Hot Sauce by Chef Alex Sanchez


Get a taste of Chef Alex's twirls and dips with hot sauce.

Chef Alex Sanchez found that a fiery condiment can make things warm and fuzzy.

I’ve failed you. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I have done you a terrible disservice. In all my years as a chef, in an attempt to make the world a more delicious place, I have also contributed to an unfortunate side effect: the proliferation of culinary voyeurism, seriousness, and snobbery.

It seems that all around us, whether they know it or not, people are sucking the joy out of eating. Best-of lists have stymied the thrill of discovery; traveling gourmands have been replaced by foodies on their endless quests for the ultimate FOMO-inducing pic; and chefs, having exhausted the bounds of their creativity, have resorted to shock value to stay relevant.

Fear not, for not all is lost. There is a subset of gastronomy that has yet to lose its soul. I’m talking, of course, about hot sauce, and the brave – dare I say, selfless – individuals crafting spicy condiments that delight our palates, bring excitement to our meals, and put a smile on our face.

illustration by Aradhana Kosuri

I was first introduced to hot sauce in the taquerias of San Francisco, where I grew up. I remember staring up at the salsa bar, an impressive array of reds and greens, some smooth, some chunky. My palate wasn’t trained like it is now, but it didn’t take long to realise that food was better when eaten with hot sauce. It was like I had been eating in black and white, and suddenly, flavour was in technicolour. Before that, I feared spice. I had watched in horror while my uncle’s face turned bright red, beads of sweat pouring down his neck as he sipped his Tabasco-laced Bloody Mary. And there was an incident involving copious amounts of prepared horseradish, mistaken for butter and slathered onto matzah during a Passover Seder; I nearly fainted. But once I learned to enjoy the heat and harness its power, there was no turning back.

Soon, I discovered that everything could be improved with a dash of Louisiana-style hot sauce, a spoonful of pico de gallo, or a dollop of gochujang. I experimented with whole chilies too, blurring the lines between pain and pleasure. There may have even been a time when I tried to impress a lady by eating two habaneros (spoiler alert: I spent the night alone drinking milk, and the rest of the week on the can; impressive, indeed). Later, I would be introduced to the Buffalo wing, when I learned that deliciously crisp chicken parts could be a vehicle for hot sauce, and even more so when melted butter joined the party. All was right in the world.

Entering the culinary profession signaled a major shift in my life. It was a serious undertaking that demanded countless sacrifices – among them, the renouncement of my love for hot sauce. I would be trained in le repertoire de la cuisine, classic French technique that would prepare me for a career in fine dining. My palate would be recalibrated to taste subtle, nuanced flavours. For nearly a decade I stopped eating spicy food altogether. But, when the opportunity presented itself, and Mumbai came a-callin’, everything would change.

If I close my eyes long enough, the memories come flooding back. Arriving in India was like waking up in The Upside Down*. For this unadventurous Cali boy, there could be nothing further from the reality I so desperately clung to. Those first moments, and the many months that followed, were a series of life-altering experiences, both profoundly awakening and wickedly jarring, that would burn into my mind like boiled-over milk on a brand-new stovetop. I would need to adapt quickly if I hoped to survive.

Young and naive, I poured myself into my newly appointed role as Chef. It was a welcome escape from the fact that I was 26 years old, way in over my head, and light years from home. I was one of those angry, screamer types back then, a real asshole. The team regularly bore the brunt of my outbursts, particularly the food runners and captains who were in the most unfortunate position of conveying guest feedback and requests. Pasta undercooked? Get bent. Cook meat well done? Eat shit. Egg white omelette? Fuck you! I was at odds with myself. On the one hand, I was stubborn as hell, and on the other, I sought acceptance for my work. My attitude wasn’t helping. I needed to endear myself to the people for whom I cooked, and find a common thread.

One night during service, I noticed a food runner fooling around in the spice cabinet. Unaware that I had been watching him like a hawk, he started tiptoeing out of the kitchen in an exaggerated movement that only served to accentuate his crime. I barked his name from across the room. “Mukesh!” He spun around with red cheeks and a sheepish grin, his guilty eyes locked in my sights, a jar of chili flakes and a bottle of Tabasco sauce clasped within his paws. Naturally, my instinct was to flog him and put his head on spike – I was seething, my face the colour of the chilies he so brazenly attempted to serve my guests. Instead, I calmed myself and recognised the golden opportunity staring at me. Rather than take it as an insult to my cooking, I would use hot sauce to bridge the divide that was preventing me from connecting with my guests.

I stayed up late into the night, envisioning my fiery olive branch, determined to make a sauce so spicy it’d satisfy their cravings… and burn their assholes for days. (I might have been a little resentful for the insinuation that my food required anything more than a fork). First thing in the morning, I went looking for the angriest chillies I could find – you know, the little ones that explode on impact and turn your head inside out. I grabbed ten kilos and brought them back to the kitchen where they were blended with vinegar and salt; the fumes formed a noxious cloud that consumed the kitchen, cooks all around me dropped like flies, keeling over in hysteric coughing fits. I dipped a toothpick into the scarlet elixir and touched it to my tongue. My eyes lit up with sadistic approval and delight. If it’s spicy they want, it’s spicy they’ll get.

Whether it be revenge, genuine hospitality, or somewhere in between, I may never know what truly compelled me to make that hot sauce. What is clear is that I couldn’t make enough of it. Once the people got a taste of it, the result was the exact opposite of what I intended. Rather than dissuade them, it excited them. I had been foolish to think it would be spicy enough to turn them off. It turned them on… and I liked it. I had spent the entirety of my career cooking food within the confines of a narrow structure, and I was now given permission to cook boldly, with spice. So began my professional obsession with hot sauce.

* The Upside Down