Courtesy Nico Hoogendijk
“Chiliheads” flocked to the annual YOW! awards in Ottawa last weekend for a taste of the hottest and most flavourful hot sauce the country has to offer.
This year, husband and wife power duo Nico Hoogendijk and Kary-Ann Deer of the Capsaicin Cartel brought home the King of Sauce title for their Serum22 spicy BBQ sauce – officially earning their chilli cred and a place in the hot sauce hall of fame.
The tiny but mighty hot sauce company makes small batches of artisanal hot sauces from locally-sourced ingredients, with flavours ranging from mild to extreme to suit all types of chiliheads.
Hoogendijk and Deer created the company at the start of the pandemic, and after starting with spicy maple syrup made from hot chilli peppers grown in their own backyard, the duo shifted their business after many of their customers requested they start producing hot sauce.
“We finally bit the bullet and started making hot sauce,” Deer said. “We took a sauce Nico’s been making for 30 years and amped up the heat.”
A former professional chef, Hoogendijk, handcrafts each sauce, a dangerous venture when working with the world’s hottest chilli peppers – and the reason he is looking to rent a permanent commercial kitchen space for his production.
“It’s dangerous to work with because you can get serious burns while cooking, and we need to use a gas mask while cooking. That’s how intense it is,” Hoogendijk explained.
“We need at least an N95 mask when we’re cooking our super hot sauce,” Deer noted. “We’ve pepper sprayed ourselves a few times!”
The YOW! awards are part of the second edition of Heating Up The Capital, an annual Hot Sauce Expo in the nation’s capital. Hosted by an “organization of chiliheads,” sauces are graded and judged in four categories: mild, medium, hot, and extreme.
“You get points for the look of the sauce, the smell of the sauce, the texture, the flavour, and the spiciness,” Deer explained. “They don’t judge the label. It’s anonymous, so that way they can’t pre-pick a flavour and score it up.”
Judges are selected from across the country based on experience and passion for spice, forming a panel of 15 self-identified chiliheads.
Having won the medium category last year for their Antivirus-19 hot sauce, Hoogendijk and Deer submitted sauces to the mild, hot, and extreme categories. They won third place in the mild category for their Can’Eh’jun hot sauce, joint first place in the hot category for their Sangat Pedas super-hot hot sauce, and joint first in the hot category for one of their newest sauces, Serum22.
Tying in the hot category was a big achievement for the couple.
“It was pretty thrilling because we tied with Villain Hot Sauce, and they’re legit. They’ve been in the business for a while, they’ve got a lineup of sauces, and they’re very, very popular. It’s quite an honour for us to be side-by-side with them.”
“I really wanted to get the Extreme title,” Deer said. “That’s the category that’s hardest to win because how do you get that extreme heat and not sacrifice the flavour?”
Deer explained that they focus on flavour first and heat second, so making an extreme sauce that packed a punch without compromising on flavour was a huge challenge.
“If you win first place in the extreme category, you get legit chilli cred. You’re locked in as a great hot sauce maker.”
By far, the biggest achievement of the event was winning the King of Sauce title, something the couple had only dreamed of when the competition began.
“When we got called up for the trophy for Extreme, and I walked back to our booth, I was really happy. Then the judge said, ‘Wait a minute, you also won king of sauce,’ and that in the hot sauce world means a lot,” Deer explained.
Hot sauce connoisseur Jay Bob has tried tons of sauces, but he believes that The Capsaicin Cartel makes the best. The award-winning Antivirus-19 was the first he tried.
“I’ve tried hundreds of sauces since then, and Antivirus-19 is still my favourite,” Bob said. “There’s heat, but also flavour. I’ve been lucky enough to try all the Capsaicin Cartel sauces, and I haven’t had a bad one yet.”
Bob was a judge this year at the YOW! awards, and even with the anonymity of the competition, The Capsaicin Cartel came out on top.
“They had tough competition, but it was very clear after judging that the Cartel’s Sangat Pedas was everyone’s favourite,” he explained.
“Nico is a very talented chef, and Kary-Ann has a great talent with labelling and design. It’s a true small batch business with two great people who love what they do.”
Though some of us couldn’t imagine running a business with our partners, Hoogendijk and Deer explain that their hot sauce venture relies on their strong relationship, where respecting one another’s role in the company is essential.
“It’s really about collaboration and compromise,” Deer said.
“I don’t try to make him more like me, and he doesn’t try to make me more like him. We respect each other’s way of doing things and our thinking.”
And as for Hoogendijk, he couldn’t imagine being a chilihead without his wife.
I love her to death, and we do everything together. Running a business together has its struggles, but luckily we talk about everything. That’s the secret to success for a 16-year marriage.”
Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door, and was previously an Editor at the McGill Daily. She has also reported on harm reduction and Indigenous issues for the Montreal Gazette, the Hoser, the Rover, and more.