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Homemade hot sauce market heating up in Toronto

Chef Shawn Rock's hot sauce heats the place up

Joel Hastings at the Dine Alone Foods release party

Joel Hastings & Joel Carriere

Dine Alone Foods produce at Dog & Bear

A rainbow of Sneaky Dee's hot sauce

Jordan Hastings started making hot sauces from produce grown in his backyard. Food has always been a passion of his, one that blossomed at an early age as he spent his childhood learning how to cook by helping his mother and grandmother prepare meals in the kitchen.

It was there he received an education in how to mix together different flavours and pull in various influences in order to create unique recipes. What started with homegrown tomatoes and peppers—and a dash of imagination—has grown into a product line of hot sauces and barbecue sauces available at numerous Toronto restaurants and at shops across Ontario and the country.

As a drummer in bands such as Say Yes and Alexisonfire, Hastings has spent a lot of time touring and checking out restaurants on the road often with Dine Alone Foods, the manufacturer of said hot sauce, co-founder Joel Carriere.

"We found all these different kinds of flavours that you couldn't really get in Canada back then," Hastings says. "We used to collect them and bring them back home and share them with our friends and family at barbecues. Finally one day we were like you know what we need to do? Make some that are made locally in Canada that are different from what you can get from your typical supermarket.  We wanted to make our own things and introduce the flavours to Canadians". 

His story is just one of many in a city that has a growing affinity towards homegrown hot sauces. Many establishments are now offering their own flavours in a market that is quickly heating up. Dine Alone Foods officially launched this summer and now manufactures its hot sauce and two barbecue sauces in Toronto using mostly Canadian ingredients (aside from some non-native imports including chipotles from Mexico). The products can be found at restaurants including Boots & Bourbon Saloon, Dog & Bear, and Let's Be Frank, which even has a signature hot dog using Dine Alone's sauces. You can also find it at Whole Foods and dozens of mom and pop shops across town. 

Restaurants are also making their own hot sauces. Popular tex-mex joint Sneaky Dee's is one such establishment that began creating their own sauces about four years ago and retailing it more recently. They offer four flavours: jalapeno, chipotle, cayenne, and habanero. The ones you get on the tables are made in house with fresh ingredients and no  preservatives, while the ones available for retail are manufactured offsite by a production team in a larger kitchen and designed for a longer shelf life. 

The story, Sneaky Dee's owner George Diamantouros tells me, is much like Hastings. Inspired by the take home hot sauces you can buy from bars in the States, Diamantouros thought it was due time for Sneak's to make their own. For one, he thought it was a good way to spice up dishes in house and increase the profile of Sneaky Dee's brand, and two,  it also provided people with the opportunity to take a piece of Sneak's home to their own kitchens. 

"Foodie culture, and culture in general, in Toronto has come along way in the last decade and you have to give people what they want," he says. And what they want, Diamantouros says, is something beyond the traditional cayenne pepper sauce.

Diamantouros oversaw the branding and production, but it was the in house kitchen staff that created the bones of the sauces. 
Sneaky Dee's has been a restaurant for 27 years and the sauces have always been a part of the experience. "We used to carry very limited sauces and people sort of demanded more. This was our admittedly slow our response to it," he says. Still, the hot sauce itself has become an inherent part of the business and although they have no plans to expand their reach beyond their College and Bathurst locale, it will continue to be a part of Sneaky Dee's brand. 

Then there's Rock Sauce, an independently produced sauce created by Chef Shawn Rock from Vogue Supperclub. This one is a standalone product that sold out of its first production—more than 100 bottles—within the first week.    

"Being a chef, I love experimenting with all kinds of things and playing with the flavours, the different degrees that each pepper has to offer. I made a sauce that covers the spectrum, a full band EQ of flavour," he says, alluding to a sound mixing technique. 

One thing that can't be denied is this connection to music. Rock Sauce has it in the name and attitude. Dine Alone Foods is an offset of Dine Alone Records and both co-founders have an extensive history in the music industry, not to mention their hot sauce is called Rock N' Roll sauce. Sneaky Dee's is about as punk rock a place as you can get. Graffiti and drawings line every table and the place is often packed—especially after last call. Upstairs there's a concert venue. 

"There's two things we love," Hastings says, "music and food."

Rock Sauce is made with predominately fresh Ontario ingredients, but again some of the peppers must be imported. Right now, it is available for retail online and at both Sky Blue Sky Sandwiches locations. The small shop uses the sauce in several of its sandwiches. Rock is in the process of talking to some food trucks about incorporating his sauce, which is handmade in small batches, into their offerings, but details for this are still being worked out.

Still, the demand is obvious. 

"I think everyone is yearning for that heat," Rock says. "There's always food trends that come and go, but spice is one of the ones that's part of your taste you have to have a little bit of heat to complete the full circle of the yin and yang of the flavour." 

Which begs one final question, what's the key to a good hot sauce?

"I would say balance," Rock says. "It's not all about the heat. If you're just adding one dimension to something it doesn't help anything out, but if your sauce has a character or personality it's better. This one is a little more rounded; it's a little bit sweet. I call it the balance between fire and flavour." 

Sheena Lyonnais is Yonge Street's managing editor. 
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