Jan Jašek and Richard Belžík are two friends and chilli fans from the city of Brno. A few years ago, they turned their chilli growing hobby into a business and started producing hot sauces, salsas and chutneys. This year, their barbecue sauce with dried tomatoes won a first prize at the prestigious World Hot Sauce Awards in Louisiana.
“Actually, it was a coincidence. About two years ago we travelled to the US and we visited a Hot Sauce fest in Houston, Texas. And a couple of guys recommended us to send our sauces to the World Hot Sauce events.
“So we did, and our onion chutney and mustard sauce finished second and third. So we decided to give it a second try last ear and sent a couple of new products last year. They announced the winners on December 24, on Christmas Eve, and we ended up in the first place.
“We won in the category of barbecue sauces and it was an incredible achievement and a big surprise for me, because we are talking Louisiana, the birthplace of all the great barbecue sauces.”
What is it that made your products so successful?
“I think it’s the combination of different tastes that we have in the barbecue sauce. It is tomato-based, as most of the barbecue sauces are, but we have combined many different ingredients, such as date syrup or rice vinegar.
“It’s not just smoky, it’s not just sweet and it’s not just savoury. It’s a combination of many different tastes.”
How prestigious is The World Hot Sauce Awards event in the community of hot sauce makers?
“It was an incredible achievement for me, because we are talking Louisiana, the birthplace of all the great barbecue sauces.”
“It is the biggest one in the world, at least based on the number of competitors, and based on the number of sauces they receive every year. This year it was almost 1,500, so it is a big competition.
“They also have the biggest number of international hot sauce makers who compete, so we’ve seen many products winning in different categories from all over the world. So for me it is the most prestigious competition specifically for hot sauces.”
How did you, a software engineer, actually start making chilli sauces?
“It was basically a hobby. At the beginning, which is almost ten years back, both of us, me and Richard, who is the co-founder and co-owner of our company, we were basically chilli growers and hobbyists.
“We knew that the chilli community here in the Czech Republic isn’t big but we wanted to do something special. So we started, with a third friend of ours, a small non-profit organisation to run hot sauce eating and chilli eating competitions.
“When we were making sauces for that competition, many people told us: ‘This is amazing. It’s not just hot, it’s also very good. You should start selling that.’
“You are right. I am really not from the food industry at all, and neither is Richard. I am an engineering director in a software company. So for me it was something different. I saw the result of my own work immediately. I could touch it. With software, that’s not really technically possible.
“Being a director in a management role, very often you achieve results with others or through others. This was my own achievement. It was a satisfaction of a specific need that I had.”
“We’ve gathered feedback. I would say that was one of the most important things we have done. We cooked a couple of products, using recipes we have found either in cookbooks, or on products we bought.
“We though this is really good but it might be even better with a bit of herb, such as thyme, rosemary chives. So we experimented a lot. We made a lot of sauces that never made it out of the kitchen and went through the sink.
“But we did not really use any specific recipe. We cook basically all of our products based on our own experience and taste. And we listen to our customers a lot.”
What about the ingredients? The Czech Republic is not exactly a chilli-growing region.
“At first we used our own peppers, because, as I said before, we started with a hobby of growing chillies. So we had heaps of chilies at the end of the season With the company that we have we need a very stable source of fresh peppers all year round. And that is economically impossible in the Czech Republic.
“So we are buying from different producers and growers in Europe during the season, which is from may till November. Out of the season we usually go to more southern regions, such as Africa.”
Tell me about the process of making the hot sauce. I believe you actually have to wear a face mask to stop the vapours from getting into your nose.
“Even a single drop of the hot sauce in your eye is an incredibly painful experience and I do have that experience.”
“Absolutely. And it’s not just face masks, but also gloves, you have to cut the chillies before you start cooking the sauce. We also like to deseed them, because we don’t like the taste of seeds from peppers. So you have to cut the chilli open and get rid of the seeds.
“Capsaicin has a nasty habit of getting through rubber, no matter if they are made of vinyl or other material. So every 15 or 20 minutes we have to exchange gloves.
“When we are cooking, we have to wear face masks and we have to protect our eyes. Even a single drop of the hot sauce in your eye is an incredibly painful experience and I have that experience and so does my colleague Richard.”
Do you try to come up with new recipes each season or do you stick with the tried and tested ones?
“We are both changing some of our existing products, because we are a small company and we are fine-tuning some of the products, so if you look very carefully at the list of ingredients we have in our regular barbecue product, not the award-winning one, which is with dried tomatoes, you will see that there are differences between batches.
“We launch approximately three to four new products every year. These are either brand new products or we change a single product, like for instance a smoked peppers sauce which is from peppers that we smoke ourselves on oak wood and we add for instance fermented peppers to that sauce, which completely changes the base tone of that sauce.
“We then ship it as a new product or as an upgraded product to the existing ones, and then we do some completely new ones, such as the barbecue sauce with dried tomatoes. That’s a completely new product that we shipped after we actually won the award. We didn’t have big enough batch to send it before we actually had the award.”
“I really love onion chutney, because of the variety of tastes that you have in the product. Its base ingredient is onions, but we cook it for almost six hours. So you will have incredibly tender, caramelised onions with lots of different herbs and spices that are in the product.
“If you imagine onion chutney, you have some sort of taste forming in your mind. But then you taste it and it’s completely different. So that’s my preferred product.”
Have you ever thought about turning your hobby into a full-time job?
“I have considered that but right now I am incredibly happy in my regular job, because the team and the people and the environment I am working at are amazing.
“I would in fact like to continue working in the chilli making company as an innovator, as someone who owns intellectual property and know-how. But I am handing over some of the regular responsibilities to our very first employee that we are right now hiring.
And are you planning to take part in the World Hot Sauce event again next year?
“Absolutely. I don’t know which product it will be. We don’t have any new product yet that would be on the market, so we’ll have to think of something. But we absolutely want to participate next year again.”