoky sun
Sweat – just do it
Heat – heat, not just for heat’s sake
Garlic – love it, use it, roast it
extract – too hot for me
Ring of Fire – gonna burn twice
HSB: Can you give the readers of HSB a sneak peek into where you see Capitol Punishment Foods going? Any new products or surprises on the horizon?
Chef Gordon: I’m going to look at two new hot sauces. One will be a prickly pear sauce. The other is a smoked cherry barbecue sauce with a port reduction. Smoked, dried cherries, smoked chipotles, and red jalapenos. Also coming up is a line salsas.
The biggest thing I have going will be a commissary style kitchen where I’m going to be co-packing myself out of my kitchen; that’s about a year out, but we’re looking at space in DC metro. I want the barbecue dad market with in store grill demos, parking lot demo, and picking up contracts for people who want to make their own stuff. I had a bit of a barrier getting into that myself; there wasn’t anyone within an hour and a half drive. I think there’s room for people with a culinary mind who want to work with, not compete with, people like themselves.
HSB: Sounds like you have a lot on your plate!
Chef Gordon: Sure do, but I have a passion for it so, it hardly seems like work.
HSB: Where’s the best place for our readers to get a hold of your capitol punishment sauces?
Chef Gordon: The best place right now is on our website, http://www.capitolpunishmentfoods.com/.
I’m starting a local hot sauce club once a month at a local tavern called the Black Rooster. There will be food and beer specials. Anyone in driving distance, there’s a sign up sheet at Uncle Brutha’s hot sauce emporium. It’ll be all about Hot Stuff, almost like the equivalent of a wine club.
HSB: And to finish up, if you can describe Capitol Punishment Sauces in three words or less, they would be…
Chef Gordon: Big F’in Flavor.