Meet Your Maker #25: Lars of Csigi Gourmet Sauces
You’ve read the reviews of his products and read his reviews of products, but now it’s time to hear about the man himself. Lars is the man behind Csigi Gourmet Sauces (pronounced Cigi) and an devote chilehead whom I’ve known for several years. Now a few words from Lars himself…
1. Why hot sauce? Where did the idea come from for you to get involved doing this? It mostly started with a small patch of chile plants. As my harvests started to get larger each season, I started to experiment with making my own hot sauces. As I started to pass around my sauces people were telling me how excellent they were. During this time I was a telephony professional working for one of the giants out of NYC. Although I ‘liked’ my career choice, it didn’t seem to be fulfilling in any way. Because of this I was looking for something more. Originally not an alternative career, but that is sort of what happened since late 2006. And over the last couple of years I have gone from just making hot sauce, to having 8 total line items, with more for the immediate future.
2. If you had to pick a favorite sauce yours, which would it be? That’s a tough one because I really enjoy and use all of my products in many of my meals. And because I’m not just centering on one type of sauce or sauces, the range is pretty diverse. Lately I’ve been eating a good amount of my Fra Diavolo Sauce as well as my Habanero Balsamic Vinaigrette.
3. Any new products we should be ready for from your line? Yes, a couple of items. You may have seen the photos of the Naga patch I planted. I have plans for a small reserve batch of a killer Naga sauce! Although the harvest season was a tad on the pitiful side, I should have enough chilies to make a small, small reserve batch. So keep your peepers peeled folks! That and perhaps a new salsa, a chili powder, and some wing sauces that should be available by spring 2008, just in time for the Fiery Foods Show in Albuquerque, NM!
4. Where do you see the future of hot sauce 5 years from now? 10? 20? Well even 5 years ago the industry isn’t what it is today. With such rapid growth I’m hoping that many of the small manufacturers you see today will be more widely distributed. What irks me the most are the large corporations that are jumping onto the ‘fiery foods band wagon’. Since they already have the wide distribution, it sort of cuts off the little guy at getting a chance at larger distribution. Not to mention that most of the corporations that try their hand at spicy foods fail miserably. They try to cater to people who really don’t enjoy hot foods. It’s more towards the guy or woman who puts a little cayenne pepper into something to give it a slight kick. So I’m going to have to say that overall sales of widely distributed spicy products aren’t a true representation of where sales could be if we saw more specialty fiery foods widely distributed. A large portion of the fiery food items produced by the small manufacturers have a lot more heat, texture, flavor and just a hell of a lot more originality than say a bag of Lay’s made with Frank’s Red Hot or Tabasco. I kind of simplified the entire idea of what I was trying to say, so I’m hoping that that comes off right to most who just read that. Did that make sense?!? lol
5. What is your favorite sauce that you don’t make? That is a tough one, because many times when I try a new sauce I immediately compare it to my hot sauces. I know that this isn’t entirely fair and it may even sound somewhat snobby or stuck up to some. But I have an extremely high standard as far as ingredient content and ingredient quality. There are many small manufacturers that have fallen into the market of larger scale production, in doing so they might try and compromise on ingredient quality and content in order to meet the demand or to perhaps create a higher profit margin. Which we all like to make money with our sauces, but it’s a fine and tough line to follow, especially for the small manufacturers. I have tried using lesser quality ingredients and the end result always shows. In my instances it hasn’t worked and I don’t see it working for my products any time soon. So as not to get too far off topic here I’ll round this out by saying that currently my favorite hot sauce to eat that I do not make is Benito’s Naranja. It’s a carrot, cayenne, habanero hot sauce that uses all organic ingredients. It’s more on the low end of the heat scale, but he has a great balance of flavor and heat with this sauce. Try it if you haven’t before. It’s very pleasing on sandwiches and wraps. Which I can attest to as this is mostly what I’ve been using it for.
6. Do you eat the sauce you make? Hell yeah, pretty much every day!
7. What do you eat hot sauce on? Like many other chile- heads out there all kinds of foods and dishes. Since I cook more in my own kitchen now than I ever have before, you can find me using hot sauce on everything from soups, to salads, to meats, and vegetables, right on down to pizza parlor pizza! And cheese steaks, even though I haven’t had one in many months cheese steaks are a great medium for hot sauces!
8. What sets you aside from the other hot sauce producers out there today? In a way one could view me as some sort of a hack artist/cook with a hell-bent obsession on creating interesting and artistically different fiery foods! Some for the faint of heart, others for the hearts that enjoy the fast exhilaration of the endorphin rush one gets from eating fiery foods on a daily basis. I’ve been surrounded by artistic ability for most of my life. Be it painting, pottery, or music. To me the medium is irrelevant, because I as a person understand the gracious offering to society artists and artistic talents have given back to their fellow man. To me it’s almost all about enlightenment, in a way. And then there is the obvious standpoint from the product perspective that would be the lack of any bulking agents, preservatives, or gums. Many foods today are made using highly processed ingredients, fillers and bulking agents, and the biggest no, no of all, high fructose corn syrup! I do not use any of these ingredients in any of my products and I refuse to do so! That and the balance of flavor and heat you will find in all of my products. From the subtle heat of my Habanero Balsamic Vinaigrette moving right on up to the mellow fiery sweet-smokiness of my Salubrious Savina! That and in a sense I’m very non-traditional when it comes to product development. Just looking at my products you can see that there is definitely a ‘home made’ quality to everything I do. The fusion of flavors that I dream up can sometimes be confusing to some, yet highly regarded by those that get it from the initial taste to those that graduate and acquire the taste. To each his own and I’m out to blaze some new trails. I’m not much into the extreme heat end of the market. We have those guys and they rock! They are well known for a reason, they make great products! I’ve toyed with the idea of using extracts for products, but the flavor extract gives to anything it’s added to, in my opinion just kills any other flavors that might be present. I have been cooking up some things that I’d like to use a certain company’s extract (cough, cough DEFCON) although I haven’t discussed anything with them either. It’s just more rough ideas billowing around in the brain. So we’ll see what the future brings fourth.
9. What is your inspiration before you embark on a new concoction? My inspirations are usually about breaking new ground, territory, or existing barriers in the specialty fiery foods industry. Taking something traditional like salsa, and fusing it with something that the average person wouldn’t have the slightest idea where the flavor originated! Take my Roasted Onion Salsa as an example. It’s very similar in flavor to a traditional Moroccan condiment called Matbucha, which is a simple roasted red pepper tomato salad. The ingredients vary from region to region and from one ethnicity to another. So I’ve fused this simple very smoky condiment with a southwestern salsa made with lime juice instead of vinegar. I felt that there were just too many salsas out there that were all pretty much the same, with only slight variances from brand X to brand Y to brand Z. Those that have cooked with my salsa will understand how deeply rooted and interesting a mix of flavors that can be had using it in everyday foods, such as meats, vegetables, and spreads. If you eat Falafel topping it off with a nice heap of my Roasted Onion Salsa will give it that flavor and extra kick that traditional Matbucha will not.
10. Outside of creating hot products, what else keeps you occupied or out of trouble? Oh geez, well I have an 11 month old Border Collie/Pit Bull mix. Her name is Nanook and she’s a bundle of energy! I take her for a bike ride pretty much every day, a few miles at least. And this is just a warm-up for her! I’m thinking that once I sell my home in PA I need to buy land and put some sheep on it for her to herd around all day. Lol That and I really have a penchant for live music. There are small bands that allow fans to record their live performances. I use a technique for recording from the stage using a pair of high end microphones, a portable pre-amp A/D converter, and a laptop using software like Soundforge and Vegas to capture the music at audiophile (24bit/48kHz) quality. You should hear some of my recordings, they are pretty amazing!
11. Any weird stories or uses for your hot sauce that you would like to share? Cheesecake is always one that gets the odd response from people. But it’s just like making a marbled chocolate cheesecake. Instead of marbling with chocolate, use my Big Boss Jalapeno Tomatillo Sauce. Then bake in the oven like you normally would. Yummy!
12. How much sauce do you make in a week? When I run my hot sauces I do 250 gallons at a time. My other products aren’t as yet widely distributed as my hot sauces are, so these batches are still very small in comparison. Over the last year though, I’ve been in production roughly 8-10 times. I’ve recently sold out of my Honey Habanero Barbecue Sauce, Roasted Onion Salsa, and Habanero Balsamic Vinaigrette. So this week I have 3 production dates! YAY!
13. How many different recipes do you go through when developing a new sauce? It depends on the product. Some take longer than others obviously. But there is always the issue of scaling up that recipe for larger scale production and using home equipment versus the commercial equipment found in these kitchens. Many small manufacturers use a co-packing facility who will always try to sell them on the cheapest ingredients to use for production. But like I’ve said earlier the end result always shows this, so this is what makes things difficult for the small manufacturer to stay in business while making an excellent high quality product. This is only a small part, there are also many other factors involved. Sometimes the hardest part is translating that ‘perfect’ recipe onto a larger scale of production. I can honestly say that it had taken 3 commercial batches in order for my hot sauces to come out ‘right’ from the co-packing facility. My first few commercial batches were separating like you wouldn’t believe, and this was driving me nuts. When I was making test batches in my kitchen none of my sauces EVER separated. So as you can see, it can be frustrating at times. Then there are other times the recipe can come off the line perfectly without a hitch the very first time around.
14. How did you get started in the industry? I started by making hot sauces in my kitchen with home grown chile peppers. Working my sauces part-time while I worked my 70 hour work weeks in NYC was draining and not allowing me to really pursue what I wanted to do with my sauces. It turned out that my sister was dating this guy who was friends with a guy who was in the fiery foods industry. I was introduced to him (he knows who he is, and he’s a great fuckin’ guy to boot!) and he helped me out tremendously when I first started a few years ago. I’m sure I would have gotten by, but his help definitely jump started me headlong into working this as a full time job for me. Thanks buddy! You’ve helped a great deal! That and he has his own line of great sauces too!
15. What is your biggest challenge so far? Of course getting wider scale distribution. I know that I have an excellent high quality brand. But this isn’t always what distributor chains are looking for. May are just interested in distributing national brands that will just sell. It could be great or it could be a piece of shit. But if it sells, it sells and this is what they want. I understand this and I do not take to heart when my brand is turned down by a distributor. But I’m keeping at it every day in hopes of getting a nice break to make my product more widely available to the masses. Because we all know that it’s about the capsaicin sensation!
16. What is the most common question you get? Is this just for chili?!? Lol I labeled my hot sauces ‘chili sauces’ even though they aren’t traditional sweet chilli sauces. It was more that the name just kind of rolled off the tongue in conjunction with my last name Csigi. But now I’m in the process of relabeling all of my products to carry the Csigi Gourmet label, which is a more appropriate look and feel for my brand.
17. What do you want to know from the readers of the HSB? I want to know what you don’t like about my products. I know that they aren’t perfect in everyone’s eyes and taste buds, but I’m always open to hear ideas, suggestions, comments, complaints, or just telling me to eff off if you wish!
18. What’s a typical day for you? Working, working, working. I work more now than when I worked in NYC, but it’s not the same. I don’t have a ridiculous drive every day, which was a total waste of time, energy, money, and gasoline to boot! I keep somewhat odd hours and tend to find myself sitting in front of my computer until the wee hours of the morning sometimes. During the day I’ll make phone calls and try to make appointments to get my product in front of the eyes of speculative buyers. Then of course I’ll do trade shows, festivals, and other food events. More so than I did last year (2006), but this is good, this is what gets my product out there to the masses. Then in between all of this I spend time with my dog Nanook and persons of the female persuasion. I do have a social life outside of hot sauce you know! Lol ïŠ
19. Worst burn ever? I would have to say that it’s probably from products that contain or are made with capsaicin oleoresin. The heat from extract is almost too intense for me. While I can handle it, the flavor kills my palette and I can’t taste anything past the extract. That and it’s almost like some kind of ‘un-natural’ type of burn. Since most of them are blended with a vegetable oil, it just sort of coats the inside of your mouth with ‘burn’. Not quite unpleasant but not really pleasant either. I prefer the raw heat of chilies themselves.
20. Best burn ever? Eating a fully ripened Naga Morich! While I didn’t eat the whole chile at once, I’ve prepared food using a single pod. And the heat is a nice slow build with the sweat that pours from the glands afterwards! It’s so excellent! I can’t wait to make my Naga sauce!
Currently Csigi Gourmet makes these products:
Hot Sauces ““ Big Boss Jalapeno Tomatillo, Capsaicin Carnivale, Salubrious Savina
Salsa ““ Roasted Onion Salsa (available in Mild and Hot)
Pasta Sauce ““ Fra Diavolo Pasta Sauce
Barbecue Sauce- Honey Habanero Barbecue Sauce
Salad Dressing- Habanero Balsamic Vinaigrette
Csigi Chili Sauce
P.O. Box 193
Analomink, PA 18320
Would you like to be interviewed or otherwise featured on the HSB? Check out our Want to be featured page for more information. We’re waiting to hear from you!